Misconceptions of Self-Organization

This post is a premiere because it is the first english text on this blog. On the one hand I wanted to widen the audience for the idea of Corporate Democracy and on the other hand this is meant to be a friendly shout out for my friends of the Metaphorum! For sure people who are used to think in systems will not be surprised by ‚my‘ findings, but maybe some of my German „NewWork“ fellows might feel a certain connotation of inconvenience.

„Hurray! We are finally self-organized!“

From a systemic point of view it is quite funny to hear people claim that they have changed towards a self-organized management by implementing methods and processes like SCRUM, Scaled Agile Frameworks, Kanban and so on. Please get me right – I do like the mentioned tools, but all they do is to structure the self-organizing processes which would happen anyhow. The joke is: We are already self-organized, even in a hierarchical top-down context! The existing paradigm dominates our selection of tools, values and structural models.

Every complex system is self-organized

In short: if a complex system would not be self-organized, it could not sustain in a dynamic environment. No part of the system can do all the mandatory tasks to maintain the viability of itself (see also Ashbys Law of Requisite Variety). Responsibility, functions and expertise must be distributed in a networked way to be able to fulfill its purpose.

Sharing of resources in an internal „value chain“ is the normal state of every complex organization. Therefore it is not the question IF we share resources, but HOW we do it. As Stafford Beer stated many times: What is the price that we have to pay if we use the old paradigm?  

Obviously self-organization is not a value itself, but a natural phenomena which can be observed in physical, chemical, biological and social systems. As far as I have perceived the discussions in the German NewWork scene, this knowledge is not fundamentally known. But there are more misconceptions.

Collaboration on Eye Level

It seems to me that the discourse in Germany is focused on the whole field of „collaboration on eye level“. This implies topics like mindfulness, trust, respect, openness, diversity and many more. Indeed it is very important to address these aspects in order to enable the potential of organizations (in a humanistic sense) and create better work places, full of meaning and happiness. But even in this area it is IMHO important to understand, that this phenomena is nothing new and happened gazillion times in human history.

Pop Consulting – old wine in new bottles

Thanks to Siggi Becker the term „pop consulting“ entered my word library. The two of us were discussion different methodological trends in the Innovation industry like Design Thinking, Pretotyping, Effectuation, etc. when he suddenly said: „I am annoyed from this Pop Consulting business out there. They take ‚old‘ well known knowledge and put a few nice graphics around it and sell it as the new hot shit. It’s embarrassing.“ I laughed out loud and confirmed his point of view, because obviously every mayor „sellable“ new theory must contain nowadays loops (and some of them are even nested – rocket science! ;))

But beside this commercial aspect there are also other insights which seem to be not so widely known in the NewWork scene.

The German Wehrmacht and its impact on modern military leadership

He continued: „People are for instance not aware about the fact that the common picture of leadership principles in modern armies is simply wrong. The military structure misleads towards a picture of a total top-down management. But instead of this values like trust, respect and diversity are essential when one wants to lead a team in a very complex and extremely deadly environment.“

I continued to interrogate him and map his insights about strategic military leadership towards the systems of the Viable System Model. This made is clear to me why e.g. the US Army undergoes a transformation process, which focusses on self-empowered officers and soldiers which are able to make their own decision in combat situations. Since we live know in a multipolar world with asymmetric proportions, brute force is just not enough. In terms of Ashbys Law the US Army has to transform its ability to fulfill its defined purpose.

It is therefore in the armies deepest interest to develop the soldiers skills to cope with the new geopolitical challenges (which the US co-created in the first place, but that is another story). They need a „thinking combat unit“, simply because one can not plan an attack up the the last detail. Abilities like Situational Awareness and the right to question authority are mandatory (within constraints, but at least its possible! – do we find this as a practise in the economic sector?).

Siggi pointed out that American military strategists till today admire the way the Germans organized their warfare and how it was possible to overrun so fast half of Europe with relatively limited resources. One can find many German Terms in the US Army like „Schwerpunkt“, „Fingerspitzengefühl“ or „Auftrag“. There is an irritatingly wise quote that Chet Richards once captured:

Implicit Communication

The German organizational climate encouraged people to act, and to take the initiative, even during the terror and chaos of war. Within this climate, the principles of mutual trust and intuitive competence make much of implicit communication, as opposed to detailed, written instructions. The Germans felt they had no alternative. As the Chief of the Prussian General Staff in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, observed in the mid-1800, the greater risk is the loss of time that comes from always trying to be explicit. Or as General Gaedeke commented about his unit in WWII, if he had tried to write everything down, „we would have been too late with every attack we ever attempted.“

Chet Richards, Certain to Win, P.59

Of course it is nothing new that military thinking is part of the economic system – all these terms like C-something-Officer, war on talents, etc. reflect the strong paradigmatic relationship between war and economy.

But even one of the most popular agile methods is heavily influenced by military thinking: SCRUM. Some people know that Jeff Sutherland was a jet fighter pilot during the Vietnam war – and that he got his military education in Westpoint. At that time one of the most influential strategic thinkers was John Boyd, who is well known for his OODA loop. Here comes now the point: The fundamental mindset of SCRUM is the OODA loop! It is about gaining tactical advantages in complex or chaotic situations by having a solid strategic frame work. So it might confuse the reader even more, that Boyd itself was hard on ideologues:

“Don’t be a member of Clausewitz’s school because a lot has happened since 1832,” he would warn his audiences, “and don’t be a member of Sun Tzu’s school because an awful lot has happened since 400 BC.”

