I interviewed Dr. Lori Kane of Collective Self, LLC, in December 2009 for the Self-Management Institute. Here is the complete interview. [Editor’s Note: subsequent to this interview, Lori co-authored the book Different Work: Moving from I Should to I Love My Work].
DK: Okay, we are on. So, Lori, can you just tell us your story? How did you acquire your passion for self-organized work-groups?
LK: Well, about six years ago, now, I was part of a grass-roots group of employees that got – that brought about major changes in our organization, in our very large, global, pain-in-the-butt organization. And it took us two years, but we ended-up changing the way our division planned its products. We fostered an organizational – a reorganization of the division, the creation of a new formal team, the hiring of new people. And near the end of the – my time with that group, which is about a two year time period, I was lucky enough that I had started my doc program, and I was reading a book, and I came across the word “self-organizing-group.” I think it was Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization.” And I was, like, “That’s what we are.” You know, “That’s me.” And so, I decided to conduct my – my doctoral dissertation on the subject. And for me, the real passion came not from the results we got for the organization, which – well, part of it came from there, because those results were nice and they got us recognized in the division, then across the organization, and then out into the industry that we were a part of.
But, we – we personally started seeing benefits that none of us had imagined, and none of us had intended or, as individuals, brought into being. We started to be able to make decisions and take actions that were in sync with each other, we would learn after the fact. There were five of us in this group. We could think and move and make decisions and take action faster than the other not just teams around us, but individuals around us, including management. And so, my passion came from the fact that I only – that’s the kind of group I wanna work in. And if I didn’t – I hadn’t gone into it intentionally, so I hadn’t spent two years kind of watching, “Oh, what does a self-organizing work group do?” But, I – I knew I wanted to be part of groups like that, again. In fact, if I could possibly help it, that’s the only kind of group I ever wanted to work in, again. So, my – my passion came from that. I did my formal doctoral research in 2007 and 2008, and I was so drawn into what those groups that I studied experienced, and I also studied the groups, their peers, and their management and administration. And so, I saw even more of kind of the impact that groups like that could have.
So, that’s just kind of put – the research itself just pushed me into being very passionate about it, because it went from, “Lori’s trying to figure out how to get to self-organize in jobs, again, in the future,” to, “Holy crap, these groups have [Laughs] – these groups have major impact within their – within people within the groups, within people near the groups, peers and managers and administration, and out into their organizations.” So, that’s where my passion for the subject came from.
DK: Let’s follow-up on that. Did – did you see impacts beyond the boundaries of the organization, or were you even looking at that, necessarily?
LK: I wasn’t looking at it, necessarily, but I did. It depended – in the case of my research, it depended what the group itself was after. I did in-depth case-study research, so I did not – I was not going after quantitative numbers. I looked and spent months, and months, and months of time with one group of employees in a large organization, and one group of teachers in a large public school district. And I saw – the study revealed impacts in the case of the employee group, which was a group that was attempting to make a pretty large change, outside of themselves, up to the division level, within their organization, impacts six layers out. I have a – let’s see if I can remember this from scratch. So, I saw – there were – as seen by the groups themselves, the peers and the management, there were primarily positive impacts to the group and its members, the peers, management, and three additional levels, including the teams and division that the group members were a part of, other divisions within the organizations that interacted with the division, people who were served by the organization – customers – and people who worked with the division, such as partners and vendors.
On the – on the school side, the teacher side, that particular group was after something that was a – a little bit smaller. They – they came together – two of the teachers were general education teachers who taught two – some of the most difficult courses for seniors to pass, to graduate from high school. And the other two teachers were special education teachers who were responsible for helping students with special education needs who were working in those same classrooms, giving them extra support. And so, those four teachers just decided to work as a collective that year, because they had a lot of students in common that year. And they thought if they worked as a collective, they could get more of them to graduation. And so, the impacts that I saw in that case were primarily positive impacts to the teachers themselves, their peers, their administration, and the people who were served by the organization – students and parents – people who worked with the organization, such as substitute teachers and teaching assistants, instructional assistants. And it bumped-up to the district level, so the – the special education department that the two teachers were in became a model for the district, and it impact – they impacted other schools in the district.
DK: Very good. Let me – let me talk about self management. And your blog talks about – a lot about self-organizing work groups. Do you see a distinction between those two terms, and, you know, so what would be – ?
LK: Well, I can tell you what self-organizing work group means to me.
LK: And you can tell me what self-management means to you, maybe. My favorite way to describe this is to use this picture, and I’ll give you this picture because it will make no sense when you attempt to listen to this, again. This is a – a figure from a book by Holly Arrow. She’s at the University of Oregon. And a couple of her colleagues – the book is called, “Small Groups as Complex Systems: Formation, Coordination, Development and Adaption.” So, they talk about forces in group formation. They talk about external versus internal. External means created from outside of the group. Internal, created from within the group. And emergent versus planned, emergent meaning apparently spontaneous –
DK: Spontaneous, yeah.
LK: And these are their terms, which I actually love these terms. They use – for groups that are planned by externals, which is, you know, when you think about all of the documentation we have about how to make a team work, teams and groups in business and organizations, and I’d – I’d say most of the research – probably 99-percent of the research that I could find was in this space, which is a space they call “concocted groups.”
LK: There’s three other types of groups here that they talk about in the internal and planned arena. They talk about groups called “founded groups,” which is a group that is started from within. An example – but intended to live long-term.
DK: Oh, okay.
LK: And so, eventually, planned.
LK: An example is a – like, a sorority or a fraternity on a college campus is an example.
LK: Somebody starts that group, but it’s –
LK: The – its intention is to live on.
LK: So, those are the – on the planned side. On the emergent side, they talk about circumstantial groups, which are groups that – it’s really much more about the environment causing the group to happen. So, you are riding a bus home from work, there is a snow storm. Your bus gets stuck.
LK: Suddenly, you’re a group.
LK: You have to decide: Are we going to dig the bus out? Are we gonna walk in all different directions? That’s a circumstantial group. And the last sort of group they talk about is self-organized groups –
LK: Which are created from within in a much more emergent, spontaneous fashion. So, this definition that I have down here is just a working definition. I don’t believe in finished definitions.
