I’ve blogged before about my own powerful, visceral experiences being part of and with self-organizing groups. When I began to study these groups in earnest years ago, I noticed that each time I met with one (my own or others) I had a similar experience. I was reminded of images of old war veterans I’d seen in parades and on TV during memorial events. I recall watching these veterans, together after decades and sometimes lifetimes apart, and feeling with them—not just observing from the outside—but actually feeling the instant connection when they met again, the instant happiness, the instant awareness of how lucky they are to be together, and the experience of being loved and respected for exactly who each one is as a person. The feeling is as real as the evening over the holiday break that my sister’s husband doubled over in the parking lot after having eaten way too much at an amazing Thai restaurant, and in that moment, I grew nauseous myself as I snapped the photo, despite our giggling at him and at ourselves (see photo).
This is the experience of self-organizing groups. Not the nauseous part–that was a bit of holiday exhuberance run amok–but the connection, awareness, happiness, gratitude, and experience of being valued and respected for exactly who you are parts—at least in the 27 groups I’ve studied so far. So for me as an individual, today that’s an important personal benefit of being part of self-organizing groups:
As these groups I make deep, lasting personal connections with people who I continue to care about and respect no matter how much time goes by and regardless of the distance, life experiences, and individual ideas that separate us. I continue to be supported and helped by these people, as needed, and I continue to do the same for them, long after the apparent lifetime of the group itself.
As a researcher, I can say that the personal benefits that matter most vary widely by individual group member. Any top 10 list for self-organizing groups feels a little bit silly to me, sort of like coming up with a “top 10 benefits of oceans” list. That said, looking across all the observations, interviews, focus groups, videos, audio tapes, photos, comments, and feedback as a whole, today I see that a “top 10 benefits” list has emerged. The list appears to be comprised entirely of the things that take group members themselves by surprise. Top 10 personal benefits of self-organizing group participation (so far) include:
- Experiencing being in sync with the others (for some, to the point of being able to know or read each others’ minds)
- Experiencing a greater awareness of patterns
- Experiencing an expanded intelligence (people feel that they have access to more intelligence together than they do as individuals)
- Experiencing themselves as part of a greater whole (for example, their whole formal team, department, division, organization, community, city, field, industry, or planet, depending on the person)
- Experiencing an increased ability to learn (for some coming to see parts of the work or experience as being in a flow state–even extended flow states of many weeks, months, or years)
- Experiencing an increased ability to break down hierarchical reporting structures within the organizations that group members are part of
- Experiencing the ability to finish each others’ sentences, expand each others’ ideas with minimal context given, and share tasks with minimal or no discussion or planning
- Experiencing the ability to work faster and better than they could as individuals
- More rapidly forgetting difficulties and also forgetting who among them thought of what (attributing ideas to each other, to the group, and to others)
- Receiving and giving help moving on from the group and its work when the time was right
As a group member, I can say that unlike with other types of groups I’ve been part of—especially at work—the personal benefits stay with me. I don’t lose them after the group’s lifetime. It’s like riding a bike. When I think about or get back together with group members, we become the group again. When together, we tease each other as if no time has passed, we’re surprised to find ourselves still “in sync,” we’re still interested in helping each other, we can still brainstorm a solution in the moment without much or any planning, and—with those I was/am closest to—we can still finish each other’s sentences. What we were together, we continue to be, apparently regardless of the time that has passed. This makes me happy because it reminds me that I am more than the individual self I usually imagine myself to be. So that’s my own number 1 benefit: these groups teach and then continue to remind me that I am much more than a small, individual self. And thanks to my time with my self-organizing groups, I find myself more willing to imagine and see similar potential and possibilities in other people, groups, communities, and organizations that I encounter. Given the connected nature of our world, it seems to me that the personal benefits gained in self-organizing groups–because they last–cannot help but become public benefits as well.