Quick update for those of you who are here with me weekly. My neighbors who were fighting to save their house won! They get to stay! Lori’s headline: Self-organizing group saves itself—community helps! http://www.centraldistrictnews.com/2011/10/24/mitchells-get-new-loan-plan-can-keep-their-21st-ave-home. Woo hoo! Ok, now for the 12 tips…

If you haven’t heard, Bas and I have just begun research for a series of eBooks we’re writing together. I got these tips by studying 8 weeks of email messages between Bas (in Zandvoort) and me (in Seattle), and reflecting back on the other self-organizing work groups I’ve studied and been part of. I stopped at 12, because Daniel continues to complain that my posts are too long. More are sure to follow.

1. Try who then what. Choose the person to work with before you fully know what you’ll be working on together. You’ll have work ideas/plans/goals as individuals and imagined ideas for the group. You’ll have even better ones as a group if you start with who.

2. Embrace scary-to-do-it honesty. Be honest with yourself, and then with them, about how much you’d like to work together. Drop the act. If you think to yourself “This is the person I’d most like to work with right now.” don’t just think it. Say it out loud and see what happens. It’s scary to do. When I finally got around to being honest with myself about how much I wanted to work with Bas, here’s what I said (and the reply I got):

Jen embracing scary sparkler birthday candles

  • Lori: “I would like to talk more seriously about working together in the coming years if you’re interested.… our backgrounds, ways of being, perspectives, communities, love of learning, and even timing on where we’re at work wise, for me, couldn’t be a bigger sign that we should work together. It helps that I study highly successful groups. I know what these groups look and feel like before and as they begin. They look and feel like us. Two people 100% certain that they’d be better together than on their own. That certainty now exists on my end. Just thought I should say that.”
  • Bas: “Before I leave, just a short reply. YES!!! YES. I would love to work together in this way. For exactly those reasons! Same here. You have no idea 🙂 Much much longer post after the weekend. 🙂 Awesome!”

3. Lean is good—lean yourselves into loving everyone you work with. These groups always have two or three people at the start, no more. Depending on the work, this may be all the group ever needs (these are extraordinarily efficient groups, after all). Stay this size until you trust each other so completely that you can move in the world as one. An indicator of this is that each of you speaks on the group’s behalf with minimal to no concern, knowing that the group will adapt, adjust what individuals say as needed, forgive each other when needed, and reprimand each other when needed. Once you hit this “moves as one in the world” point, you’ll know who, if anyone, needs to be added next. You’ll know because you’ll either be done with your work or be able to imagine a specific person moving in the world as one with the group. And you’ll start with who again—a real who (“We’d be better with Priya than on our own.”) and not an abstract who (“We need a copyeditor.”).



Holiday decorations at our house - one toe in tacky land


4. Communicate with one toe in tacky land. When I was growing up, there was a fine line my mom loved to walk when decorating our home for the holiday season—a line between tasteful holiday decorations (just enough) and tacky (too much). She liked to come just up to that line and then consciously cross it with just a toe into tacky land (I now do the same to honor her good humor). It’s like that at the beginning of these groups. Communicate until you feel a pang of concern that you’re annoying them with how much you’re communicating. Apologize if you must (I usually do), and continue to communicate a lot early on. Trust that together you’ll overcome these pangs relatively quickly. After all, you are the people you want to hear a lot from. The more you verbally communicate up front, the less you’ll need to later on when you get so wickedly amazing as a group that you know what other group members would think, say, and do in any situation without talking much and you carry their perspectives in your head.

5. Be at least 51% human. This pattern shows up across the groups I study and am part of. At least half (often far more) of what the group communicates is about life and themselves as human beings, not about the work. Very smart, I think. Because this work will end at some point or evolve into something else while you will keep going. The more you know about each other, the more you can help your individual selves, your other groups, your communities, and your organizations—now and in the future. This sounds simple, yet it’s ridiculously hard for someone like me who spent almost 20 years working heads down in my corporate and academic worlds before my groups taught me to look up.

6. Treat group members like close friends and colleagues from the beginning. For example, asking for a bit of help with things that have little to do with your collective work. These people will soon become, or already are, your closest colleagues and maybe even your friends. They deserve to be treated as such. Working on little mini projects prior to your collective work helps you learn to work together and learn that you are important to each other. What this sounds like will vary widely, depending on who you are. For example “What do you think of my new tag line?” or “I don’t know what to do with this student/client/customer/partner/colleague/employee/child. What would you do?” or “Would you mind getting donuts for the brainstorming session? I’m running late because my kid threw up on me and the dog.” or “You record Skype sessions. How do I do that?” This work on little things demonstrates our strengths and weaknesses for the big things—the understanding of which is hugely valuable to the group as it learns.