LK: So, my – my study, self-organizing work groups, are a category within self-organized groups.
LK: So, I look specifically at self-organized work groups. So, people with – in an organization, in my case, my study, they were in – within organizations – who stepped outside of their formal organizational structures to collectively take responsibility for a complete work process or project. So, that was a – a narrowing down, because I wanted to specifically – I love to work, and I always plan to be working, whether it’s as a consultant or within organizations, again. So, I was specifically interested in this kind of self-organizing group, which I called a “self-organizing work group.” And so, some other things I know about them is that, within the group, roles and jobs are defined and re-defined as needed, so that group members can work in more interchangeable ways, and the group can function in more flexible, organic ways. They appear to come into being without much planning, and to emerge from local interactions among people pursuing their individual agendas. In these groups, internal and emergent forces prevail. And people stay with these groups until they succeed. That’s a contribution from my study, and it’s – like I said, it’s a – it’s a working idea. But, the groups that I studied, and the groups that I have been part of, which I would call self-organizing work groups, and I’ve now been part of several, they are – they are about people who – who care about two things. They care about themselves and what they want at work, and they care about one other; whether that is a customer, or a student, or a management level above them.
And my belief is that, because they come from an internal place, and an apparently spontaneous place, is that people stay with them until they are – until they succeed. That’s a theory of mine. We’ll see if it – if it bears fruit. But, the groups that I studies, that was the case.
DK: That would tend to make sense, wouldn’t it, give the fact that it seems like the idea of self-interest is implied in here a little bit? They have – you assume people have agendas of some kind, and so if their agenda can be served by engaging in a spontaneous work group, then why – why wouldn’t they? It seems like a natural thing to do.
LK: So, to me, I have read articles about self-managed teams. I have not used – as far as the research base on which I built my ideas, I have not used much from the self management field, because – because so – as a – as a formal academic researcher, we are pushed to be pulling – drawing from sources that are from peer review journals, you know, that is valid research. And there – there – most of what I saw in the self-managed arena fell into this concocted groups space.
DK: Oh, interesting.
LK: And so, you know, I spent – I got my Master’s degree in 2002. I started working in corporations in ’86. And so, I have spent a lot of years reading about teams and groups, and when I – it came time to do my research study, when I started thinking about it and really focusing-in on, “What do I care about,” you know, I had been in organizations long enough and I had seen and even tried a lot of the things that were in the – all of the books that were about – in – in this concocted space, in this “how do you make groups work?”
LK: And so, I didn’t go there.
LK: I went here. And I went and looked for research that was about, “What do” – you know, did other people study human beings actually self-organizing? And that’s – that’s the research that I pulled from, the theories that I based my own ideas on, tend to live in this space.
LK: Not that I don’t think self-managed isn’t a great step in the right direction. [Laughs]
DK: Right, right, right, right, right, right. Exactly. Okay. Well, is the term “collective self” referenced to self-organized work groups, or is – does it embrace kind of a larger idea for you?
DK: And how would you describe it?
LK: [Laughs] The term “collective self,” so it’s – it’s a couple of things. It – it – it does refer to self-organizing work groups in the sense that I was part of a group. I self-identified by reading about self-organizing groups as, “Oh, hey. We are a self-organizing group, and we are a kind, and it’s called: Self-organizing work group.” I told you that my passion for these ideas came from some of these almost unbelievable things that we started to experience as people, being able to kind of know each other’s minds and to kind of – and to be able to make independent decisions that were in sync, even though, you know, we hadn’t necessarily spoken, and we didn’t necessarily agree. These – the five people that I was originally – or the four other people that I was originally with, you know, I would say two of them I often agreed with. Two of them I almost always disagreed with. And so – and as I did my research, and as I looked at what the other groups that I studied experienced, we had very similar experiences. I call them the “Personal Impossibilities.”
LK: So, things like – people in these groups who – those who work together the longest started to feel as if they could – had a greater awareness of patterns. They had an increased ability to break down hierarchical reporting structure. They experienced expanded intelligence, as if they were in sync. They felt like they were in sync with these other people. They described themselves as being in flow state for months or years. That’s just some of the examples. And you know, experiencing themselves as part of a greater whole. So, at some point in my research, that’s how I started to think of these groups. I started to think of them as people who are part of self-organizing work groups are working within their organizations as an individual, just like everybody else, but they’re also working as a collective self. They are working as – a self-organizing work group is a group that amplifies what they are as individuals. So, the innate awareness, creativity, resilience that we have as human beings, I saw and they experienced these groups amplifying that. So, that’s where “collective self” came from.
LK: The funny part it, it’s the name of my company because the – that was the first URL that was available [Laughs] out of – you know, I had, like, 15 names picked –
LK: And that was the first one that was actually – I could get that web address. So, I – I think it is – it is a reference to what I experienced when I was part of a self-organizing work group –
LK: That I saw reflected in what other people experienced as part of self-organizing work groups. And it is, I think, a bigger idea than that, as well. By the end of my two years as part of this group, one of the things that changed – I mean, ‘cause we were – we were front-line employees. We were not management. We were not – well, I take that back. One of the five of us was a manager. He wasn’t our manager. He was a mid-level manager elsewhere, but he – in our group, he was just one of us. One of the things that happened to us across our two years, we – all five – first, we’d be able – we became capable of speaking on behalf of each other, then on be – and on behalf of our group, then on behalf of the – the groups that were around us, like, our respective teams. And at the end of our time together, we could speak on behalf of our division as a whole. And we started to kind of experience ourselves as that.
LK: And that’s something that, you know, I’m sure that there are people out there who are management types who just come into an organization feeling as if they can speak for an entire division or an entire organization. But, I certainly wasn’t one of those people, and it took being part of this group to turn me into that. And that actually – I eventually left the organization when I realized, “I’m an organization, but I’m not this one.”
LK: I’m this one. I’m collective self.
DK: Right, right.
LK: Was the organization that I was.
LK: So, I do think it’s – the term has multiple meanings for me.
