This question has been part of my work for five years, since the day I walked away from my first self-org work group determined never to work any other way but as part of these amazing groups. I’ve learned that individuals and self-organizing work groups can foster self-organizing work groups. Here’s how.

How individuals foster self-organizing work groups

In the 17 groups I’ve studied so far, each individual who joins:

  1. Experiences a difficulty and recognizes their personal limitations as an individual
  2. Recognizes something that they find personally valuable in somebody else—something both similar to and different from themselves. Note: It appears that step 1 or step 2 can happen first, depending on the person, but that both happen within all group members.
  3. Experiences a desire to work with that somebody else to simultaneously better serve themselves and the people who matter most to them as individuals
  4. Informally talk with the other(s) who they believe would best serve themselves and the people who matter most to them as individuals
  5. Stick together and move in the same general direction

Each group member has a different-but-related reason for creating and joining the group for themselves, and each goes through this similar process in creating and joining the group. The group doesn’t start for each group member until they start it for themselves, within themselves.

How self-organizing work groups foster self-organizing work groups

These groups foster other self-organizing work groups simply by being themselves. Many nearby others are drawn to the groups’ visible energy, enthusiasm, laughter, honesty, and growing fearlessness and see something of themselves in the group. Some work with the group. Some self-organize at the group level for themselves. Some do both. As a group member/researcher, twice I’ve observed three or more new self-org work groups form to support the work of the group that I was studying, and I watched an entire organization change as a result. Who changed the organization? Everyone did. Who knew that? The self-organizing work group members could see it, as could many nearby others and people personally close to group members. These people became leaders as a result. And from my vantage point, all (when I asked) or most (when I observed) became highly interested in working this way again.

The groups I’ve studied and been part of:

  1. Recognize themselves as groups first and as individuals second and act accordingly
  2. Value difference above similarity (or at least both to the same extent)
  3. Value learning above expertise (or at least both to the same extent) and learn from themselves
  4. Aren’t afraid to be themselves
  5. Refuse to work any other way

How to foster self-organizing work groups

There are three options I can see today:

  • Option 1: Recognize yourself as an individual, and do what individuals do (see above)
  • Option 2: Recognize yourself as self-organizing work groups, and do what these groups do (see above)
  • Option 3: As an individual, act like a self-organizing work group (see above), wait, and watch what happens. Here we draw group members to ourselves until the day we notice we’ve actually become a SOWG.

I do all three. All three work. Option 2 involves the least amount of individual angst for me.