Monthly Archives: May 2011

Self-organisation: it’s not a case of whether to, but making use of the fact it occurs

“The best architectures, requirements, and designs
emerge from self-organizing teams”

Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto

I’ve often had people say to me that we’re not really self-organising because we’re not all taking part in all the decisions made at our organisations, such as how the company is run or what products we should be making. This is a misunderstanding of how self-organisation occurs. The fact is we’re constantly self-organising, it’s just most of the time we’re completely oblivious to the fact it’s happening.

For example, within a group of people (such as a workplace) there are many social sub-groups, such as the early morning runners, the ones that go to lunch together and the after work drinkers. They all naturally self-organise around shared goals & desires. Even within a team where a highly autocratic management approach is in place, members of the team will self-organise around anything they can (such as making the tea or going out to buy some biscuits). The thing with self-organisation is it’s actually harder not to be doing it!

If you define self-organisation as when everyone in a team is able to control everything that affects it where do you stop? Your team? Your department? Organisation? City? Country? See where I’m going?

Self-organisation always occurs within boundaries defined by it’s context. For example, a football team might be a football pitch for 90 minutes, a group of friends on holiday the holiday villa they’re staying in or your department at work by the responsibilities it has. Something or someone always sets these boundaries. If they did not exist self-organisation couldn’t occur.

What causes self-organisation?

A complex system* will always be vulnerable to external events which are outside of it’s control, such as the opposite team, the weather or your customers or stakeholders. Self-organisation emerges when it becomes important to respond to these uncontrollable events in a manner which benefits the system. The ability to do so results in the system being adaptive. We know that software development is complex so we can determine we’re in a complex adaptive system. It’s a huge subject and not the particular focus of this article so I won’t try to go into any more detail, but if it’s a new concept to you I strongly encourage you to investigate further.

How to take advantage of the fact that it occurs

When self-organisation is on your side it can be extremely valuable. If you’re working in a complex adaptive system it’s shown that by far the most effective way to allow that system to operate is to allow it to self-organise, because that’s what it will naturally try to do.

The problem is it’s not always on your side (if you’re an oppressive Arab dictator, for example) and will often work against your goals and objectives. I’ve often seen self-organisation criticised because this happens. I’ve also seen it criticised because a team is unable to self-organise effectively when allowed to do so. In both cases you may be tempted to blame the individuals in the team. This would be unjust because in reality it is the system to blame (and probably you as the controller of the system).

To enable self-organisation to work in your favour you need to understand and ideally define the system – set it’s boundaries and try to organise it in a manner which will encourage self-organisation to occur in a way which supports your objectives. This is often called Systems Thinking. Again this is a large and well documented subject so there’s no need for me to elaborate further (if you’re looking for a good place to start though I thoroughly recommend Jurgen Appelo‘s excellent book, Management 3.0).


*It’s widely held that software development in general exhibits the properties of being complex (as described in the Cynefin Model).