DK: Very nice. Your website has an octopus graphic. Any symbolism or significance to that?
LK: Yep. You know, I read this book about being a consultant recently, after I had already decided to be a consultant. And I learned that you’re not supposed to use an abstract name for your business. You’re supposed to use, like, your own name, or – or a direct description of what you do, or some combination of a direct description of what you do and your own name. And so, “Collective Self” is sort of an abstract.
LK: So, I’ve already broken a – apparently, some sort of rule about being a consultant. But, the – I was walking down the street one day, and I saw a guy with an octopus on his shirt. And to me, that – that represented what I felt like when I was part of a self-organizing work group. I felt like I was me, only better. Instead of having two hands, I had eight – or, in my case, ten. And so, yeah, that’s where the octopus came from.
LK: And I liked the idea so much, I now have a lot of octopus – and people have started giving me octopus stuff. This is a – this little guy is – he’s a quadropus. He’s only got four arms, but that’s what it stands for. It stands for people – the people who I studied felt as if they had more hands and could do more.
LK: As part of these groups.
DK: Very nice. Okay. Well, some organizations embrace the idea of self-organized work groups, and some don’t. Is there any relationship between the degree to which an organization accepts the reality of self-organized work groups and the effectiveness of the groups in that organization, or does it not matter?
LK: The effectiveness of the self-organizing work groups?
DK: Uh huh.
LK: I don’t know that I’ve done enough research to say that for sure. I think what I – let me write that down. I tend to talk myself in a circle, and then forget the question. So, is there a relationship between the – the length to which the organization accepts the idea?
DK: Yeah, yeah.
LK: And the effectiveness?
LK: I can give you my opinion. Yes, and no. [Laughs] God, I am ready to be a consultant, aren’t I? So – give me a second here. What I believe today, having spent – I don’t know, we’re probably looking at something close to 12,000 hours on this subject, now – I believe that people are self-organizing. I believe it’s a natural way to be. I believe that self-organizing groups are happening everywhere, all the time, whether they’re recognized or not, whether we’re aware of it or not. I hate to say, “Yes,” because I don’t want – I don’t want to discourage people from trying self-organizing work groups, and I don’t want to give people the impression that, if you’re working in X-company, you’re gonna have a better shot at it than working in Y-company. The truth is that, when I started in my first group – I don’t think I was in an organization that necessarily was embracing these ideas. The – the extent to which the organization could embrace the idea was, people should work better together, and we’re gonna reward you if – if you are a better team player. That was the extent to which the organization understood groups, or how groups work. And so, the fact that my group was so effective, I feel, had – had relatively little to do with the organization that I was in. That said, you know, I studied these groups, and I studied the groups and the peers and the management and administration, and I got to look at these groups from multiple levels.
And one of the cool things I learned was that, within these groups, people get to be more themselves, and getting to be more of yourself at work means that you start to – when you’re asked questions like, “What fostered this group,” for example, by a researcher, that you can think of all sorts of things that fostered it. The teachers, you know, they came up with the stuff that they did, the stuff their peers did, the stuff their students did. One of them attributed it to his hardworking parents, you know, who were immigrants to this country, and who set him on the right path. And so, you know, the groups were definitely affected by everything that their members were affected by. In both cases I studied the groups themselves, when asked, “What fostered this group? What sustained this group over time?” They – they came up with more than three dozen answers to those two questions. And of those dozen – three dozen answers to what fostered the group, what sustained it over time, only one or two had to do with the organization. And then, as you went out to the peers, there were probably a couple more that had to do with the organization. And as you went up to management, it flipped. And management and administration, you know, saw more of their own influence and – which makes sense. I mean, you know, they’re self-organizing people, too, right? They’re seeing their perspective. And so, as a person who wants to be part of self-organizing work groups and try them and use them, I think what matters most is inside of you, and not at the organizational level.
As a researcher, I can see that it’s a lot more complicated than that. [Laughs] And I could see, for example, in the case of the teachers, they were working in a school that had made the kind of progressive move to give those resource specialists, or the – the teachers – the special education teachers two hours of free time in their days to go and sit in general education classrooms. And because that had happened at the organizational level, those people were free to go and sit in those classrooms, meet those general education teachers, build those relationships. And so, yes, the organization had an impact. On the employee side, similar sorts of things. There – there – there were people, multiple management levels above, because that self-organizing work group was really trying to change how they did things, they had to get funding multiple times and do multiple pilots. And so, there were people all the way up the chain, who they never even saw, who had to say – who had to take risks and take some money from existing products that were being created, and put money into these new ideas.
So, those – in the organizations that I studied, everybody played a hand, group members, people around the group members, management and administration, had a hand in making those successful. But, what mattered most came from within the group itself.
LK: So, I don’t know that that answered the question.
DK: No, that’s okay. That’s – that’s a good answer. Okay, we talked about __ ____ ____. Do you have an example or two of a self-organizing work group overcoming a perceived impossibility?
LK: Let me get you a good one. Okay, it’s my own book. You’d think I’d remember which chapter – which order the chapters were in. Okay. A work group coming over a perceived impossibility. Well, the – the teacher group actually – because the teachers were – the two general ed teachers were teaching – teaching three courses that were known to be the three most pop – most difficult to pass for all students, let alone students with special education needs, all students, they stood as barriers between graduate – in front of graduation for most seniors. And I mean, their impossibility was the reason they came together. I mean, they – they said, “Well, we have so many students in common this year, it might be impossible, but what if we got all of these students to graduate?” All the general ed kids, all the special ed kids. Instead of thinking of them as “my kids” and “your kids,” let’s call them “our kids,” and let’s have all of our kids graduate.
DK: Right. Okay.
