Can an organization have a group concerned with org topics while being self-organized? We think so.

Let’s get the obvious paradox out of the way, shall we? Can an organization have a group concerned with org topics while being self-organized? We think so. Self-organization benefits from people who actively create the holding spaces and initiate change that allow self-organization to evolve. A group that facilitates the process of defining the minimal centralized set of decentralizing mechanisms.

One of our faculties — i.e. functions in the organization’s value chain — is the org faculty. It is concerned with organizational development which includes topics like autonomous teams, decentralized decision making, or peer-to-peer feedback and guidance.

What is self-organization anyway?

The terms self-managed, self-directed, and self-organized are often used interchangeably, however, they are not the same. For the purpose of this post, we define these terms as follows.

Self-management is about deciding how to work. A self-managed group has authority over their processes (how they work) in order to reach a shared goal (what they work on), which may be set outside the group.

Self-direction is about deciding what to work on. A self-directed group has authority over their shared goal (what they work on).

Self-organization is about decision-making. As such, it is on a different abstraction level than the previous two concepts — and may be part of both or neither of them. Self-organizing groups make decisions within pre-defined boundaries and processes, but without central direction or control through any one individual or sub-group. Information and control are both thoroughly distributed. Collective behavior of the group is emergent from the behavior of its individual members. Depending on the situation at hand the people with the most competence lead. And just as importantly the same people follow in other situations when others have more competence to lead. This enables decentralized, emergent decision-making that relies on negative feedback to dampen undesired results and positive feedback to amplify desired results.

Please note that all three of these concepts are properties of groups of people, not of the individuals within them.

Goals of the org faculty

We want to get rid of coercion — i.e. people exerting authority over others against their free will. But we don’t want the opposite extreme either — a pure egalitarian system where everyone is considered equal in all regards. We are not all the same. We have different strengths, which if leveraged effectively are collectively bigger than the sum of its parts. The goal is not equality. The goal is equal opportunity.

As part of nonhierarchical movements, management and leadership have gotten a bad reputation. However, neither management nor leadership are bad things, as long as they are fluid and accessible to everyone in the organization.

The goal of the org faculty is to steer the organization towards its sweet spot on the spectrum between the authoritarian and egalitarian extremes.

We are not aiming for maximum egalitarian self-organization, even though we are leaning towards that end of the spectrum. We are aiming for maximum impact as a company and fulfillment of its members. These factors are interdependent with our company vision and values, as well as the people working within it. Because of this, each organization has its individual sweet spot on this spectrum. This means we can’t just blindly copy some other organization. We are our own case study. We have to find our own place — which will change over time as we grow.

Chaos, bureaucracy, and boundaries

Another aspect of finding this sweet spot is to strike the balance between chaos (too few/vague boundaries) and bureaucracy (too many/limiting boundaries). In complex systems it is important to create boundaries that are flexible and negotiable, “because rigid boundaries have a habit of becoming brittle and breaking catastrophically”.

Let’s take office hours. “Be here whenever” might be a too vague boundary. It would be hard to collaborate or coordinate times for meetings. “Everyone has to be in the office from 9 to 5. No exceptions.” might be a too limiting boundary. Not everyone is productive at the same times. We all have different circumstances outside of work. A good compromise seems to be “Arrange with your academy when is best for you to collaborate.” This boundary is flexible and negotiable. We strive to create these boundaries by few simple guidelines rather than many specific rules.

These guidelines need interpretation in specific contexts. On the one hand, this saves us from having to consider every possible corner case, which is impossible anyway. “It’s OK to come late if …” On the other hand, this allows locally valid solutions to emerge that can be different across the organization and couldn’t have been foreseen beforehand. “We do our standups at 12 instead of in the morning because that allows …”

These guidelines are emergent. We adapt them over time to our specific context as we use them and learn in the process of doing so. This prevents us from spending a lot of time upfront to make them “perfect”. Instead of perfection, we aim for “good enough for now, safe enough to try”.

As a trade-off, Ginis will sometimes act outside these boundaries even if their intention was to do the right thing. “I thought, I could do home office all the time because that’s where I am most productive.” It requires leadership from all of us to react to these situations and clarify the boundaries in the specific context while — at the same time — resisting the urge to create a general rule to prevent such a thing from happening again. “At most 1 home office day per week.” If we don’t resist this urge, we are bound to end up in bureaucracy hell. We don’t add more process where trust will suffice.

Examples, please!

Our academies — i.e. autonomous teams that own their whole value chain — are self-managed. They decide how they work together. They are influenced by feedback from others outside the academy — e.g. our Agile coach or faculties they are part of. But in the end they decide how they work themselves via consent.

Academies are self-directed within agreed upon boundaries. They decide what to work on by setting their own quarterly OKRs and deciding what to do each day in a daily standup. They can decide this within the boundaries of the company vision and product guidelines. Again, they are influenced by feedback from others outside the academy — e.g. the strategy faculty. But in the end, they decide what to work on themselves via consent.

Tasks of the org faculty

  • Envision a target organization.
  • Identify gaps between the current and target organization.
  • Bring impulses for organizational change into the organization.
  • Facilitate the co-creation of organization-wide guidelines.
  • Calibrate guidelines across the organization and ensure they are just.

In the process of fulfilling the role of an org faculty member we personally develop strong opinions about organizational structures. We try our best to hold these opinions loosely and be open to others’ points of views. We are painfully aware that we all have blind spots and biases which are reinforced by our “information echo chamber”.


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