Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Guide: Achieving Self-Organization

Based on our former model of self-organization, autonomy and trust, we have a question: "How do we achieve self-organization when we are currently organized in a Command and Control structure?" The big pitfall is that neither autonomy nor trust can be decreed: They must be earned, given and received. As such, the switch to self-organization is not simple. 

Increasing autonomy

Moving from a Command and Control structure to increase autonomy results in a problem: People are able to make their own decisions, but they are not being trusted on those decisions. Rather than being able to use this autonomy, people will be wasting their time justifying why they want to do things the way they chose: The system moves into the state of anarchy. Productivity drops as managementtries to retain control. As management sees a productivity drop without having trust in the outcome, the "obvious" solution is to reduce autonomy again in order to increase productivity. The consequence is a rebound back to the former C+C structure.

Increasing trust

Moving from a Command and Control structure to increase trust also results in a problem: In an environment where adherence to plan was always strictly monitored, simply removing the reports and controls does not automatically remove the behaviours induced by the control structure. People may already have learned that accountability must be checked. They might consider that "doing work" is only necessary when it is being checked upon: Productivity will decline with no benefit. Management will learn that controls are necessary to get results - a rebound back to the former C+C structure.

Increasing both trust and autonomy

A good way is to increase both trust and autonomy simultaneously. However, it is not enough to say "Do what you need to, I trust you." This is actually dangerous.

The first issue is that autonomy is the result of teams taking ownership: Ownership can be taken, but it can not be given. There is no guarantee that teams will take ownership. Important products may become "no man's land", where nobody feels responsible: the team might land in the apathic square - even worse.

The second issue is that trust is difficult to build: Spontaneously extending unconditional, unwarranted trust from one minute to the next may be greeted with reservation and suspicion. As mentioned above, this may result in an unproductive, apathic situation.

Completely loosing the reigns in an instant will have an unpredictable outcome, but will most likely not lead to self-organization.

Incremental, coinciding increase

Rather than attempting to move erratically across this matrix, we must consider the matrix as a gradient rather than binary.
Trust can be grown, bit by bit in small increments. Trust can only grow well by giving people something you trust them with. Replace rigid control processes with a collaborative feedback cycle.
Consider giving the team a little bit more autonomy in one area where they can and want to take ownership. Replace rigid control processes there with a collaborative feedback cycle.

Handing over ownership

Handing over ownership is difficult, especially when this is unfamiliar both to management and workers.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of actions you need in the process:

  1. Explain what will be different and why. You can use the GROUPER acronym: Goals, Roles, Overview, yoU-View, Perspectives, Expectations, Responsibilities. 
  2. Learn to ask different questions. For example, exchange the questions "What did you do?" with "Everything fine?" and "Why is this not done?" with "Where do you need help?".
  3. Extend information. Instead of demanding information for reports, provide information that will help the team decide in the same way you would.
  4. Suggest options. Early on, people might not feel comfortable with deciding atonomous. Moving away from "You must do X" to "Now, you might do X or Y, or even something completely different." helps people re-learn that they have a choice.
  5. Probe understanding. Instead of controlling how well people bear their newfound autonomy, try understanding their point of view. Fill the gaps that help them bear it better.

Accept that newly acquired ownership is a learning curve - people might fail to bear this responsibility well. When a setback occurs, do not re-institute control, and most specifically, refrain from issuing commands. Use feedback mechanisms to find out why the setback occured and guide the team in moving forward again.

Managing the transition

There are basically four major pitfalls in the transition:
  1. The increments towards self-organization may be too small or too large to bear. In this, observe the basic rule "Go slow to go fast". Start with relatively small changes. Increase the amount of autonomy/trust increase per increment until the team is self-organized.
  2. The team may not be able to handle self-organization. Education is key. Make sure that the team has all the knowledge and skills to bear their new responsibilities. In a strong C+C organization, that may well mean sending a developer to a Project Management seminary just to understand the surrouding ecosystem.
  3. The managers may not be able to handle self-organization. Trusting others is a leap of faith for everyone, and leaders are expected to lead. When the job of commanding and controlling others becomes obsolete, the organization needs a strategy for retaining talented transition managers.
  4. The environment may be hostile to self-organization. In this case, managers gain the additional responsibility of becoming "culture catalysts", creating a self-organization friendly ecosystem in their sphere of influence by creating a bubble of autonomy and trust around their teams.


There is no silver-bullet recipe and no straightforward roadmap for achieving self-organization, either. Like any other organizational change process, communication and leadership are essential. Depending on the current limits restraining autonomy and trust, a long, difficult - and occasionally painful - journey begins. The deregulation phase should be kept as short as possible, yet as long as necessary for real learning to kick in.
Never forget Kotter's Change Model in the process. 

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