LK: And I don’t know, I mean, between the – the number of students that the general ed teachers had, and the – the cases loads of the – the – the two teachers, they each had – I don’t know, it was somewhere between, like, 25 and 30 kids on their case loads – all but one of their students graduated; which was just phenomenal and shocking to them, at what they were able to do over the course of one year. And the one who didn’t graduate, it was – you know, it was circumstances that were – a kid with a family that the – I mean, the family was going to be a barrier. There was nothing that the teachers could’ve done. So, that was certainly an impossibility that they overcame. I mean, the employee group – I’m trying to narrow it down to one. [Laughs] There were so many things. They were together longer. The teacher group was together one year. The employee year was together two – about two. Interesting, in both cases, the groups, which were four or five people, grew up out of a two-person group in both cases. So, it was ideas within a couple of individuals. Those individuals found each other and started working together for at least a year, if not more. And then, other joined them. Which, really, as a researcher, when you look at something over multiple years of time, the idea of emergent and, or spontaneous gets a little fuzzier, because even though these groups were apparently spontaneous, they came together that year, they were the result of people working and thinking and – and working collectively, you know, a year to several years before that. So, I – that’s why I use the word “apparently” a lot, because they were – are apparently spontaneous.
LK: The employee group, let’s see, they overcame a – well, they were working in a division that had – that had been pulled together – it had originally been, like, four separate divisions, and they all got pulled into one. And management thought that that would cause synergy to happen. And then, two years later, there was no synergy. They were – the – the groups within the division were still creating separate products using separate ways of doing things, and these were products that were supposed to be working together. They were all, like, under one banner name, and [Laughs] – and so, they – I mean, they overcame all sorts of impossibilities. I mean, they – they had to overcome, you know, peers saying, “You want us all to plan together? Are you crazy?” Like, they have different customers, different needs, they’re – they’re jerks. They came over – the overcame the impossibility of – you know, that four basically distinct business units that had spent two years saying, “We don’t wanna work together,” they overcame that. And so, I – that’s a pretty big impossibility.
DK: Indeed. Your website refers to a very cool day where you personally experienced the power, I guess – transformative power of a self-organizing work group. Can you talk about that day?
LK: Yeah. I can – I remember it in bits and pieces, but yeah. There was – maybe it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” there was a day – we had been working our butts off in two years, in my own group, trying to get our division to shift. And – and it seemed hard. And there was a day, I remember, sitting in my office, that it became easy. I was sitting in my office and I got a phone call from a different division, who – from a person I did not know, and you know, we had been – we had slowly kind of changed our groups, and then kind of our division. And we were trying to push the ideas out into the larger organization. And we were, you know – we were doing kind of some traditional things. We were having brown bags and giving talks and getting a lot of push-back. And one day, somebody just called me up and said, “Oh, I hear you’re doing this thing, and it sounds great. Can you come and tell us about it?”
LK: And the rest of that week, like, I got a bunch more of those calls. Like, you’re – you guys are doing this so great, and I heard all this great stuff about you. And – and – and it just got easy after that. And – and then the other piece – so, that was the day that I remember, was just, like, “Okay, this was hard, and why is this suddenly easy?” It was like magic. And then, over the course of the next couple of months, I really started noticing some of the things that I’d mentioned on my website, which was – I really started having an awareness that something was special about this group. Like, I was experiencing abilities I did not have before, that I did not set-out to learn. And suddenly, I was – you know, the guy who was the manager, who worked as a manager, who was part of our self-organizing work group, he and I – we were like, you know, oil and water. And we just – but we respected each other. We needed each other. And you know, I could go into a meeting and I could speak my point of view, the point of view of the person who was in, you know, the marketing team, and I could speak this manager’s viewpoint, even thought it was, like, the opposite of mine. And then, I could kind of sum them up and say, “And that’s why we’re gonna do this, because it – it makes all of us happy, and it makes, you know, sales happy, it makes marketing happy, it makes” – you know, and so – so there was that day when it felt like it got easier. But, then there was this other kind of multiple-month period of feeling, “Wow, there is something special about this group.”
And it – it was funny, because even in the moment, I knew that management didn’t get it. Like, we started getting all sorts of praise and raises and bonuses and all this stuff, and they were like, “You guys are leaders.” And – and I – you know, you knew, being part – part of this group, that it wasn’t us. It was the group, and it was the – the strength of the group. And the – and that company at the time, I mean, management just was not set-up to see it, which is why I wrote a book and why I’m consulting on it. Because, I think management – so much of corporate training, I can’t really speak to the educational side, but I mean, it’s – the training that we get is mandated by management. But, it trickles down as to what management thinks we need. And if management isn’t even seeing the groups, how are we ever gonna get training on it? [Laughs]
DK: Right. Exactly. Exactly right. Well, Lori, what are some disadvantages to self-organizing work groups?
LK: I am not the best person to ask that of. I did my darnedest. I wrote this chapter. So, the – some – that came up in my research. One of the groups asked me, “So, why don’t – why don’t these groups happen more often?” And I started to think about barriers. And I knew what they were asking. They were asking, what could they be doing to – you know, to help others, or to – to do this again. And so – let me just draw – write this down so I don’t lose it. So, as a group – as a self-organizing group member myself, studying self-organizing work groups, drawbacks didn’t interest me. I didn’t go into my study with any – my questions – the questions I asked were: What fostered these groups? What sustained them over time? What was the experience like of being part of one? And what impacts do they have? And I only managed to get the impacts question in there, because my doctoral dissertation committee was like, “Business people are gonna wanna know about impact.”
LK: But, the groups themselves asked the – kind of the benefits/drawbacks question. So, I attempted to write a chapter, and I did write a chapter, but I realized that I am not – I’m not the best person to ask, because I’ve spent years of my life studying these groups, and the benefits to me just are so overwhelming that I have a hard time with the drawbacks. I can tell you for sure that the one drawback that both of the groups that I studied experienced is, you get more work. So, when you move yourself as a group into a place where you can make faster decisions, where you can work in sync with others, all of those kind of personal benefits that I talked about earlier, people see it, and you get more work. The teachers talked about – the district started sending them kids that nobody else could handle. The – the extreme – some – some kids were in the special education system who – it was a combination of disabilities and difficult home life and violent kids, kids with big problems. And they became a place where those kids came. So, the – the result for the group members themselves was, well, you – you’re good, so here you go, more work. So, to me, that’s the biggest drawback of self-organizing work groups. As a person, you get more work.
DK: Do the people see that as a drawback?
