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Week 9, 2022—Issue #193

Perspectives on Self-Organization: Personal Freedom, Management Control and Stakeholder Relations

Photo by Cherrydeck on Unsplash

Each week: three ideas on and about the future of work. This week: three perspectives on the topic of self-managed organizations. This article was originally published in the WorkMatters newsletter on March 4, 2022.

We tend to think of self-organization in terms of freedom and autonomy for the individual. That’s important but not enough. If we truly want to move organizations away from top-down control toward self-organization, we need a more nuanced approach. We need a change of perspective:

1. Personal Freedom

For individuals, self-organization means an increase in autonomy and personal freedom. It’s generally considered a good thing for the individual. When no one is in charge, there’s ample opportunity to learn and grow. Studies also suggest that autonomy and engagement are strongly correlated. But it’s not all fun and games. Self-organization does require that the individual has the skill and motivation to do the work. Organizations looking to move towards self-organization must therefore put the requisite systems in place to facilitate and support that transition. Without such systems, the transition is likely to fail.

2. Management Control

For management, self-organization means a decrease in (direct) control and influence. It’s often perceived as too much of a risk for the organization (Theory X). When no one is in charge, there’s often a deep-seated fear that chaos will ensue. In part, this is due to how most organizations work: enforcement of bureaucratic controls leads to disengagement which warrants more controls and further disengagement, etcetera. Exiting such a vicious spiral isn’t easy. It requires that the proper systems are put in place to help management let go and trust in peoples’ skills and motivation to produce positive outcomes (Theory Y).

3. Stakeholder Relations

For stakeholders like customers, investors, and the community-at-large, self-organization means a heightened degree of uncertainty. It could be perceived as too much of a risk for the stakeholder. When no one is in charge, organizations begin to exhibit emergent properties — a fact that is not always appreciated in cultures favoring clarity and predictability. Managing such preferences ain’t easy. It requires that the organization communicates publically the systems it used to make decisions, ensuring that stakeholders are able to trust in the organization’s ability to produce positive outcomes.

Self-organization means different things to different people. It’s not just a matter of definition (see WorkMatters #85), it’s a matter of perspective.

Individual employees, managers, and stakeholders all have essential roles to play in the transition away from top-down control. Their perspective matters.

It follows that we, in order to facilitate that transition, need to understand and accommodate those perspectives — both individually and as a whole.

We must then use those perspectives — those insights — in the creation of the management systems we need for self-management.

Different as these perspectives might be, they must be anchored in something real and tangible; something that everyone can agree to and trust in.

Self-organization means that no single person is in charge; it means that power rests not with a strong CxO but in the organizational system itself.

Codifying and continuously improving that system is a prerequisite step in the transition from top-down control toward self-organization.

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: Make it matter.


This article was originally published in the WorkMatters newsletter. If you are interested to learn more, please consider becoming a subscriber.



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