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Self-organising: The impact of mature leadership in co-organising

In this blog Amara’s CEO and co-founder Heidi Gutekunst writes about the impact of leadership maturity for the success in implementing self-organising structures. She makes the case that oftentimes those who say that self-organising is “a nice idea but does not work in our organisation”, might be missing an integral part of the puzzle: vertical development of the top leadership.

“That interplay (between individual and organisational development) is fascinating  and has been really mostly overlooked” 

Frederic Laloux 

When we introduced the idea self-organising in Finland in 2015, in the Amara AdVenture conference we were met with a lot of scepticism. We had brought together 100+ customers mainly from corporations in a collaborative, open space conference. Two organisations brought their whole management team, and the rest of the attendees were leaders from a variety of industries. People were very curious about reinventing organisations, yet, holding the assumption that “It’s an intriguing concept, but it would never work in our organisation”.  

2 years prior to our conference I had made an attempt to set up structures that would support less hierarchy and bring forth more fulfilment and liberation for all in the digital service design agency where I was working as a managing director for. Later I came across Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations and remember sitting in front of the fireplace at our cottage, smiling and saying “yes, exactly” out loud as I read it with excitement. This led to my engagement in the global community that created the first Wiki about self-organising. Frederic kindly agreed to speak at our event, in conversation with Amara’s co-founder Bill Torbert, as a gesture of gratitude for Bill taking the time to read and give feedback about the book before it was published.

Two years later the idea of self-organising, for which Frederic uses the term Teal, landed in Finland with an enthusiastic group of people, similar to the hubs all over the planet, wanting to promote the idea of self-management. Now, we see more and more companies on the journey towards less hierarchy and a purpose driven approach – a fresh breeze in the corporate world that has shown low numbers in employee engagement and trust, which in turn impacts the effectiveness of organisations negatively.  

Personally, I have felt reluctance to engage in the “Teal communities”, though my heart goes out to support the initiative to change how we look at and engage in work, because of the focus on “implementing the structures” and almost no emphasis on the interplay between individual and organisational development among the “top leadership”. Frederic also emphasised this need for more attention on the individual development of the top leadership, as he talked about reinventing organisations towards more self-organising structures in our conference in 2015.

Frederic’s research show that “there are two – and only two – necessary conditions for organisations to make the leap to Teal structures and practices:  

  1. Top leadership: the founder or top leader must view the world through Teal lenses; she or he must have grown into that perspective.
  2. Ownership: owners of the organisation and their representatives must also understand and embrace a Teal worldview. Experience shows that board members who “don’t get it” can temporarily give a Teal leader free rein when their methods deliver outstanding results. But when the organisation hits a rough patch or faces a critical choice, owners will want to get things under control in the only way that makes sense to them – through top down, hierarchical control mechanisms.” 

The importance of individual Teal capacity, or what we call Transforming action logic (Torbert), is something I have had chances to witness first-hand in a number of organisations on the Teal journey and overall, in transforming organisations. In our Amara work, we see this strong link; when the individuals in position of power evolve to later stages of development, we will also see the results in behaviour and financial performance more widely in the company. These observations are backed by a vast amount of academic research. Why is the emphasis on the development of the top leader and board almost non-existent? Most organisational transformations fail and the same goes for the attempts to lead transformations towards self- or co-organising structures. The explanations for why “Teal does not work” are many and it always makes me curious to know how much effort there actually has been on developing the “top leader(s)” and what, in fact, the action logic of the people whose main role it is to have a view of the system, the whole organisation and the ecosystem in which it operates in is. 

What thinking brings us to a place where there is little emphasis on developing the “top leadership”? In our work we often notice the notion and thinking that “the key to success is for others to change, when “They” change we will be better off”. To be able to take down our guards and take a look at ourselves, how we actually want to think and operate and where there may be gaps between how we want to think and behave and how we actually think and behave, we need a safe and trusting space, where there is time and a non-judgemental environment to inquire and look at ourselves with curiosity and empathy. These environments or spaces are rare anywhere and especially in organisations, where action is more valued than inquiry.  

I wonder how often people in power positions are confronted with the question about one’s own development and met with feedback, not only about tasks but also about behaviours? Well, let’s do a little experiment; think about a person in power, your boss or the person with the responsibility to hold the whole system, if you are working in a self-organising organisation. Notice what happens for you when you think of offering behavioural feedback and suggesting for this person to develop in service of the organisation? If you are lucky, it may be a conversation you already have, but I suspect that the majority would think this is an uncomfortable situation. How many of the internal and external consultants working to support organisations developing towards self- or co-organising structures actually engage in these conversations with the owner/board/top management?  

The lens through which the “top leadership” looks at the world – their action logic  – will significantly impact how they lead, use power, exercise timely action and facilitate change moment-to-moment. My advocacy is for change agents, top leaders and people supporting the top leaders to go through these transformations to shift the focus. The change starts with me.  

“We need a leader that has espoused a certain worldview to then be able to make  these kinds of structures happen.”

Frederic Laloux    

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