Lessons in Self-Organizing Social Systems

Last week, I had a chance to reflect on eleven years of the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering.

A bit of background on RFG: I started the Gathering in 2002 with Diana Larsen and Norm Kerth.  Each year, the different set of volunteers organize the Gathering.  Continuity comes from linking the immediate past organizer, the current year organizer, and the next year organizer as part of the organizing group.  Most years that’s worked reasonably well.

We’ve used light weight planning and a market place for sessions from the start. But over the years, I and other organizers learned more about self-organizing systems.  We lightened our planning even more. We planed the parts that need planning– the venue, and supplies, for example. Those aspects that don’t need close planning emerge organically.  But what emerges depends on setting the initial conditions, and attending to containers, differences and exchanges.

Based on a decade of experiments and experience, some considerations for setting the conditions for self-organizing social systems.

1. Initial conditions shape interactions for the life of the group.  Small actions can have a big effect, particularly those that amplify the sorts of differences that create division.

2. When structures and espoused values contradict each other, people sense the incongruity–and respond, often in incongruent ways.

3. The more people in implied (“organizers”) leadership positions take responsibility for the decisions and welfare of the group, the less responsibility the group will take for their own decisions and welfare.

As you think about the teams and groups that you work with, how do these factors show up?  How might you apply them now?


2 thoughts on “Lessons in Self-Organizing Social Systems

    1. First: Most people act with good intentions–but may not foresee how their actions will affect the group. Often the effects can’t be foreseen. We stand in uncertainty, always. AND, some choices about initial conditions have predictable effects.

      One year the organizers arranged for Norm to give a “talk” prior to opening the market place. Later, when Norm put a session on the market place, several participants inferred that since he had one “special session,” this was also a special session. Those who had put sessions in the same time slot quietly moved them so they wouldn’t conflict with Norm’s session. I heard several people state they felt obligated to attend Norm’s session because he had special status.

      I am sure Norm and the organizer had good intentions, and didn’t intend to quash others’ participation. But the “special session” amplified status differences and shaped interactions for the rest of the week.

Comments are closed.