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You don’t believe workers can self-organize. Think again. Even 8 year-old kids can do it!

The Experiment

Picture made available by daedriusI attempted a small experiment with my kids a few weeks ago – get them to voluntarily help clean the house. If you have children between 7 and 10 year-old, I’m pretty sure having your kids help with cleaning is nothing short of a nerve-wrecking experience. If you don’t have kids, the process typically goes like this:

  • You – “Timmy, can you please pick up the toys in your room.”
  • Timmy – “Why?”
  • You – “Because your room is a mess and I break my face every morning when I come wake you up.”
  • Timmy – “OK, I’ll clean up.”

30 minutes later, you go see Timmy.

  • You, slightly annoyed – “Timmy, what are you doing?”
  • Timmy, looking up – “I’m building a castle, daddy. You want to play with me?”
  • You – “Yes, I’d like to play with you as soon as I’m done cleaning up. Why didn’t you pick up your toys like I asked you too?”
  • Timmy – “OK, I’ll clean up”

30 minutes later, you go see Timmy

  • … (you can guess the rest)

So, back to my experiment. A few weeks ago, while my wife was grocery shopping I decided to use an adapted version of Scrum. I called my son and his twin sister and told them we would do a little activity. To their enjoyment, they were wondering what I had in mind. They sat next to me at the table while I the took 4 x 6 index cards and on each of them, I wrote a task: pick up the toys, put your clothes in your drawers, empty the garbage cans, bring the recycling to the garage, put the Tupperware away in the drawer, vacuum the floor, etc.

  • My son – “Daddy, why are you writing these down?”
  • Me – “We’ll play a little game.”
  • My daughter – “Can I play too?”
  • Me – “Of course. Here’s how it goes. I wrote 8 cards and each card has a little task. I need you to help me clean up the house while mommy is doing grocery.”
  • The twins – “OK, what do we do with the cards?”
  • Me – “You will each select the cards (the tasks) you would like to do. You then decide in which order you want to do them.”
  • My daughter – “Daddy, some tasks are longer than others. What do we do about that?”.
  • Me – “It’s up to you to decide.”
  • The twins – “It doesn’t matter. We’ll decide which ones we pick.”
  • My son – “Do we get a reward for doing the work?”
  • Me – “Mmmm, good question. I know you like to read. How about I give you tokens for each task? Once you get 50 tokens, I’ll buy the book you asked me.”
  • My son – “OK.”
  • My daughter – “Can I buy a beeds set instead of a book?”
  • Me – “Sure.”
  • The twins – “Can you write how many tokens each task gives on the cards?”
  • Me – “Good thinking! Picking up the toys is 3 tokens, bringing the recycling to the garage is 1 token, …”
  • The kids – “OK, but who picks first?”
  • My son – “Let’s do rock – paper – scissor.”
  • My daughter – “Yes, let’s do rock – paper – scissor.”
  • The twins – “ROCK, PAPER, SCISSOR…”

After determining who would start, they quickly picked the cards and started doing the assigned task. At their own pace, they executed on the cards. Then, something cool happened.

  • My son – “Daddy, can we add a card? We need to water the plants.”
  • Me, laughing – “Of course. Who’s going to take this one?”
  • The twins – “Me, me, me!”
  • Me – “I guess we’ll have to write another card so you are even.”
  • My daughter – “Can I dust the bureau? I saw mommy do it the other day and I’d like to do that.”
  • Me, with a big smile – “OK, if you’d like to do that. I’m OK with this.”

Together, they successfully completed all their tasks. All of their tasks! No fighting, no screaming. That was a “proud moment” 🙂 Imagine when my wife got back home after the grocery…

With the Xmas Holidays and the broken routine, I was pleased to see my kids grabbing the cards by themselves this past Saturday and starting to execute on the routine. “Wow, this self-organization thing really works! Even with kids…”, I told myself.

The Take-Away

If you want people to carry out a task, here are a few suggestions:

  • Describe the task;
  • Let the team self-organize;
  • If the team needs help, you may suggest tools or a process – but do not impose them;
  • Get out of the way;
  • If possible, make it fun;
  • That’s it.
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alexandre Poitras #

    Well the problem here is not whether or not self-organization is great. The problem is that we see a team as being either self-organized or commanded. Probably our software developer brain at work again, we see 0 and 1 everywhere. We should see self-organization as more of a spectrum, the extremes being anarchy and command or control. Does an employee needs some sort of self organization? Of course, he does! Otherwise why whould you have hired him in the first place if you were going to tell him everything to do. Does that’s mean he won’t need some guidance at some point? I don’t think so. For instance, if you saw that your child was not doing his job properly, that he needed some advice to use the vacuum for instance, would you have helped him? Or would you have said nothing just because he needs to self-organize and finds out by himself that he needs help? So I think the real question is more of how much guidance my employee needs and the answer is of course it’s depends. It’s depend of his skills, the importance of the job, the quality desired, … An overcommited employe is as bad as a underutilized one.

    So why enterprises are having such a thought time giving the right amount of freedom to their employes? Because it requires evaluation and evaluating a situation is a very difficult process. There is no silver bullet, no magic algorithm or metric that can’t tell you how someone is going to respond in a given context. You have to figure out by yourself or trust someone to make the call.

    January 19, 2010
    • Great comment Alex. You are absolutely right, self-organization is along a spectrum ranging from none to full. The challenge in many organizations is simply to move the pointer from none to some self-organization.

      Contrary to a command-and-control approach where it is easy to dictate everyone the same way, giving freedom to a team requires trust and humility from the leader and the ability to adapt to the strength and weaknesses of the team. It is more demanding of the leader but also much more rewarding.

      January 19, 2010

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