Self-organizing groups and work groups are groups of learners. Everyone in the group may be an expert at something, but nobody in the group is an expert at what the group is attempting to do. I’ve seen this have remarkable impacts on learning. For example:

  • People in the group learn from each other and about themselves
  • If they stay together long enough, people in the group can come to perceive that they’re able to learn faster and better together than they could on their own
  • The group naturally draws others in (for example, a teacher-group drawing in students in or an employee-group drawing in customers) to learn with and from as its ready to
  • The group helps members to continue to expand their definition of self (from “my customers” to “our customers” or from “my students” to “our students,” for example) and continue to ask themselves “What matters most? What matters most?” (apparently even past the lifetime of the group)
  • People and groups nearby (working with the group or a group member) and people and groups personally close to group members can see what the group is doing, see that they’re often “just playing it by ear,” see themselves in the group, and use the group to learn
  • People in the group—once they achieve what they were after for themselves and those who matter most to them—let go of the group and move on, looking to find the same “magic” elsewhere
  • Many nearby others—people and groups open to a new way of working and thinking—self-organize themselves and go on to demonstrate this way of learning to others

As a trained educator, what I see in and around the self-organizing groups I study is so far beyond cool that we’re going to have to invent a new word for it. Unbelievably cool works for now. This type of learning—from within, from experience, and for multiple people and groups—is what many of us get advanced degrees to muster the courage and brain cells to do on our own. As an individual, though, it’s tough to pull off learning such as this consistently and for extended periods of time. At least it is for me.

Today, more and more I’m participating in and studying self-organizing groups that exist outside of formal organizations–some of the groups aren’t centered around getting work done but around building community. This is scary territory for me as a person who has defined herself through work and through expertise in the past. I’m learning that what is now easy for me within organization and across organizations (fostering and sustaining self-org work groups) is still remarkably challenging for me outside the comfortable confines of organizational walls and shared work. But once again, I’m in the lucky position of getting to learn from learners—as a learner. For example, today I learned that in a newly forming self-organizing group—outside of any organization—I’m learning faster and better as a 2-person group than I can on my own. Here’s how…

I’m currently co-creating a monthly discussion group on the subject “self-organizing systems” here in Seattle. I need this group because the idea of further studying self-organizing systems—across dozens of disciplines—is just too daunting to tackle on my own. It’s taking too much time. I need to be learning from and with others. Eleven strangers, so far, have agreed to become part of this discussion group. We met for the firt time in late March, and I facilitated a discussion about what self-organizing work groups in organizations are and how to recognize them. Attendees asked me to continue the talk at the May meeting. This week, however, the amazing woman who agreed to co-facilitate the May meeting asked me the question “What do you want to learn in this group?” She reminded me that it’s the group itself that I want—a group to learn about self-organizing systems with and from—and that I was risking setting myself up as an expert teaching a class, which won’t give me what I want from the group. This is a woman who claims no expertise about self-organizing systems, like I do. She came to the group to learn. She reminded me of what mattered most to me about this group. I want it to be a place where I get to be a learner, not the expert, and where where I get to learn along with others.  So together we’re changing the May meeting to be a discussion about what supports success in self-organizing groups like the one we’re creating (outside of organizations and not focused directly on work). None of us, to my knowledge, is an expert on that.

Would an individual expert on self-organizing systems have pulled me to this understanding so quickly? Probably not. Despite all my years of study and expertise, I didn’t. I needed a learner and to be a learner to remind me of what matters most to me–learning!

So, there’s reason #2981 for creating/joining self-organizing groups and work groups for yourself. You get to learn from learners as a learner (and teaching others can then become a non-stressful fringe benefit of simply being a self-organizing group member). No individual expert on the planet, including me, has more to teach me than self-organizing groups of learners. I know this. But on the days when I forget, thankfully, my self-organizing group members show up to help remind me. Unbelievably cool!