Humanizing Work: Self-Organization, Does it Work for Everyone?

I’m going to share an opinion about self-organization that might be a bit controversial.

First some backstory. I’m a big believer in the concept of self-organization. I’ve seen self-organizing teams get to high performance and be more innovative and more engaged at work, and for years I’ve been reading as many stories about self-organizing companies as I can find: companies like Buurtzorg; Morning Star, the tomato processing company; Semco in Brazil; Zappos; Favi in France; Ut7, and the USS Santa Fe. Self-organization seems like a dream come true. It solves some of the hard problems that we get with bureaucracy, and it doesn’t have a lot of downsides — at least according to those case studies.

And I’ve also worked with a few CEOs who are leading self-organizing companies. One of the CEOs who’s a longtime friend of mine, one of the smartest, kindest and most resourceful people I know, about a year ago said, “Peter, I don’t know if this self-organizing thing is going to work.” And this was after several years of leading a self-organizing company.

One of the challenges is that he wants to hire people that are at all levels of development, at all levels of skill, and help them grow into their roles. But the systems he had in place were not being taken advantage of by everybody at the organization.

The more developed somebody was, the more likely they would take advantage of systems. These include the advice process, and intent-based leadership, and other programs we read about in these successful case studies. But he said, “Look, if we can’t make self-organizing work for everyone, then can we really say this is the future of work?”

It’s not like 20 years from now, everybody’s going to enter the workforce as a fully developed, mature, capable human being. If we can’t do self-organization with everyone that doesn’t have those skills, then I don’t know if we can call this a successful model.

Maybe self-organization works where you can hire highly developed people and be very picky. But in his organization that is not the case. He’s hiring people in entry-level jobs, like customer service. He’s hiring people to put things in boxes and ship them out, and he says, “It’s really hard for me to find people who are able to do the types of things I’m asking them to do.”

So we sat down and we looked at the Leadership Circle, which is one of our favorite models that describes different levels of awareness and development. And we looked at what the leadership circle calls the reactive tendencies, and there are three main reactive styles. One’s called Complying, one’s called Protecting, one’s called Controlling. And we went into all of those tendencies and we said, “If a new hire is displaying reactive tendencies, what systems can we put in place that will help them grow through that, help them still effectively self-organize despite that tendency, and maybe grow toward a more creative approach to that reactive tendency?”

In this company, they’re just starting to wonder whether self-organization can continue to work. Especially with people who don’t naturally raise their hand and say, “Yeah, I’ve got an idea here and I think we should try it.” It’s not what they’ve been trained to do in their previous workforces, and it’s not maybe what their stage of development is.

So does self-organization work everywhere? Maybe not yet. We have work to do in order to figure out the right kinds of systems, but I’m pretty hopeful knowing this particular leader and the leadership team involved.

I’m still a big fan of self-organization. Maybe I’m more skeptical that it can work everywhere in all situations, but at the same time, I’m hopeful that we can figure out ways to humanize work for everyone — and not just the elite few or the most developed amongst the human family.

Anyone else wants to chime in? If you are working in a self-organizing company or leading one, we would love to hear from you and hear what challenges you’re facing. So please go ahead and comment below if that’s your situation.

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Peter Green

Peter Green led a grass roots Agile transformation at Adobe from 2005 to 2015, starting with his own team, Adobe Audition. His influence includes the teams behind such software flagships as Photoshop, Acrobat, Flash, Dreamweaver and Premiere Pro, as well as dozens of internal IT and platform technology teams and groups like marketing and globalization. His work was a major factor enabling Adobe product teams to make critical business transition from perpetual desktop products to the subscription-based service, Creative Cloud. His hands-on Scrum and Agile training and coaching at all levels of the organization including executives, helped lay the groundwork to shift teams from two-year product cycles to frequent delivery of high-quality software and services. He is a Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST), instructional designer, coach, facilitator, and a popular speaker at Tech, Agile, and Scrum conferences.

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