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) 

Twitter TwitterRss SubscribeEmail NewsletterDelicious Bookmarks

Latest, greatest and favoritest posts:
You Are a Gardener (Oh, and Me Too)
Leader vs. Ruler: Which One Are You?
Embrace Diversity, Erase Uniformity

  • Self-Organization = Anarchy (Part 2)
  • Checklist for the Agile Manager (Presentation)
Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”
  • Srikanth

    OK, got it now 🙂
    Summary: Self organization is anarchy. You can see it throughout the life of the universe. We must use it to our advantage. With a little command-and-control, we can drive the self organized groups to do something valuable.
    THE END.

  • Tobias Mayer

    > self-organization equals anarchy.
    You say that like it’s a bad thing 🙂 It isn’t. I wrote a response to Jim’s article, here: and I wrote in praise of anarchy.
    > The real issue is that self-organization alone is not enough.
    I agree with that, but disagree that some command-and-control is the missing ingredient. It isn’t. I believe we never need to be commanded or controlled. We need guidance. Guidance is the missing element here. Without guidance –including inspiring leadership and visioning– there is nothing to self-organize to.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Exactly. You could take over from me. It took you much less time to write that message than I did. 🙂

  • Jurgen Appelo

    No, I did not say that as if anarchy is a bad thing. Anarchy is neutral. It is neither bad nor good. The interpretation is all yours. 😉
    And I disagree that guidance is always sufficient. For some it is. More many people it isn’t. You need leadership *and* management. Leading and ruling. A carrot and a stick.

  • Tobias Mayer

    No carrots, no sticks. Each overrules the other, so it is more economical to have neither.

  • dennisstevens

    Human organizations are goal seeking organization’s (or purposeful systems). The evolutionary concepts involve huge amounts of variation where most of the variety dies off because it doesn’t fit to the environment. We need better than this in organizations.
    People in business don’t just get to do whatever they feel like doing and hope they “self-organize” successfully. They need to work collectively towards a goal that includes the making of money. I agree that the members of the organization will self-organize anyway. We should try to leverage that to improve the performance of the organization.
    A better self-organizing example is water. It flows downhill – always. In “The Next Common Sense”, Lissack and Roos talk about creating canyons, not canals. Canals have very specific boundaries and move the water where we want it. Using locks and dams takes a great deal of energy. Canyons follow the natural contour of the land. We want to establish the contour that will allow the work to flow through the organization in the most productive manner. We want to avoid locks and dams (bureaucracy)but we need to make ensure we are working together towards a common goal.

How to Change the World - free Workout - free