Self-organization starts with Self. We as individuals. Right? Wrong.
Many think that individual autonomy is what defines self-organization. We all have the power and get to do what we think is best. To some extent, yes. But for a complex system, it’s a disaster. At least, at Gini it was. We realized that reducing hierarchical levels does not automatically lead to more participation, self-responsibility, and performance. Instead, it increased chaos due to lack of coordination and collaboration.
But we’ve learned. And we want to share with you what we learned.
Quality self-organization depends on self-management
First of all, self-organization is a term that describes how order appears in social systems. Self-organization is everywhere. It is a phenomenon that accompanies every organization and keeps it running in the first place, in most companies on an informal level and bypassing existing hierarchies. Without self-organization, organizations would no longer function. However, the ability to self-organize is limited by power hierarchies. This also means that a company can’t be non-self-organized. Self-organization can’t be decreed or proclaimed. It can only be unleashed.
The quality of self-organization depends on how good people are at self-managing. We need the right environment, process, and structures so that self-management can happen. And we have to practice self-management (reflection, open communication, accountability, collaboration).
Self-management and self-organization influence each other, pursue similar goals, and can’t be considered one hundred percent distinct from each other. So it is important to understand how they are different and their relation to each other. In this blog article, we want to give you an overview of how we understand them and put them into practice at Gini.
Why we chose self-organization
We didn’t start out as self-organizing. We were a classically hierarchical company, and it felt very slow and people were unhappy. Then we decided to try it fully autonomous, and it was worse! (You can read more about what happened here.) After some adjustments, which are never really done, we have realized that finding the “sweet spot” of how we do self-organization (80% self-management + 20% clear leadership from the CEO, Founder, and the Strategy Team) is constantly emerging depending on our business strategy and markets. We call it “The Gini Way.”
Our resulting challenges and trade-offs
Despite how fast the world is changing, few people have had an opportunity to work in a company that has a high degree of self-organization, as we do. So, most of us don’t already know how to function in this kind of work environment. In the beginning, we assumed that because it was what everyone wanted, we could just do it. (We took the Nike motto literally – big mistake.)
What we’ve come to understand is that it takes intentional practice and a focus on learning self-managing competencies. People enter the organization at different levels of experience, so the key is getting everyone to the same level, quickly. And, having the right mindset is key.
In fact, we learned that the right mindset emerges from having an environment that fosters certain behaviors and patterns. Part of having the right environment means people are given opportunities to learn how to self-manage, instead of the assumption that it will just happen by itself. And all of this takes time – it is developmental.
At Gini, one trade-off is that we attract young talent who are eager to learn and then leave after 3-4 years to try something new. Ginis with longer tenure then carry a larger burden of “training” new Ginis and simultaneously care-taking the culture (maintenance).
The other challenge is that this way of working isn’t for everyone, and that is totally ok. It just means that we have to make an extra effort to find the right people who fit or who show a willingness to learn self-management and in dealing with a high degree of autonomy.
However, the degree of autonomous work and the effort involved can overwhelm people. We recognize and respect that some people prefer to fulfill clear instructions and want to be less involved in shaping things. At Gini, it’s not only about getting up to speed on your role and delivering on what you are paid for, it is also about effectively functioning with greater autonomy, while in collaboration with others. (Autonomy – it is another concept that many people take to mean “all by myself” and “in the way that I feel is best (for me)”, when actually it is about shared power in decision making. You still need to coordinate and inform your decision with others.)
Learning how to increase autonomy and self-manage requires having lived experience, which comes over time. As we mentioned earlier, we learned not everyone starts at the same level of experience, so we need to take that into account and support people where they are. This is why we have stewards, mentors, and onboarding buddies.
We saw that, depending on the level of seniority, it takes some time until people are fully onboarded and feel comfortable working in a self-organized way. This extra time is a result of trying to do two things at once. We are working on ways through leadership development, communication training, and communities of practice (or pilot groups who experiment with something in the organization) to give Ginis a safe place to observe, experiment, and learn how to self-manage, so they can accelerate in what they’re hired for.
What state are we in now?
Like most companies that aim for greater agility, we’re constantly refining our processes, checking our basic assumptions, and refreshing our strategic product goals.
We have processes that enable self-organization, which are reviewed and reinvented over time. We have an advice process, 360° Peer-Feedback, an annual decentralized performance evaluation, and various approaches and tools that enable consent (vs consensus).
We also recognize that self-management is an ability that we want to grow and is crucial for an effective and well-functioning self-organizing company. However, we are still exploring which competencies are important to us and need strengthening. At Gini, these self-managing competencies will be linked to our values and contribute to more effectively working together. We plan to track each Gini’s development in these competencies by integrating them into our Peer Feedback and performance evaluation processes.
However, we can already share with you a few tips that helped us increase self-management skills:
- Don’t just expect people to be good at self-reflection, give them opportunities to get good at it so they see the value in it. In classical hierarchies, the firmly established structural framework provides a sufficient frame of reference in unclear situations. In self-organized systems, external structure is minimal so information exchange becomes much more important. How can you best respond if you are not aware of something or fully informed? We need to take into account that our own perception is always subjective. So we need a joint reflection that leads to a common understanding of the situation. This has become regular retrospectives at individual, team and the company levels. They happen weekly, monthly, and quarterly.
- We need openness and accountability to follow a shared goal in order to get an effective group performance. Self-organization is not a stage for self-promotion in the sense of “the winner takes all”. In order to hold each other accountable, we introduced our bi-weekly Team Exchange which is the only meeting that is mandatory for everyone. In that meeting, we share the progress of our commitments and make new ones. We ask each other critical and clarifying questions and at the same time offer our help and show appreciation.
Leadership in a self-organizing system
We have no classic hierarchical or control functions, and yet we’ve learned that good leadership is essential and equally a success factor for effective self-organization. We’ve gathered a group of people together, who went through a leadership training program, and who each own a package of concepts they will integrate into our way of working. These leaders were nominated by their peers and accepted the challenge. With this approach, we hope to make it clear that leadership is a role that people step in and out of depending on their expertise and capacities.
These packages support a leadership style that promotes self-management. The Ginis in this group meet monthly in a “Leadership Circle” to share progress and ideas on their packages, receive challenges or support from others, and generally keep their learning alive by connecting it with their daily work. And we keep learning how good leadership in self-organization can look because we also realized that self-organization without leadership is doomed to fail.
Our intention at Gini as a leader of new work
We are like many new work companies out there. We want to form an environment which truly allows people to bring in their potential. This results in:
- fulfilled employees who achieve outstanding results
- the support and encouragement of individual growth and development
As knowledge workers, we need space for creativity and to be innovative – to find solutions that are new and truly helpful. The standard stuff just isn’t working anymore.
At Gini, we do a lot of things really well, and still, we consistently strive to optimize and work better together. We are never really done evolving our organizational system. We continue to experiment and try to take different perspectives again and again. Having a strong connection to our alumni (Ginis who move on) is one way we get important outside perspectives.
Our aim is to develop our self-managing competencies to be better at self-organizing.
We really do want to make the world a better place. We want to do that by making the reality of going to work a place where we work with excitement, feel appreciated, empowered, stretched, and bring insights to work and take them home again.
Self-organization, supported by self-management, is how we are attempting to do this.
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Do you find this concept exciting and would you like to find out more? Follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram and connect with our expert ginis: Susanne Taylor and Isabel Huber.
If this sounds like an environment you want to be successful in, take a look at our open positions and get in touch with us. Or just drop by for a cup of coffee.