How Self-Organization Happens

Bonnitta Roy
Our Future at Work
Published in
11 min readJan 25, 2016


… and why you can trust it

Distributing Cognitive Load

Values drive all organizational life

If you pay attention throughout the day, you will see that your thoughts are constantly floating on waves of shifting values. While your thoughts govern your conscious actions, the underlying values directly influence your unconscious behaviors, like shifting in your seat, checking your email, getting up for the fourth cup of coffee. What I am calling values-streams are technically called the “intentional-motivational state” of a person. Some of these have homeostatic functions designed to regulate the body. Most of them, however, are part of a complex system which generates our affective tone, emotions, and meaning-making processes.

It is helpful to think of values as streams. The make-up of these streams is constantly shifting and changing, like streams in a riverbed change direction, speed, temperature, etc. And just as streams in a riverbed are constantly responding to fluctuations in the larger environment, our value-streams are constantly adjusting our inner environment in response to our outer environment. Values make themselves known to us as “what we feel like doing,” “what we want to do,” “what we dream of doing.”

Values are the most powerful markers of what is real in our experience. They can be smooth and consistent for periods of time, and then completely change state in an instance. For example, you can be in a state of focused concentration at your desk, and then boom! a bomb goes off (metaphorically) your intentional-motivational state changes dramatically. What was your main intention and motivation in one moment, spontaneously gives way to the values that propel you in the next moment. Your energy spikes, your emotions shift 180 degrees, you focus on different sights, sounds, and signs, and the meaning you were making about how things are going, and how your future was shaping up — all change simultaneously.

These effects, however, are not confined to you and your body, you and your perceptions, you and your stories. The most important thing in organizational life is that value-streams are not confined inside one person’s body or mind — they traverse throughout the organization through communicative action, through the many local interactions between people. These local interactions, of people gesturing and responding to each other, can’t be partitioned off by keeping people silent or putting them in separate rooms. Try and control them, and they go underground. Furthermore, they don’t always depend on explicit forms of behavior or conscious intention. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a room where a heated argument was happening, or a secret sexual encounter was interrupted, and being able to feel the affective tone hanging in the air. Words cannot by themselves change the atmosphere, as it is clear to everyone when the person who just apologized is still angry, or when a manager who just smiled and said “everything’s OK” is planning to fire someone.

I invite you to start thinking about your own organization in terms of value-streams — as the complex and continuously responsive multi-dimensional streams of energy, emotion, and meaning-making that courses through all organizational life. These value-streams create waves upon waves of thoughts and actions — some conforming, some unorthodox, some generating spontaneously creative performances. Value-streams are why organizational life is complex in the sense of being “non-linear, indeterminate, and chaotic’” as complexity science defines it. They are in continuous feedback-feedforward, convergence and divergence, stable and unstable interplay within the individual, with the environment, and among individuals.

It would be a mistake to think of these value-streams as a “system” that could be modeled and managed from a privileged position. There is no way to insulate oneself from participating in, from being affected by and in turn effecting, the value-streams that are operating in the organization. A manager cannot make a value-neutral, completely objective decision. A team cannot come to a rational solution that is based only on the “objective facts” of the matter. No truth can be validated without simultaneously being e-value-ated.

Coming to this understanding of an organization as the confluence of continuously shifting value-streams, it is easy to see the danger of confusing official scripts and formal statements about vision and mission for the rich and turbulent value-streams that are actually operating in each and every ordinary and critical interaction in organizational life. What is more interesting and profitable, is being able to stay with and participate with what is actually the case, with what is actually happening, at the level of the value-streams that are driving organizational life. These value-streams are sensitive and responsive “feelers” that everywhere probe organizational life, reaching even beyond its formal borders and boundaries. They are more sensitive, more responsive and more precise, than the conceptual abstractions we commonly use to represent organizational life. The value-streams reflect what is most relevant and most real and therefore, they can surface the missing information we need when making decisions or solving problems in complex environments. The bookkeeper might not yet have words to explain the irritation that she is feeling during our budget meeting, so we might, as a team, not yet know what it means — though we can be sure that it is nonetheless relevant because it is nonetheless real.

Identities emerge from negotiating values

Like all other species, people organize to distribute energy load. Distributing energy load can be physical as when we need help lifting a couch or cognitive, as when we are collaborating to fix a software bug. People also organize themselves to distribute psychic load — the need to talk with someone, the urge to play, the desire to have sex. As we come together, our value-streams co-mingle in complex ways. As we “size up” the situation, we “size up” each other. Habit and routine can make most of this process unconscious, but surprising and novel situations always remind us what is actually happening in the ordinary everyday interactions between people. This is just part of the process we call “self-organizing.” There are a few other key features that can help us understand self-organization as a natural human process, underlying all other aspects of organizational life.

First, in the “sizing up” phase, we are intuitively discovering the asymmetry of our relationship. I might see that you are much stronger than me, and so I will want you to take the heavier side of the couch. This is an example of skill asymmetry. However, asymmetry between values plays a more crucial role in relationships. I might really want the couch moved, but you like it where it is. I might need you to help me weed the garden, but you just need some money. This asymmetry in values (arising as needs), is the basis for power relations among people. As value-streams constantly shift, power relations are constantly being negotiated. And since our value-streams do shift constantly, power relations are always being negotiated and re-negotiated. This means that people are continuously regenerating their starting positions when it comes to their power relations.

