Self-organizing work groups value collective spontaneity over individual ideas and planning (or at least both to a similar extent). For me, there’s just no other way of working that’s as interesting, rewarding, fun, and impactful. The tradeoff, though, is that I can’t individually control/plan my way into a self-organizing work group the way I individually planned my way into groups in the past. To become part of a group that values collective spontaneity over individual planning, I’ve learned that I have to prioritize “spontaneous Lori” above “planning Lori.” And I have to actually listen to spontaneous Lori, God help me.Rehearsal group

I’ve done this enough times now that I’m recognizing patterns in what happens. Here are my own internal indicators. From the very beginning:

  1. I’m drawn to the person/group:
    • I notice and appreciate overlap in our ideas/work/selves. I meet a person/group, hear their ideas or see them in action, and I think to myself “Great idea! That’s my idea too!” or “Great work! That’s like my work!”
    • I notice and appreciate difference in our ideas/work/selves. Their knowledge/skill set/way of being is different from mine (today often dramatically different). They demonstrate passion for an area that I am definitely NOT passionate about but that I still see as important. I think to myself, for example, “If I worked with this person/group, then they could entirely handle __________, and I really would never have to worry about that again. Woo hoo!” The blank is whatever knowledge/skill set/work they would love to do and that I’m not as interested in doing.
  2. My energy level goes up when I’m with them. I immediately sense (and eventually consciously recognize) that:
    • This person/group allows me to be myself while also stretching me, and I do the same for them
    • I would be a better __________ working with them than on my own. Here the blank could be any number of things—better person, listener, organizer, consultant, researcher, business owner, teacher, speaker, writer, dancer, learner, friend, negotiator, communicator, etc.—whatever I see in them that I intuitively recognize that I could be better at myself
  3. I imagine that we’d enjoy working together and challenge each other. This can be with one other person or whole group I just met or with at least one of the people in an existing group. With my first few self-org work groups, being drawn to people was far more about what I could imagine us accomplishing together than about whether or not I thought we’d enjoy working together. However, since enjoying working with the group AND being stretched by the group seem to always be results of working as these groups (28 studied groups and counting), today I recognize that these elements—at least in some tiny way—must be present from the beginning. For me, “imagining enjoying working together” is not at all the same thing as thinking that working with the person/group would be easy. If I want my work to be challenging and enjoyable, I have to surround myself with people who I enjoy being with and who challenge me as well. Today, in my self-org groups, I see that I personally value “enjoy being with” above “challenge” and in my self-organizing work groups, the opposite is true.
  4. I want to spend more time with this person/group so much that I personally take action to do so. I look them up online and in person. Eventually we schedule time to talk, and we talk via email, phone, Skype, or face to face. Note: If you’re swamped beyond belief, another option here is to file away the face and name of the person and to remember “I want to spend more time with this person at some point.”

These indicators appear to be a two-way street. That is, only if the person/group I meet experiences similar indicators with me are we becoming a self-organizing work group.

Tips from my own experience

  • Patience is a virtue. Self-organizing work group members are worth waiting for and sometimes I do have to wait. Once together, though, we rapidly become a catapult that hurls our work, ideas, careers, and friendships farther and faster than we could imagine as individuals.
  • Sometimes patience is for the birds. I can wait for new people/groups to show up, yes, but I can also put myself into situations where I’m more likely to meet new SOWG members. One good way to do this is to participate in more social activities and experiences that I enjoy (work related or not, in person or online, the important part seems to be that I enjoy the collective experience). An even faster approach is to recognize that there are already people in my life with whom I’ve had these experiences.  When I recognize that I’ve experienced indicators 1, 2, and/or 3 above with someone already—no matter where and how it happened—I reach out to them.
  • With self-organizing work group members, time doesn’t matter. If I experienced the first three indicators with someone, I can contact them out of the blue months, years, and even decades later and tell them I’d like to talk about potentially working together. If they had a similar experience with me, they will make the time to talk further.
  • With self-organizing work group members, status matters relatively little. From my perspective today, even big important muckity mucks at the so called “top” of their organizations, disciplines, and fields will take personal action to reach out and respond to potential self-organizing group members. If I reach out to someone and a go-between (such as an administrative assistant, intern, or graduate assistant) is the first person to respond back, I know that this person did not recognize me as a potential self-organizing group member and that it likely isn’t worth my valuable time to reach out further this moment. Self-organizing group members will give you their time—from the very beginning—because they can already see in you what you can see in them. My own exception to this rule* comes when I reach out to people working in other countries and of other cultures where there are different norms and expectations around status. I may not recognize what “status matters relatively little” looks like to them, and until I do, it would be silly to make assumptions.
  • I pay attention to “happy accidents” If I didn’t have the awareness or time to recognize a potential self-organizing work group member the first time we met, I eventually run into them again. This has happened to me several times in the past few years—to the point that I’m now more comfortable with the somewhat scary word synchronicity** than with the word accident. Happy accidents or coincidences or synchronicity—or whatever you want to call them—appear to matter more when you are living to bring forth a world in which collective spontaneity trumps individual planning and ideas. And if you’re seeking to become part of a self-organizing work group, then that, my friend, is what you’re already doing.

* Actually, if I’m deeply convinced that someone is a self-organizing work group member, I’ll toss out any rule—including all those I created for myself—just to open the chance to work with that person.

**If synchronicity is too “woo woo” for you, please just pretend that I stuck with the term accident. The experience itself matters far more than the language.