Self-organization - why managers should know more about it - a short introduction

I don't want to talk about it for long - many managers wonder why their team or their department always behaves so "strangely" - quite differently than expected. The problem is, even if we think we have something to say as managers (and especially as consultants), in the end they are self-organizing systems. And if you don't know how these self-organizing systems "tick" then something different comes out than you think.

Attention, most of the systems we are dealing with are also complex - that means that a 100% security that something will happen doesn´t exist. But if you ignore the self-organization, you can be sure that it goes wrong.

Note this is the first of three parts on self-organization. At the end of the article you will find the links to parts 2 and soon to 3 (but there is a link to a equivalent speach 2019-09-25 that will fill the gap)

What is self-organization?

As is so often the case, there are probably 100 definitions - I refer here to the more scientific approach of Mr. Haken and Schiepek "Synergetik" [1].

"Self-organization is a mechanism that enables almost sudden changes in the states of order in open systems consisting out of autonomous subsystems!”

It may now be natural that this feeling does not correspond to what one understands by self-organization – so I wrote this article.

And what is the concrete meaning of that?

When we think about our work, we often have to deal with teams/departments/areas - these are open systems. Something flows in - ideas/suggestions/concepts/inquiries/orders/projects and something flows out (hopefully) namely results. Furthermore, they consist of autonomous subsystems - departments/teams and above all people. And, no matter what someone claims, people are autonomous. No matter which instruction a person receives or which processes are defined - in the end every person decides every day anew whether he sticks to the instruction or the process. And if we are honest - in practice we humans often only do what makes sense to us. We love our autonomy!

Insight #1: "Almost all systems in professional life are self-organized!”

If this is the case, the second part of the definition "systems can assume new states of order almost by leaps and immediately" is also correct. And this is exactly what the managers/consultants and, interestingly enough, most of those involved want - fast and successful change processes. A state of order (or technical term order parameter) can also be a good thing - if the work flows, much is achieved and it serves a common goal. Also called "flow" - a very desirable condition.

Insight #2: "Change processes can – in a self-organized manner, run very fast and achieve good results."

The question remains, how does this work?

Here in this article I can only describe the main features - to say the essence - to give an introduction. At the end there are bibliographical references that promise further details.

At the core, however, there are only two (three) things you "have to" do in order to achieve a change of order in a self-organized system:

  1. Set the control parameter correctly - so that the autonomous subsystems have room for manoeuvre and can orient themselves in new directions.

  2. To generate a signal and thus build a feedback loop that helps the autonomous systems to do what makes sense for each individual and serves the superordinate goal - i.e. to install an order parameter.

  3. Give the system an impulse to change.

And what does that mean in concrete terms?

The control parameter is usually quite simple (not necessarily easy). In work systems, the control parameter is typically the work-in-process (WIP) - the amount of work loaded. In order to judge whether something is a control parameter (has little to do with control) the following thought experiment helps: "How does the system behave if I change something about it?" For example, I have a team that can handle 10 projects per month well. What happens if I double the amount of projects (i.e. the WIP)? Sure - hewing and stabbing, multitasking, fighting for resources up to frustration and fluctuation. This is also a state of order - a well-known one - but not particularly satisfying. Or the other way around - instead of 10 projects only 1. Then one has panic - fear of losing the job, security measures, head monopoles, knowledge is hidden and there is no cooperation to be seen. Also no asked for order condition. But if the WIP fits, then nobody is overburdened - but nobody is too burdened either and there are reserves to work on the system. Change can happen.

The easiest way to set the WIP correctly is to learn from E. Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. As a physicist, Goldratt simply realized that there is only one constraint in every system. You have to find it and never overload it - then all the rest fits. More about this in his book "Das Ziel" [2] (which is , by the way; by Jeff Bezos called as one of the three "must read" for all managers ;-)

The order parameter or signal is a bit more exciting. The signal must be generated from the element that flows e.g. project, order, story or ticket and it must be operationally useful for all and make sense, so that you voluntarily subordinate to the signal. But beware, the signal must not be generated by a single person - it must somehow be related to the overall goal and be created based on "measurements".

For projects or agile releases we usually use the fever curves from the "critical chain project management" world of E. Goldratt [3]. Simplified, this is nothing more than buffer management - every project or release always has a bit of buffer. We pull these together and place it as one buffer at shortly before the end of the project / or of the release. Every day a short check is made to see how much progress has been made and how much of the buffer is used. If the progress is greater than the buffer consumption - then it is "green". But if the buffer usage is greater than the progress, it is "red". In between a bit "yellow". That makes sense, doesn't it?

Picture - Fever curves from all over the world - agile and classic!

But it only really makes sense if you do something with it! The fever curve signal is therefore made available to everyone in the company - everyone - really everyone. The question then is, what would be the greatest benefit for everyone from this signal? It´s also clear - if they get help when their project is "red"! So the signal makes sense if you get support (without begging). It also makes sense, if you are "green", to help those with a "red" one, because you know, it can hit yourself too. So it makes sense - to distribute the resources according to the simple (and only) rule "red before yellow before green" - totally logical.

It's like traffic lights in traffic - of course nobody likes red traffic lights - but everybody knows that if you stick to red and green, you'll make faster progress than if you just drive into the intersection. This is the essence of a good signal for a robust self-organization.

The third point "the impulse" is then often nothing more than a clear declaration of leadership intent - not to overload the system any more (to set control parameters correctly) and don´t spark into the operative priority any more (let the order parameter do its work). The management is then "only" there to support and can concentrate on strategic again.

And in practice ...

...everything goes really fast. For small teams (up to about 15 people) one day is enough to make the jump and a few weeks to stabilize it. A project organization a few days more and if it is about more than 500 people - then you have to reckon with a few weeks.

Examples and details can be found in our agile written book "Management 4.0" see [4] and on the internet (just search for "Critical Chain Testimonials").

And what does the new order state bring?

Here are just a few quotes from employees who have experienced it:

  • "Finally I am allowed to work again!"
  • "Probably the most important change is "the focus". All in all, negative stress has been significantly reduced while at the same time increasing the 'intensity level'."
  • "For me as a manager and also for the project managers, the crystal-clear and up-to-the-minute overview of all (!) current projects at task level is an absolute blessing. One look is enough to see where effective action can be taken to accelerate the projects. Systematic weak points are addressed in a very transparent and target-oriented way."
  • "The motivation is enormously high ... and it is really fun to work so successfully together :)"

And what does it do for the organization?

Nobody believes that anyway - so don't read on! Project times can quickly be halved. But you can only do that by solving process problems that overlap - but it also happens in a self-organized way. If you suddenly solve a process problem together - then the output often increases by +30 to +50% and from time to time significantly more!

Why should one now deal with self-organization?

  • Self-organization is always there!
  • If you know how it works - then the changes go faster and run more safely.
  • You don't have to work against the system - the system works with you - the change becomes sustainable.
  • The participants really benefit - they are self-effective again - the glow in the eyes comes back. 
  • The organization also benefits - it gets more out of it.

But beware: the whole thing needs to be well prepared. But more about this in the next article ... ... ask me or read directly in the book "Management 4.0".


  1. H. Haken/G. Schiepek „Synergetik in der Psychologie: Selbstorganisation verstehen und gestalten“, 2010
  2. E. Goldratt/J. Cox „Das Ziel: Ein Roman über Prozessoptimierung“, 1984
  3. E. Goldratt „Die Kritische Kette: Das neue Konzept im Projektmanagement, 1997
  4. A. Oswald/W. Müller “Management 4.0: Handbook for Agile Practices”, Release 3, 2019