Infrastructure for Self-Organisation
Modern society is made possible by a long string of infrastructures. They provide us with easy access to electricity, water, information, entertainment, transportation, child care, money, etc. Inside this framework, modern life operates in all its complexity. We act as free agents to make a living, survive, be successful and hopefully enjoy a good and healthy life.
Inside these integrated infrastructures we each go about our own business, we all take our own decisions every day and in some ‘miraculous way’ the intricate web of society seems to work and produce a basically good life for most of us. And it does so without any central controlling agent. Modern science calls this the ‘power of self-organisation’. Adam Smith called it the ‘invisible hand of the free market’.
So, how about infrastructures in companies? Are they well designed to release the full power of self-organisation? Or do they give first priority to central control? This is a dilemma with which many companies struggle. Owners and boards demand that the CEO stays in control, sets ambitious goals and delivers according to plan. But the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) (länk: http://complexitylabs.io/vuca-introduction/) of today’s business environment makes this approach outdated – it is no longer a sure-fire recipe for success.
On the other hand, the traditional Command & Control approach to management tends to get in the way of much needed speed, adaptability and local initiatives. Slow hierarchies make s companies act sluggishly. Decisions taken far away from the source of the problems and opportunities often miss the mark. Tough goal setting and unforgiving detailed follow-up systems make people stay away from risk-taking and creative initiatives. Traditional management gets in the way of releasing this major ‘sleeping asset’ – the power of free agents acting in a self-organised, but well integrated manner.
But, you may argue, is this really true? Isn’t control an absolute necessity in companies? Yes, of course! We are not talking about a simple ‘either or’ choice. Still there is massive evidence that too many companies have yet to find a good dynamic balance between central control and a variety of well-informed self-organised initiatives across the company. Let’s take an example from another area to illustrate our point.
The fairly new science of complex systems and self-organisation found an interesting application in a common infrastructure, our traffic system. More specifically it ignited the shift away from traffic lights to roundabouts. You may believe that traffic lights would surely be more effective and safe, but practice has proven that roundabouts beat traffic lights on both accounts. Smoother traffic flows, but also fewer accidents. It seems that people can actually be trusted to act in an intelligent way, with respect for other drivers, in a highly complex situation – and it works. Today’s city planners and traffic system engineers often choose to trust self-organisation, rather than the centralised control gained from traffic lights.
However, it is interesting to note that infrastructures that are designed to shape the behaviour of many people must include both objective/hard components as well as subjective/soft components. Obviously, in the case of the roundabouts the physical road structures must be well designed, with helpful traffic signs, lane lines and nothing disturbing drivers’ sight lines. But a ‘rule book’ that people have adopted is also needed, a combination of formal laws and informal rules like courtesy and politeness. And of course some basic training at a Drivers School.
So, how about in companies? Can self-organisation really be trusted to deliver the goods? Well, yes and no! If you just let go and allow people to do whatever they believe is needed, you will probably end up with an unproductive chaos. But, if you carefully craft an infrastructure designed specifically to release and channel the power of self-organisation in line with company strategies, our answer is unequivocally YES!
If you set up work structures and provide tools that mesh well together with a set of shared cultural habits and some basic skill training, you suddenly have a company where everyone is on their toes, ready to interact intelligently with an ever-changing and increasingly complex business landscape. By doing so you have gained a hard to copy competitive advantage.
If you believe you have ‘sleeping assets’ in this area, you may want to read the other articles in this series:
- Speed, Trust and Infrastructure
- Infrastructures for Strategic Navigation
- Infrastructures for Frontline Teams
- Infrastructures for Complex Workflows
- Infrastructures for Dynamic Leadership
- Infrastructure for Self-Organisation