7. Learn that collective definitions aren’t consensus definitions—they’re way better. For example, at the moment Bas and I define “different work” for our book project as follows:

  • Collective definition: 1) a group that 2) deeply loves their collective work, 3) together are working differently from the way they once believed they should work as individuals, and 4) are significantly redefining what successful work looks and feels like for themselves and their organizations or communities

When Bas says it, he ends with “organizations” and when I say it, I end with “communities”. As a group, we’re saying both. Our difference as individuals helps us as a group. I almost instantly saw this when a greater variety of people began showing up to share their stories for the book than would have shown up for me on my own. So I’d say share your own definitions of words/ideas/plans often, allow different definitions to evolve as a group, and don’t worry about consensus–you’re capable of even more. The more difference a group comfortably holds, the stronger it is—group members learn—because more others can identify with and connect to the group.

8. Experiment your ass off. Self-organizing work groups are groups of learners—each holds individual expertise but nobody holds expertise in what the group is doing together. So experiment and act like learners:

  • Play a lot
  • Draw pictures a lot
  • Fail a lot
  • Laugh a lot
  • Need help a lot
  • Give help a lot
  • Yell and cry when you feel like it

Don’t worry if you’re not interested in or ready to do all these things at work yet. Do what you can safe within your own groups and change to the extent you want to change. This year I realized that I actually can’t settle for less in my work now, because working this way is so rewarding, fun, and effective. Now that I can’t settle for less, neither can my work groups. Poor Bas. He learned early that it’s not a successful work group for me if I don’t cry at least once. I tear up when I’m overwhelmed by how lucky I am to be part of a group. But at least he was warned. Doug wasn’t. 😉

9. Witness how excited you are to be working together. What this looks like will vary widely, depending on you. For example, noticing that you’re: 

  • Relatively shamelessly sharing emotions (using emoticons, all CAPS, and exclamation points in email, texts, writing within the group).
  • Brainstorming together every opportunity you get, even if you have just 2 minutes together and even if it’s midnight your time and 9 a.m. their time.
  • Offering connections, help, advice, or a second pair of eyes and ears for something unrelated to your collective work—with minimal or no thought about whether or not you should.
  • Relatively shamelessly sharing of more of your whole self. For example, surprised to find yourself talking about something you’re passionate about that seems completely unrelated to work. By doing this, you’re demonstrating that you see them as more than a work colleague cog and that you trust them to be able to handle this part of you. Very brave for an individual, I think.

Important to witness in yourself so that you’ll know how to recognize new group members when you see them.

10. Lead with yes. I just remembered that I’ve heard this as advice given to people performing comedy improvisation. Start everything with yes. What I notice in our email messages is that Bas and I automatically do this for each other:

  • “Thanks! Yes, that will be soooo much fun.”
  • “All this sounds good.”
  • “Most useful reframing ever!”
  • “You’re ideas are great!”
  • “You are truly the most useful reviewer ever!”
  • “Overall, I love it. Specifically I love…”
  • And my personal favorite, which Bas does and I aspire to be more like, is an email message peppered with the word yes, as in “YES!…YES!…YES!…YES!…GREAT!…Let’s do that!…YES!”

It occurs to me that perhaps we’re all improvisational geniuses when we’re working with people we deeply want to be working with. Lots of “yes” doesn’t mean that Bas and I always agree. Frankly, I rarely feel the need to agree.

11. Invest extra time at apology points. For example, when group members apologize for something they did and it didn’t bother you, tell them so and explain why. Recent example:

  • Bas: “Sorry for the late response….”
  • Lori: “…apologies aren’t necessary for a late response. I didn’t notice it was late, for one thing. And my presumption if I ever do experience a response as late will be to assume you are dealing with a more important-that-very-moment self-organizing group and that you’ll get back to ours when you can. :-)”

This appears to be one of those little up-front things that leads to wicked amazingness as a group later on.

12. Honor individual priorities as a group. Early on, this starts by recognizing your priorities, showing them to group members, and trusting other group members to be able to handle them. For example, for me, a sick or injured husband, sister, parent, close friend, or pet (my fuzzy kids) always trumps work. Don’t worry if you fear showing your individual priorities at work or that you don’t fully recognize what your own priorities are yet. From beginning to end, self-organizing work groups teach us it’s ok to honor our priorities and help us recognize what our individual priorities actually are. Seven years ago, for me work came first–I thought. It was my self-organizing work groups that taught me otherwise. Who (people), then work (what).

Daniel, Grady, and rain gear--three of Lori's top priorities