We should not be members of Boyd’s school, either: “If you’re going to regard this stuff as dogma,” he would say at some point in his briefings, “you’d be better served to take it out and burn it.” Why, then, spend time studying his works today? Boyd’s (1987a) answer was not to memorize the specific principles of any strategy — including his — but to follow his larger example, to achieve what he called “intuitive competence” in creating, employing and dealing with the novelty that permeates human life (Boyd, 1992).

Chet Richards, Boyd’s OODA Loop (It’s Not What You Think)

At the end of this sequence I want to add, that I am in no way a fan of military action and it annoys me that mankind still acts as if we need armies.. And Siggi was a conscientious objector; he never served in the German military service. I am writing about this in order to find homologies and meta-patterns of organization.

This leads me to the final point of this post: The distinction between the function of Self-Organization and the purpose of Corporate Democracy.

Self-organization is Self-Organization,
Corporate Democracy is … 

Andreas Zeuch started an experiment to define Corporate Democracy as follows:

„Corporate Democracy is defined as leadership and design of organizations by all interested members in order to fulfill the organizations purpose. It is a commitment towards Self-Organization, which is not sorely dedicated towards maximizing profits.

Therefore democratic organizations pay attention for the common welfare of all stakeholders, while producing and distributing goods and services.“

Now I hope that it is clear why the purpose is the ultimate question in our quest for better workplaces and forms of cooperation. The purpose is from my point of view the true „social glue“ which keeps a goal-seaking-construct together. So nothing against trust, respect and so on – of course they are important – but only in the sense of a „vehicle“. I dare to claim that the most important variety that one has to manage is the proper diffusion of purpose within the system. One needs to balance the interests of the whole and the individuals and offer meaning, which can be (only by free will) coupled by the people of the organization.

But the question about meaning in this multidimensional context is IMHO still not enough to cover the complex term of purpose, so I would like to add the aspect of vision. It seems to me as if the vision is the foundation of the purpose and therefore it is advisable to start always from this point when we want to create a better future. So I am actually interested in finding and extending the common thinking frame, which is a mayor constraint in developing mutual visions. „Why?“ is a superb systemic question, but we need dito a „What for?“ in a meta-goal sense. Like Teilhard de Jardins Omega Point.

System 5 and Ethos

I assume that the ones who are familiar with the Viable System Model have been waiting for a remark regarding the System 5, since evidently I have written about the purpose of the „ultimate authority“ in every viable organization. For the ones who are new to the model in one sentence: The System 5 works on an „Ethical level“ ins terms of normative regulation of the whole. Or as we say in Germany: The fish stinks from the head.

This is one of the many insights I find so useful when working with the VSM. The model offers an integrated approach which allocates the „Ethical Atmosphere-Creators“ on the highest level within the models structure – from my point of view a very wise observation and deduction of Stafford Beer.

Conclusion and some tips

Stay relaxed regarding self-organization, it’s anyhow happening all the time. And don’t mix Self-Organization and Corporate Democracy, the one is a function, the other thing is a Purpose. Focus at first on the vision and find your purpose (talents!), which gives you resilience and the courage to move forward. Deal with the concept of viability and draw your own conclusions. But please be sure that you don’t count respect, trust, etc. as visionary points – values are just vehicles. Ask yourself: What for you want to be „respect“ a value? What is your historic time frame? Next week, next month, year, decade, century, …?

Just to let you know: I operate with a 500 year plan. Sounds crazy? Yes – of course – it must be crazy, because otherwise it is just a goal. Like an appointment in the calendar. 😉



Picture credit: Wikipedia, commons free

3 Kommentare
  1. Benjamin Taylor
    Benjamin Taylor says:

    Excellent – well argued and consistent. I wish more people were saying and sharing these good points.

    I’ve been trying to point out every chance I can that:
    a) attacks on ‚command and control‘ are fundamentally based on a misunderstanding: command and control as originally conceived is intended to be a structured organisational approach to maximise discretion within clear boundaries at the lowest possible level in an organisation. People just ‚hate hierarchy‘ and are attacking ‚badly managed, centralised, destructive controlling management‘ – the latter an entirely worthy goal!
    b) the idea that we can dispense with hierarchy and with ‚control‘ in organisational life is utter nonsense; in ’new‘
    (of course, none of these forms of organisation are actually ’new‘ – we’ve had co-operatives for hundreds of hears, ’self-managed‘ teams were ‚discovered‘ post-War (and at other times) – http://managementhelp.org/blogs/consulting-skills/2012/06/26/history-of-organization-development-part-5-of-6-%E2%80%94-wilfred-bion-and-eric-trist-the-birth-of-self-managed-work-groups/

    People seem to be unable to understand that either emergent properties go ungoverned and uncontrolled, or there *is* a control system. Apparently agent-centred or self-managed systems only have the governance embedded in the rule system – which has some implications (positive and negative) but is a difference really of degree, not of type.

    I could say more but I’m only really restating your arguments. There *is* something interesting in ’new‘ ways of organising work – and something even more deeply interesting in truly old ways, based around the operations of ecosystems and ‚Commons‘, with shared use and governance by complex, multi-layered systems of mutual control and obligations – but pop consulting – often exortations to better without predictive power – are only leading people into the wilderness with no visible means of support. A real understanding of the ‚differences‘ between what currently exists, what might exist, and what is being proposed, is necessary – and should be grounded, as you’ve done, in a real understanding of the history behind the ideas.

    • Mark Lambertz
      Mark Lambertz says:

      Dear Benjamin, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I could not agree more 🙂

      Especially in Germany it seems as if people have forgotten the endless discussions in the late 60s/early 70s during the student protests. Instead of understanding the functional purpose of rules, some people are still debating if we need rules at all. Because ‚organization will emerge somehow‘ … and then people wonder why ‚it‘ is not working.

      Wish you a nice start into the week!


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