LK: That’s the one that they mentioned.
LK: Yeah. [Laughs]
DK: So, they did. Yeah, it wasn’t – okay.
LK: Another kind of personal drawback that got mentioned was that they don’t necessarily make your life easier. So, I experienced this myself, and the employee group talked about this, because that group pushed their – my group, and that group, pushed their division to a point where they got what they wanted. Like, okay, let’s change. Let’s – let’s do it. Let’s – we’ll throw more money at it, and we’ll give you some more people, and go. And so, even when you actually get what you want, your organization the responds by saying, “Okay, well, here’s a whole bunch more [Laughs] – here’s a whole bunch more expectations.” And so, the more work and – what was the other one that I was gonna say? It’s kind of like you – you pull yourself collectively to a higher level, but then you’re starting over again as learners all over again. So, the drawback isn’t – you know, when I think about a founded group [Laughs], at some point in a founded group you put in your time, you become a resident expert, you get to, you know, sit back and be the resident expert and people come to you, and you dole-out knowledge. Self-organizing work groups, you don’t get that. I mean, they – the groups that I studied and was part of, they are responding to needs in the moment, and when – when that gets resolved, when that need is met, the groups dissolve, actually.
LK: The groups that I studied and was part of, I think of them as groups of learners. And just when you get to the point where you’re an expert, it’s almost like you become part of the larger group. So, in my eyes, self-organizing work groups are groups of collective learners. And if you stay in a group – in a self-organized work group past the point of getting what you want, you start to push yourself over into founded, and you start to become a planner, and – you know? And so, maybe that might be another drawback of being in a self-organizing work group, is that – I’ll describe my own experience, but you know, I was part of this group. It was amazing. We had all these wonderful results. And then, we got what we wanted. And then, to get that same sort of passion and interest and drive, we had to recognize that, for each of us, and it happened at different times, that our interests had changed, and we had to move on. And the group had to – you know, in order to get our ideas to propagate out into the division, some of us actually had to leave, or pull ourselves back, so that the division could see that other people could do the work. And so, the other drawback is, you might get the spotlight, but if you wanna hang onto that same passion and interest, you end-up having to start over in another self-organizing work group. And starting over as a learner with another group of people doing the same thing, I mean, self-organizing again, but on something else.
DK: Very good. I was gonna ask this question, but I think the – the graphic answered my question, was, “Does the self-organizing part of self-organized work groups imply that they can’t be forced or concocted by a formal management process, and are therefore invisible to the untrained or unaware?” And I think the answer is, “Yes.” Is it?
LK: If the word – if the word you’re using is “forced,” can they be forced – ?
DK: Oh, I’m sorry. Formed by a formal management process.
LK: My answer is, “Yes, and no.” [Laughs]
LK: They can’t be formed in the way we think of forming, in a way a lot of management thinks of forming teams.
LK: But, that said, you can foster environments in which self-organizing work groups, I think, are more likely to arise. In my own group, for example, one of the five of us was a mid-level manager. That mid-level manager, by being part of a self-organizing work group, got to see things that no other managers that I interviewed could see. And I compare being in that group to being in a great jazz band. Can you – you know, can great jazz bands be formed? [Laughs] Yes, they can be. You know, but – but I think it’s – I personally think that the way that you foster self-organizing work groups in an organization is to become a self-organizing work group yourself. Because, self-organizing work groups demonstrate, better than an individual can, what it actually takes to work collectively, successfully, in that environment, at that time. And so, absolutely, you could start a self-organizing work group, no matter who you are. But, you don’t get to do it by – by instituting training, and you don’t get to do it by telling somebody beneath you go do it. You – you get to do it the way everybody else gets to do it, which is by being part of a self-organizing work group yourself; which will be changing you, which will be changing the people that you’re working with, and it will allow people around you to see what it takes.
DK: Is the idea of voluntariness in terms of joining or resolving a – a work group pretty critical to the concept?
LK: Yeah, you know –
DK: As opposed to ___ – Judy, I want you to be a member of this self-organizing work group, as your manager.
LK: Yeah, I – crap, I hate answering the same way every time, but I think it’s both.
LK: So, I volunteered to be part of the groups that I’ve been part of. The people who were parts of the groups that I studies all considered themselves volunteers. Although, one of them had been assigned to a management team, like, a management created team, on a related subject. And then, felt like she had become part of the self-organizing work group, because she had been part of that. But, then on their first pilot they were so successful that she really bought into it and was with it the rest of the time as a volunteer. So, I think being a volunteer is important. The – the employee group was really fun to study, because they did – they were trying out ideas by using a pilot approach, and they did three pilot projects, the third of which was so successful that – that that just tipped it. Like, everybody was, like, “Well, if we can do this, we’re doing this.” There were people – so, that self-organizing work group was – was making things happen behind the scenes. There was a management-created virtual team that was created to kind of lead the effort. That team fizzled out and died about one year in.
LK: The self-organizing work group kept going. And so, the people who were volunteers kept going. And there were people assigned to each of those pilot projects. And it was so interesting, because the – the people who were – the way – the way that – and I – the ideas of self-organizing work groups spread, I call it the path of most acceptance. The – the – people could be assigned to pilot projects. But, the people who bought into it, who got it, who liked it, they became long-term promoters and supporters of the group and its ideas. So, I guess, you know, if I was a manager, I mean, you could attempt assigning people to a group like this, but at the end of the day you have to recognize that the people who are going to become passionate, supportive, long-term believers, that comes from within, and that’s a volunteer thing that comes from with people. Yeah.
DK: So, the virtual management team that fizzled, would it be safe to say that they just didn’t have the deeper level of commitment and – and buy-in, because it really wasn’t a long-term situation?
LK: Yeah, well, you know, it was a huge organization. They were all busy. The first two – so, the pilot project happened over the course of a two year period. The bulk of the work that got done in the first pilot project, and probably most of the second pilot project, was happening after hours. So, it – the people who stuck with it were really passionate about it and putting in extra time after work, day after day, and that – actually that happened in my group, as well. And, yeah, the – the virtual management – the – the virtual team that was set-up to kind of be the – you know, they were gonna make the decisions, and – people just didn’t have time for it. And in many cases, they weren’t – they were also the ones – they weren’t necessarily at all – doing all of the pilot work itself, so they couldn’t – they didn’t have time to get their heads around everything that was happening, and what was good and what was bad. And the volunteers who cared about it, did. And I don’t think it was because of anything special about the individuals. I think it was directly related to – it was because they were passionate about the subject.