Secondly, discrete identities emerge from this process of negotiating the shifting asymmetry between skill sets and value sets. It is a natural human process, a result of which, we fall into our roles. In other words, roles are the individual identities we assume — the roles we will play — in the organized interactions that we enter into in order to distribute the energy load required to fulfill our individual values (needs). Roles in turn, define the set of objectives that the individual must perform in the action that has been organized to distribute the energy load. People organize themselves to take up a role as part of this performance-action; but their own reasons for doing so are driven by complex value-streams that are in the process of continuous negotiation. The success of the organized performance depends upon fulfilling individual roles, which in turn depend upon maintaining sufficient relational stability or sustaining a threshold degree of coherence in the complex responsive processes operating at the level of the value-streams.

Self-organization = Intention x Identity x Interaction

Now we have a formula for understanding self-organizational based on intention, identity and interaction. Intentional-motivational states are patterns that emerge through complex responsive processes operating in the value streams. Identities form as discrete roles through the continuous process of negotiating asymmetrical values, skills and power relations. Roles become associated with objectives that perform them, and team interactions then become organized performances, based on distributing energy load across these objectives. The challenge in self-organizing processes, is that we are not used to letting go of old identities and shape-shifting into new ones. We are uncomfortable in the phases of transition, where identities are not yet fixed, or fixed identities are being challenged in the process of negotiation. This is why we are so obsessed with fixed roles, which represent past conditions and contexts, while remaining unresponsive to present or future conditions and contexts that otherwise might creatively emerge from the many local interactions between people in organizations.

Some people believe this anxiety around identity and role-play is a permanent aspect of our human condition. Yet playing with roles and experimenting with identities seems to be what we do to learn, to grow, to expand our horizons and to create new ways of being together. What would childhood be without role playing and the continual shifting and expanding of one’s identity? What would society be, if we were limited to only a few categorical identities? While it is certainly true that in organizations, shifting roles and forming new identities creates anxiety, I believe this is a result of the way that organizational life has conditioned us. I believe we are hyper-anxious around role-identity because we have lived our entire lives inside institutions where role-identities represent authoritarian and disciplinary power over us. In other words, institutional roles represent the structural violence that operates within them. The inflexibility of the roles reflects the inflexible relations of institutionalized power.

We are beginning to see how to design organizations that allow for flexible identities and creative role-playing. Perhaps we even have the responsibility to design organizational structures that are sensitive, adaptive and responsive to human values. These structures would allow for the emergence, through self-organization, of the full spectrum of roles and identities that humans would want to perform while being together. In our work envisioning “the open participatory organization” we see that it is possible to design an organization around the notion of “locations” that specify all the values operating there and the many role-identities that can flow from them. In this work, “locations” are like houses — they evolve with their occupants who increase both their functional and aesthetic value. In this way, a “location” can be thought of as an asset in the common wealth. In these locations, performance is an emergent outcome of the objectives that the occupiers achieve, in the complex responsive processes of negotiating role-identities.

Trust practices and opening participation

The fundamental requirement, therefore, in supporting self-organization in teams, is to build trust practices. Trust is simply an outcome of opening participation,where everyone is allowed to show up as they actual are, as they actually feel, with their actual aspirations and dreams, fears and objections. Trust is all about allowing what is most real, what is actually happening, what is actually the case, rather than what should be or is expected or demanded to be — to enter the public sphere so everyone can exercise their powers of discernment and practical judgment in a more informed and transparent way.

This means, when people are working together, whether on site or through digital networks, everything that is happening is already relevant to the team. This means that your emotional tone is relevant, what you had for breakfast is relevant, the status of your mortgage, what you want to be doing and what you think you should be doing. Any attempt to exclude or partition off part of the human experience is illusory, and creates adaptive pushback. You might be able to limit the bodily behavior of individuals, by assigning them specific rooms and desks, but you cannot control their internal thoughts. You might be able to constrain conversations taking place in the open to official roles and scripts, but you cannot constrain the implicit scripts in people’s minds, or the hidden, unofficial conversations that people share. You might be able, with structures of disciplinary power, to constrain public actions of formal groups to normative standards, but you will never be able to eliminate deviant activities that are enacted in informal groups that result from those constraints.

The process of opening participation means creating the conditions for more of what is actually happening to be able to participate in the open, shared spaces of conversation and interaction. This doesn’t mean that everyone talks about everything all the time. People intuitively know what is relevant in the moment, even if they have trouble communicating it properly. The purpose of opening participation is to allow the relevant content of what is actually happening to inform decision-making and responsive action taking. Hunches as well as good ideas can lead to a breakthrough. An honest response of how one feels about a decision often gets deeper to the root solution than a sound argument. Teams can learn how to trace their intuitions as well as their irritations, their enthusiasms as well as their fears, down to core operating values that make a difference.

Trust practices cultivate the capacity for self-organization, which is another way of saying, the capacity to be with what is human and natural and real in organizational life. A company that spends more of its time explicitly attending to what is most real, has a significant advantage over those companies who are slogging in the quagmire of abstraction, fantasy, pretending,and adaptive pushback, while taking care of all the unintended consequences and escalating complexity that results.

Over time, people learn how to “endure” the complex and sometimes painful processes of transitioning from being a group of people with fixed roles to becoming a real team where roles and identities are in creative interplay and outcomes are novel and emergent. In the process, our organizations learn how to shift strategic questions from the notion of “what should be the future of our organization” to “who are we becoming as a people?”[1] This is an inquiry that is significant not only for our organizations, but for our society and our times. But that is a topic for another day.

[1] The phrase is adapted from Ralph Stacey’s description of strategic inquiry in complex responsive processes.



Bonnitta Roy
Our Future at Work

Releasing complexity, source code solutions, training post-formal actors, next generation leadership, sensemaking, open participatory organizations