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Self-organization and independence aren’t the same thing

Picture by Frédéric EsplandiuAgile relies and promotes the concept of self-organized teams but the concept is still misunderstood – except maybe for Jurgen who explains it very well in his book.

Even within Pyxis where we push the concept of self-organization to the entire organization, people often mistake independence and self-organization.

Here’s an attempt at distinguishing the two perspectives.

Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory. – wikipedia

Independence is strongly tied to self-governance which is defined as:

(…) an abstract concept that refers to several scales of organization. (…) It can be used to describe a people or group being able to exercise all of the necessary functions of power without intervention from any authority which they cannot themselves alter. – wikipedia

On the other hand, self-organization is defined as:

the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator). – wikipedia

Although in both cases, no authority interferes with the organization of the people, self-organization emerges when there is no planning of how people will work together. In addition, the notion of imposed constraints appears when discussing self-organization.

As such, while independence could mean “We can do what we want, how and when we want”, self-organization means “We are free to operate how we wish within the defined constraints in order to achieve the established objectives”.

As I recently described, immature self-organized teams are often selfish and irresponsible:

Team members are happy to take advantage of being self-organized but only as long as it benefits them and that there are no increased responsibilities. Once a situation negatively impacts them (while benefiting the team), they aren’t willing to cooperate and when they are asked to take accountability for something, they shy away from the responsibility. In a nutshell, these individuals want the best of both worlds. To successfully transition to self-organization, it is critical to explain that they will need to make a decision and pick self-organization with responsibility or freedom outside the self-organized team.

Consequently, true self-organization means that people take full accountability for their actions and do what ever it takes to get organized as a group in order to operate within the imposed constraints.

Once presented with self-organization, people and teams quickly assume that they now fully control their destiny – which is incorrect. The additional detail that needs to be added is “within the imposed constraints” which means resources are limited and an objective has been established. So unless you are in control of the resources or have officially been delegated authority for the resources, you have the option of self-organizing, not becoming independent.

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