DK: Right. Is there ___ ___ – how important is it for group members to have a vision, a clear vision, of the – of what success looks like for their group?
LK: A collective vision?
LK: What I saw in the groups that I studied was that these were not groups that sat down and wrote down their mission, their vision. But, they were people that were drawn to each other because they did have a mutual – a – a passion for a mutual thing, students, customers. And they saw in each other something that they were lacking in themselves. And so, well, if this person’s good at that and I’m not, and we work together, then suddenly I’m good at that. What was your question? I just lost it, again.
DK: How important is it for group members to have a clear vision of what success looks like for their group?
LK: Vision. Got it. So, I didn’t see in these groups people who sat down and wrote down a vision and had a collective vision; people who had talked, necessarily, about their vision. But, I saw people who – because I talked to people – I talked to the groups as groups. I also talked to them as individuals. I also – I had them do data analysis with me, and as individuals. So, I had them look at early results and, as individuals, give me feedback on early results. I – I saw people who would say the same things. The teachers, for example, all four of them said, “All teachers should belong to all students, and all students should belong to all teachers.” And all four of them knew that they were together, because they were trying to get the maximum number of students that they had to graduation. But, they never sat down and talked about it. They never wrote it down, explicitly, that they told me, or that they could remember.
The employee group, very interesting, all five of them were – they were from – I don’t know – four different teams. All of them were interested in better products for customers. All four of them had a unique perspective from their own job and their own team on how the organization was failing their customers in big ways, in some cases. And once all – in each case, within each individual, once they saw, “Oh, this person’s ideas could serve me and the people I care most about,” there was some sort of un-talked-about buy-in that was really strong in all of them, that they never let go of. So, over those two years, one of them switched teams. He moved from a – what was it called? – the – like, the product development group to the business planning and strategy group. They all had other projects they were working on besides what the group was doing. They – you know, there – there was this management level happening that was saying, “We’re gonna put this team in charge, and they’re gonna do this.” And they just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. So, they – they did have a vision [Laughs]. They did know, not quite as clearly as the teachers knew, what was success – success was for the teachers students graduating. In the business case, they didn’t know what it looked like, necessarily. And I think that – that was reflected a little bit in how the group ended, as well, because it took different people – different people quit the group at different times, depending on when they thought the group was successful. And one person saw the group as successful during the third pilot project, and he really started to pull back. One person, which was – it made documenting when the groups ended oh-so-much fun, because groups ended for different people and different times.
But, what I saw in these groups were that the groups ended when they met what each individual wanted to see have happen. And they were related enough, they were close enough, and the people, I guess, trusted each other enough that they knew that the vision was there. They knew that they – all five of them were gonna be working on this thing until it was successful. Even, you know, weeks would go by and they wouldn’t talk to each other, or, you know, the one guy switched teams. So, how important is vision? [Laughs] I think there has to be a shared principle, or there has to be what matters most to each individual beyond themselves, that – that one category of other. They have to just be close enough to – to keep them moving in the same general direction.
DK: Okay. Very good. Your blog talks about self-organizing work groups taking collective responsibility for a process or a project. Is there a place for individual accountability in a self-organizing work group? And how are individuals held accountable for individual results in the group, if so?
LK: In the groups I studied, what I really liked about the self-organizing work groups I studied were that these were groups in which the individual mattered more than they had mattered in the past, if that makes sense. So, they weren’t groups of – of like-minded, like-skilled people. They were groups that – again, it started with just two people, but each of those people had the experience of saying, “Man, that person is good at X, and I’m not. And I could really use that. So, we’re gonna just – let’s – I wanna make friends with that person. Or, I wanna work with that person.” I’m sorry, give me the question, again?
DK: Individual accountability –
LK: Oh, individual accountability, yeah. So, in the case of the employees, the – there were five different skill sets in those five different people. And there were little overlaps, but each had an individual area of expertise. And all five of those areas of expertise were needed for the group to work.
LK: So, people were held accountable by themselves, because they were passionate about it and they wanted it to work. And they were held accountable by the others, because they couldn’t actually do what they needed to do without those five skill sets.
DK: So, they were held accountable – accountable for full engagement with the group.
LK: Yeah, and the – the longer they were together, you know, the deeper that responsibility came. So, when the business group started to try to say, “Okay, this pilot’s working. Now, let’s try to sell it to this div – piece of the division. Now, let’s try to sell it to this piece of the division.” There were only certain people who those people would even talk to. So, everybody was – was crucial, and in – in the case of the teachers, it was – again, it was individual accountability, but, it was also the group. I mean, they – the group members start to rely on the other people. The – the teachers talked about becoming – they – they started to, like, develop a shortcut language among themselves. And then, they started using that shortcut language with their kids. And you know, in – in on sense, kind of pulling their kids into being part of that group, kind of in a fuzzy way. And the – the teachers talked about being able, as a group, to demonstrate what it took to be a learner and how powerful it was for kids in a classroom to see adults demonstrating that level of learning. Like – like having one teacher not – say, “Wow, I really am not sure about the answer to that question.” And having another teacher step-in and say, “Well, here’s an idea.” And you know – and then having a conversation about that, coming up with, “Well, maybe there’s more than one answer.” The one teacher saying, “You know, I could probably ask my husband about this. He’s in this field, and he would know.” And they brought an answer back the next day. The accountability on those teachers, I mean, it started within themselves and within the other group members needing them. But, it – it quickly spread into – you don’t wanna stop demonstrating that to your students. [Laughs] You know?
