Self-Organization = Anarchy (Part 3)

In part 1 and part 2 of this multi-post article I told you that self-organization does not distinguish between valuable and harmful results. This distinction is only made by humans, because we have learned to assign value to things. And command-and-control was invented to consciously steer self-organization towards that which is valuable. Like health. And gold. And chocolate.

But still, anarchy is the norm. And (imposed) order is the special case.

In his 2001 paper Agile Processes and Self-Organization Ken Schwaber wrote:

Agile processes employ self-organizing teams to handle the complexity inherent in systems development projects. A team of individuals is formed. They organize themselves into a team in response to the pressure of a deadline, reminding me of the saying, "Nothing focuses the mind like a noose!" The pressure cooker of the deadline produces cooperation and creativity that otherwise is rare. This may seem inhumane, but compared with non-agile practices for dealing with complexity, self-organization is a breath of fresh air.

Indeed, for some people self-organization was like a breath of fresh air. But the fresh air existed long before humans came and invented command-and-control. And I don't agree with Ken in claiming that cooperation and creativity are otherwise rare. I just spent two entire blog posts explaining that the whole universe, and everything in it, is the product of cooperative and creative self-organization. How do you mean rare?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little command-and-control, if applied sparingly. But unfortunately, as I pointed out in the previous post, most humans (and managers too) have a linear and simple-minded world view. They often think that many things need to be directed in a command-and-control style, or otherwise anarchy unfolds. Oooohh, scary! Well, that same anarchy just constructed an entire universe, so it cannot be all that bad. All that top-down management isn't really necessary, and often works counterproductive.

Fortunately some of the smarter people on earth (including Ken Schwaber) understood this. And the words empowerment and delegation appeared in management literature, and self-organization was picked up by agile software development. Even though there was nothing new about it. And again, people have been seeing things the wrong way around. There is actually no such thing as "delegation" (giving more responsibilities). The real issue is "non-restriction" (taking away fewer responsibilities). Remember: self-organization was here first, command-and-control came later. It's the same with my pet peeve: taxes. People talk about "tax relief for tax payers" while the proper description should be "taking away less money from tax payers".

In his article No More Self-Organizing Teams Jim Highsmith wrote "While self-organizing is a good term, it has, unfortunately, become confused with anarchy in the minds of many." I disagree with Jim. My view is that self-organization equals anarchy. The real issue is that self-organization alone is not enough. At least a little command-and-control is needed to steer self-organization in a direction that is valuable. For some.

Jim Highsmith calls it Light-Touch Leadership. That's cool.

I might call it Smart-Minded Management.

And that, my dear readers, is how I see self-organization. I hope it was worth reading…

(image by V2) 

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  • Self-Organization = Anarchy (Part 2)
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