Harness The Power Of Self-Organization To Fuel Your Culture

In my previous post, I discussed how self-organization (or emergent order) is the foundation for organizational success.  In this post, I’d like to propose some ideas for working with emergent orders (rather than against them) to enhance the workplace.

First and foremost, the concept of emergence can be difficult to grasp.

Emergence is an impersonal process that involves the interplay between our actions and those of others. Individually, I can only influence a small portion of the whole, but collectively our actions have a profound impact on everyone involved. We often aren’t able to see the connections among our actions, the system as a whole, and how that system impacts other people.

In studying emergence, we often become fixated the parts that are closest to us, but neglect the bigger picture of how the parts are interrelated.  Through emergence, we realize that everything is connected and the world becomes much larger than we previously thought.

Understanding the magnitude of the connections and how they are related is the most challenging (but also most rewarding) aspect of emergence.

Understanding Self-Organization

The policies and procedures put in place by leaders in any organization do not fully define the underlying culture. They help guide the organization but don’t have as much impact on the day-to-day business of getting work done; that is the job of self-organization. Whether you recognize it or not, there are always undercurrents of communication and camaraderie running throughout any business environment. While it may not be visible on the surface, the behaviors of your colleagues are often the biggest drivers of your culture.

The relationship among emergence, culture, and policy is like a garden.  If you provide the right type of nourishment and conditions, things naturally flourish.  Sometimes you neglect to provide key nourishment and the plants wilt.  Other times you may add too much and the plants suffer as well. The trick is finding the right balance to allow the garden to grow.

Similarly, policies can enable or inhibit our ability to self-organize. By clearly defining the conditions that enable self-organization to thrive, we can determine the right type of policies and procedures to channel our relationships in ways that strengthen our organizational culture. This will look different for each organization, but it becomes a powerful way for leadership to focus the existing underlying self-organization that is propelling the organization forward.

When trying to channel emergent orders, there are a couple ground rules to remember:

1. People respond to incentives: Rules and incentives guide our behavior.  We use incentives to help make decisions and plan for the future.

2. Institutions matter: Values, structures, and processes that have stood the test of time probably serve some purpose.  Although institutions may need to change, their impact on the workplace cannot be ignored.  We also cannot expect institutions to change overnight.

3. Work is social: At the end of the day, most change efforts aim to improve the way we work together.  It’s important to focus on how work is actually being accomplished: How do departments communicate? Where are the breakdowns? And who are the influencers? We cannot neglect the social aspects of work.

How Self-Organization Can Be Used to Your Advantage

The ground rules above provide a context for understanding workplace dynamics. Many change efforts fail because we neglect to appreciate the role incentives, institutions, and social networks play in our everyday lives.

For example, focusing solely on incentives (greater productivity) at the expense of collaboration can make people feel isolated and hurt the organization overall. In addition, trying to force two groups to work together without understanding their underlying (and often different) values can cause headaches and animosity.

If we have a firm grasp on the ground rules, leveraging self-organization becomes substantially easier.  People naturally organize to get work done, this may look different in different parts of the organization or when focusing on different challenges.

There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits all strategy, but there are some general guidelines that we can employ to use self-organization to our advantage:

1. Establish clear expectations: Establish clear expectations which people can use to guide their actions and steer their interactions.  Expectations should be applied consistently across the organization.

2. Keep communication open: Since work is social, it is critical to ensure people continue to communicate. When bottlenecks happen, don’t hesitate to roll up your sleeves and help forge new partnerships. 

3. Leverage focal points: Who/where are the hubs were people/information congregate? What is happening in the hubs?  Who are the influencers? These can serve as great opportunities to spread information and implement change efforts.

4. Reward problem solving: People like to be recognized for their accomplishments. Solving complex problems involves many people cooperating across different parts of the organization. It’s important to recognize their contributions both individually and collectively as a team. It’s also critical to encourage these individuals to share best practices with others and cross-pollinate ideas (culture is contagious).

5. Think through unintended consequences: Every action has the potential to create outcomes we couldn’t have anticipated.  Before beginning a change effort, it’s important to be cautious and weigh the costs and benefits of different options. Think back to the ground rules.  There needs to be an “exit strategy” when unintended consequences happen.

6. Be open to new directions: Emergent orders can take on a new shapes as the organization changes. Policies and guidelines should be general enough to accommodate these changes. When unintended consequences happen, we should be flexible and modify our guidance as needed. We should never pigeonhole ourselves to move in a single direction.

Although we often don’t notice it, emergence plays a vital role in our organizations every day.  Emergence is the natural outcome of many people working together to achieve common goals. It is an important (and under-appreciated) contributor to the success of every organization, but leveraging it presents challenges in that we can’t fully understand how all the moving pieces fit together.

Sometimes we aren’t aware of how our policies and processes impact our ability to self-organize; when we act, we could be hurting our organization in the long run. By being cognizant of how incentives, institutions, and social networks shape our culture, we can take proactive steps to ensure policies enable (rather than inhibit) self-organization

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Stuart Farrand

Analyst at Christopher Newport University
Stuart Farrand is an experienced analyst with an extensive background in diagnostic methods. His work focuses on the intersection of risk, emergence, and organizational culture. He specializes in using data insights that enhance how organizations identify, approach, and learn from complex issues and hard to detect risks. Stuart is a former member of the gothamCulture team and currently works in higher education.
Stuart Farrand