And on the case of the employee side, they took a – they – they did something really interesting. So, in addition to kind of what they were piloting, they started creating some things for partner organizations, and – that they could create as a collective that nobody had ever been able to kind of create before, because they didn’t – nobody had time. And – and they – they – they just said, “Well, for this set of products, we’re gonna give you this product, you know, family guide.” And the partners flipped out over it and loved it. And they started asking, “Why don’t we have a family guide – a product family guide for these other products?”
LK: And so, even though their kind of initial accountability came from themselves and their group members, theirs quickly kind of moved out into their partners who were expecting – now, expecting things, you know that – and – and it was not just from them, it was from everybody. So, yeah. I haven’t really thought much about individual accountability, but – yeah, it did not diminish in these groups. I would say the opposite was true, because they became capable of doing more. So, they became accountable for more.
DK: Yeah, that’s interesting. And – and if their skill set is required for the group to function, then that would certainly be pressure to continue to deliver for the group, I would think. So, talk about your new book. What’s the title of your book, there? Or, why should I buy it?
LK: [Laughs] Oh, goodness. Well, the – the book’s title is a working title, and I stole the name of my company from the name of the book, so I think I might have to change the book, now. But, I originally came-up with “Collective Self: How people do the impossible at work using self-organizing work groups” as the name of my book. And then, when that became the only URL, suddenly it became the name of my company. So, we’ll see what the book ends-up being. But, the book basically takes – what is it, now? – six, seven, eight – you know, four years of research and data analysis and it attempts to make it – because, even though I have been a researcher these last few years, I am a practitioner at heart. And so, I realized – so, I write my doctoral dissertation, defended it, graduated last – about a little over a year ago. And I had this, you know, 600-page doctoral dissertation, that I realized nobody in their right mind is gonna have – wanna read this. It’s so long. It’s so, you know, sheer academic verbosity and – and repetitiveness, and all the things they make you do for –
LK: And you know, that’s for other researchers as well, so. So, the book is an attempt to take what I learned in my own groups and the groups I studied, and to make something practical and useful for people running businesses and schools. So, the interesting thing about my study, the idea of emergence, is that I planned and planned and planned the study, and I came up with what I thought were, you know, the four most ingenious questions ever. And other questions emerged in the study. The groups asked questions. The peers asked questions. The managers asked questions. And none of those groups – I couldn’t shake those questions. Like, once they were asked by these people who matter to me, I had to answer them. So, the – the book talks about what I went in to study, which is: What is a self-organizing work group? How do you foster them? How do you sustain them? What impacts do they have in organizations? And what’s the experience like? What does it feel like to be part of a group like this, or near a group like this? And that – those aren’t even the most interesting parts of the book, which is, you know – I don’t know – always surprising to me that there’s bigger groups asking bigger questions, I guess.
So, the other chapters are: How to let go of a self-organizing work group at the appropriate time. That really came clear. It was a really important experience for me, personally. And so, even though I didn’t ask about it, I heard a ton about what it was like to end these groups, leave these groups, give these groups up. And I realized that I had only asked two thirds of a three-part question. How do you foster them? How do you sustain them? How you let them go is equally as important, and really, really important to self-organizing work groups, because if you don’t let them go, if you achieve what you want and you just keep going, you become something else. I, myself, experienced having to make the decision, “Am I gonna stay, and is this gonna become a founded thing, and Lori’s gonna be an expert at it? Or, do I really want other people to get the same chance that we got to self-organize, and take these ideas and do their own thing with them?” So, letting go and how to let go, and when to recognize the signs to – that you’re ready to let go, or that you should let go, is really important. So, there’s a chapter on that.
How to overcome barriers to self-organization at work, there’s a chapter on that, ‘cause people ask me about that. Oh, the indicators, so that was something that emerged from the research, that there were these things that just kept coming up and I couldn’t, for the life of me, classify them. And I eventually came up with the word “indicators.” So, how to recognize self-organization at work. What are some indicators in yourself, in your discussions, and in your groups, that are indicators of self-organization? So, there’s a chapter on that. Let’s see. Overcome barriers. Impacts. And then there’s – lastly, is the chapter on personal benefits and drawbacks of self-organizing work groups. So, the organizational benefits are woven through the book, and they’re in each chapter. But, there – the last chapter of the book is – well, the last chapter at this moment in time, is the personal benefits and drawbacks of the groups. Because, in my own research, you know, I learned that – that people come into things caring about themselves, and one other category of “other.” And so, it’s not gonna be – nobody who comes in reading the book, it’s not gonna be 100-percent, “What can this group do for my organization?” It’s also gonna be, “What can it do for me?” So, there’s a chapter on that. I think that’s it.
DK: Well, very good. So, do you expect this in 2010 to be available, or we’ll see?
LK: I don’t know. I – I’d like to think 2010. I have a literary agent who said she’s interested in it. So, I have to send some stuff to her. I have been told by other people in my – I’m part of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association – that it’s a two to four year process to get a book published. And I’m gonna – gonna start when I – start my time when I started writing the book, which was about a year ago. So, I’m a little over a year in, now, so maybe 2010. Yeah, I’m gonna push as hard as I can push. And I think, if I’m gonna be consulting at all, I’m gonna need to self-publish just to have some copies to give to clients, because this is way too much to say [Laughs]. And really, I shouldn’t be – you know, people should get to read what they want and not read what they don’t want. They shouldn’t have to pay for hours of me droning on, so. Yeah, in my ideal world, it will be available in the fall of 2010.
DK: Very nice.
LK: Yeah. But, I understand it might be a year after that.
DK: Okay. If you were to come to our symposium in May, would you be willing to share some of your ideas from the book around how to recognize whether groups are self-organizing or not?
LK: Sure, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I’ve just begun sharing some of those ideas on my blog, as well. Which is interesting, because for me, I know that most people who come to the book or come to the ideas, indicators of self-organization, are probably, like, the last thing on the mind. Like, the – they wanna know: What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? How do I foster them? How do I sustain them? You know, those are the things that matter most. To me, nothing is more important than the indicators, because –
DK: Right. Exactly.
LK: Recognizing myself as part of a self-organizing work group –
LK: Was the most important part. And – yeah, and it’s not just about, you know, trying to take your existing team and transform yourselves into self-organizing work groups. It’s often recognizing that you’re already part of them, ‘cause I think most people at work are, so.
