Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the  Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on  Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.

After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:

Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment

  • Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
  • Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.

In Meetings and Conversations

  • Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
  • Encourage people in finding their own answers
  • Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
  • Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no  risk, no innovation.
  • Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
  • Actively share information. Practice transparency.
  • Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.

Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them.  Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.


Introduction to Holacracy

The link below is to a webinar, Introduction to Holacracy, by Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy.  It is very well done, a good  introduction to Holacracy—very clear and not obtuse theorizing. Since much of the structure of Holacracy is the same a sociocracy, it will also help in the understanding sociocracy.

As a former software programmer, Robertson uses the operating system as an analogy. Holacracy is the operating system and the specifics of the products or services the organization provides are the applications. Microsoft Word enables people using the Mac OS or Windows operating systems to produce documents. Adobe Illustrator allows them to produce drawings.

Unlike sociocracy, Holacracy does not have a compensation system. The compensation policies and structure would be an application that each company would design for itself.

Holacracy does not use consent but it also seems not to override objections. Each proposal must have a tangible example of how it will enable or prevent something from happening. The adoption of a policy is based on how the proposed action will negatively affect the team or individual roles within the team. Such negative effects and all other descriptions have to be tangible well-grounded arguments, not abstractions or hypotheticals. When there are no further objections, the policy is adopted but there is no consent round, which is inferred to be a vote.

Since roles and domains of decision-making are so clearly defined, it is easer to see that proposals “belong” to one person’s role or to a set of roles. It isn’t up to anyone else to decide whether a role needs this proposed action, only whether this action will negatively affect any other role.

Introduction to Holacracy by Brian Robertson

This is only a smattering of the concepts explained in the one hour video.  And there are illuminating questions at the end.


Thinking in Systems by Donnella Meadows

Book Cover of Thinking in SystemsI highly recommend Donnella Meadow‘s little book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green 2008). It’s short, fun, and to the point. No math or physics required. Recommended for everyone, literally.

In clear, humorous, commonplace situations, Meadows explains the use of systems analysis and how it can be applied in both large-scale and individual problem solving. She moves from simple to more complex examples ultimately explaining the complex ways that feedback loops are used to create self-organizing systems in nature and society. She also explains methods for fixing systems that have gone astray.

About Donella “Dana” Meadows

Photo of Donella Meadows
Donnella Meadows

Dana Meadows (1941-2001) was a biophysicist and  environmental scientist who taught at Dartmouth for 26 years following her research fellowship at MIT where she worked with Jay Forrester the creator of the study of system dynamics. She is author of one of the most influential essays on systems dynamics, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” available for PDF download and reprinted in Thinking in Systems, pp. 145-165. She received numerous awards for her work including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1994. Her work is considered to have a formative influence in many fields and on many scholars. Unfortunately she died of a bacterial infection at the age of 59 and before completing Thinking in Systems. The manuscript had been circulating amongst students and faculty who added comments. The final manuscript was edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute or the study of global systems and practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including cohousing and ecovillages. The Institute was founded next to Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, VT and has been renamed the Donella Meadows Institute and moved to Norwich, VT. Her papers were donated by the Institute to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in 2011.

One of the wrong-headed ideas discussed in Thinking Systems, pushing in the wrong direction on fixing economic growth, the subject of the landmark book, The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, for which she was lead author. Using a computer model, it projects the effects of continued growth. An extensive review appeared in The Nation in 2012: The Limits to Growth: A Book that Launched a Movement by Christian Parenti. Limits was first published in 1972 and updated. The original version sold 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. It was 205 pages. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) is 338 pages.

To purchase at Amazon: Thinking in Systems: A Primer, softcover 2008.

A Deeper Democracy

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