The Way We Work
November 1, 2012 by Amy Sept

In 1996, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers described what they called self-organization: the evolution of a company into a living system that is flexible, intelligent, and can adapt easily to change.

"Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change," they wrote in The Irresistible Future of Organizing.

Nearly two decades later, this organizational capacity for change is even more critical; the new business frontier has emerged as what some business leaders call chaos. "When businesspeople search for the right forecast...no credible long-term picture emerges," wrote Robert Safian earlier in Fast Company. "The next decade or two will be defined by more fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm: if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern."

As described on the oDesk blog in the past, in order to respond to this uncertainty the workplace of the future needs to be creative and adaptable and focused on results over process. In many ways, forming this kind of work environment means growing your business as a living organization and empowering your individual team members.

Lead With Intent

According to Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, self-organizing works because the individuals involved are able to form a collective. Observing social relations between insects, termites and even drivers in traffic jams, they noted that order emerges—even in the absence of leadership—because of a shared objective.

"Members develop connections with one another," they wrote. "Each determines its behavior based on information about what its neighbors are doing and what the collective purpose is. From such simple conditions, working communities emerge, self-organizing from local connections into global patterns and processes."

From an organizational point of view, supporting this kind of ground-up collaboration squashes the traditional management pyramid; layered hands-on management isn’t as relevant in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere business environment.

Instead, every individual is empowered to act. Organizational leadership becomes focused on intent and clearly communicating global goals and vision, and the role of the manager becomes one of mentor, connector, and advocate.

Help Team Members Find Meaning

"If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat and tears."
– Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why

A workforce of empowered individuals can be an intimidating thing; you have to trust that your team members will make decisions that support the organization.

That’s where being able to clearly communicate your vision becomes critical—first you need to find people who believe what you believe, and then you need to show them the link between what they do and the organization's success.

"A company can spend lots of time developing a perfect strategy," wrote Jacque Vilet on human resources blog TLNT. "But it means nothing if it is unable to 'cascade' that strategy down to the day-to-day work of its employees."

Further, drawing a line between day-to-day work and overall vision gives people a sense of purpose—something that will stop people from walking out the door. A survey by Deloitte found that even in an uncertain economy, people want meaningful work that challenges them and makes good use of their skills and abilities.

Leading an organization with intent creates an environment where individuals can self-organize and self-direct—an environment that will prepare your company to compete as the future of work unfolds.

Do you think this kind of empowered workforce is the future of business, or is it more of an ideal? Please add your thoughts to the comments below.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor

As Managing Editor at oDesk, Amy Sept has more than a decade of communications experience and a passion for helping nonprofits and small businesses succeed. She is an experienced freelancer and the founder of Nimbyist Communications, a marketing and public relations business specializing in nonprofit promotions. She has previously studied both journalism and music, and before launching Nimbyist was manager of communications for a mid-sized… read more

  • Dave

    A non profit situation is the perfect place for Amy based on this.

    • http://www.nimbyist.com Amy Sept

      Hi Dave - Thanks for your comment, but I'm not quite sure what you mean. Do you think this kind of business model is unrealistic, or only possible within the nonprofit sector? I would be interested to have you expand on your thoughts! ~ Amy

      • http://www.facebook.com/Auburn218 Patrick Sampollo

        I'd think this is already happening in a lot of progress-drive or "forward-thinking" units/teams.

        Like what this article is also hinting at...everything (life, society, the uni/multiverses) is self-organizing. That's just the natural tendency of everything...Personally, I would think the opposite (meaning: centrally-organizing - or the master of puppets type of running businesses) is actually the ideal. :) It just can't be done in the truest sense.

        • http://www.nimbyist.com Amy Sept

          Hi Patrick – Thank you for weighing in! I agree, and think this kind of approach is being adopted by many businesses to one degree or another; I think they have to in order to adapt.

          I'm interested to know, why do you see the opposite as the ideal? That traditional top-down approach doesn't seem to work very well – particularly in larger organizations.
          ~ Amy

          • http://www.surelockhomes.co.uk Khalid

            Hi Amy

            We are living in a constant state of flux and as long as new technology exists we will always be required to stay on our feet in order to stay ahead of the competition. Therefore its essential that organisations utilize all resources (people) and embrace creative and innovative ideas.

            The old way is no longer the model that we can follow in fact there are no set models and companies should be seen as fluid and ever evolving cell run by a lean, talented team that's hungry to learn, achieve and prosper.....In short Amy I agree with you and the Game is on....!

          • http://www.nimbyist.com Amy Sept

            "...as long as new technology exists we will always be required to stay on our feet in order to stay ahead of the competition."

            Isn't that the truth! I like your enthusiasm, Khalid, and really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you! ~Amy