DK: Exactly. Well, Lori, your consulting practice refers to assessing group states and coaching changes in group states. Are you analyzing the state of the group’s effectiveness, or are you analyzing the culture of the organizing? Or, is it a bit of both, or what’s – ?
LK: I put that in there because I got asked to do that for an organization. Like, somebody said to me, “Could you come in and tell us, you know – is a – we think our group is self-organizing. Could you come and tell us if we are?” It’s not related to effectiveness. I don’t think, as an outside consultant, that’s really where I wanna work. Mine is more – where I wanna work is – is what I just told you about the book. So, for me, it’s coming in and brining in the – the stories of the groups that were self – that self ident – my groups that I studied identified themselves as self-organizing. And it – it’s coming in and saying, “Here are some stories of some groups. Does this sound like you? Here are some descriptions that I have written about what self-organizing work groups are. Does this sound like you? And here are the indicators that I found in the groups that I studied that indicate, you know, on an individual level and on an – in discussions, and then on a group level, that self-organization is happening.” And then, you know, bringing-in something like this, and talking about where self-organizing work groups live. I think what most people – I can’t say that. What I have been asked – the people who have asked me to date, and I just started my consulting practice the week of Thanksgiving, so –
LK: I’m a new consultant.
DK: Brand new, yeah. Congratulations.
LK: Most people have a group like this, and they wanna just magically make it into this if they think that this is gonna get them better results. And so, it – it’s just a little bit of learning about what I see as a self-organizing work group, and is that really what you want, or do you want this? Or, do you want this? And then, if you like this idea, maybe you have to kind of re-think about – you know, I’m just gonna take this formal group and I’m gonna give them some training, and they’re gonna become a self-organized work group. So, it’ll be interesting to see who ends up being clients of mine. And – ‘cause I expect to be highly successful, but –
LK: We’ll see where they – where – I’ll be really curious to see where they come from, because – and that’s why I’m doing so much speaking this year, and trying to get the book published, because I don’t think a lot of people who run companies and who are managers within companies – well, certainly aren’t doing what you’re doing, and aren’t thinking like this, or about this –
LK: In this way, yet. So –
DK: What do you think your clients are gonna want in terms of deliverables? What are they gonna expect from you as a consultant?
LK: I think a lot of it is what’s in the book.
LK: It’s simply: What is this? What are the impacts? You know, and depending on the size of the group and the level of interest, that might be a 90-minute discussion. That might be a five-day discussion.
DK: So, some education.
DK: Or – or maybe just discussion.
LK: Yeah. I hope not formal education. I mean, I’m trying really hard – you know, I have a background as an educator in both a business environment and in a non-profit environment. And I hope that I will have clients who want to self-organize with me, you know, that want to just – they say I’m passionate about this and that I’ll get to do some work with clients, you know, giving them the ideas that I wish I had when I was a self-organizing work group, including some of the ideas that, from my research – based on my research, the five barriers that matter most are within the group and within people themselves, and their – you know, most people will say, “Oh, the organization will never let us do that.” And that’s not what my research bore out. I mean, the five barriers that really mattered most were things that people had to get over, themselves, or work through themselves, or work through themselves as a group. So, we will see. We will see. I – I plan to – yeah, and so far it’s been mostly education. People that I used to work with, or people who knew about my research, asking me to come in and give a talk or share some information, or – but I have a feeling, the way my work works is that my clients will be coming up with things that I have not thought of for me to do. [Laughs]
DK: Right, right. ___ new things.
LK: And that’s – I mean, that’s what I hope.
DK: That’s great. Well, in your blog you talk about the trifecta of business benefits for businesses. What are the benefits of self-organized work groups for individuals?
LK: The benefits for individuals? Oh, good lordy. Where do I start? Oh, shoot. I wish I had printed out the thing – I thought I had printed out the thing. I did. Alright, so, I have two things I can say about that. Alright, so across my study personal improvements I saw within people in the group and near the groups, which was very interesting, that a lot of what the group members experienced – people who were near the groups or personally close to group members experienced a lot of the same things.
DK: Okay. What were some of those things?
LK: Increased creativity.
LK: Increased confidence in self and others. Greater awareness of what mattered most to them. Job satisfaction; increase in job satisfaction. Those were the big ones that – oh, and resilience was the other one. The teachers talked about their group as a place where they got free therapy. [Laughs] But, people stayed with their organizations longer.
LK: People –
DK: Good retention.
LK: The groups talked about themselves as being places where they generated energy, as opposed to expended energy; which, I really liked that idea. I had never thought of that.
LK: And anything else do I have here? Improved relationships. More – and what I mean by that is more honest relationships.
LK: Within the group and also near the group. And then – so, those are the ones that kind of crossed everybody that I studied. And then, the – there are ten other ones that – I call them personal impossibilities, because they almost appear impossible from an individual perspective, but the – and they – in both cases that I studied, and in my own experience, the people who stayed together the longest, who worked most closely for the longest period of time, greater awareness of patterns, increased ability to break-down hierarchical reporting structure, expanded intelligence, experience being in sync with each other, experienced part of – themselves as part of a greater whole, increased ability to learn, and in some cases came to see parts of the work as being in a flow state of many months or even years. Experienced the ability to finish each other’s sentences, expand each other’s ideas with minimal context given and share tasks with minimal or no discussion. Ability to work faster and better than they could as individuals. They began to forget who thought of what, attributing ideas to each other, to the group, and to others. And they received and gave help, moving on from their work when the time was right.
So, one of the things that the teachers said, and then once they said it, I saw it in the other group, even though they didn’t say it explicitly, was the idea of gratitude. And the teachers said, “I got to say, ‘Thank you’ every day.” Which I thought was really interesting. Like – and they talked about the fact that, as teachers, they could go for months without ever hearing anything nice from anybody else about what they were doing, but also without ever getting to experience gratitude. And I think gratitude was a key in these groups.
LK: Because, I think the combination of self-esteem building and being very aware that, even though people around the group started to perceive the group members as leaders, people within the group actually kind of knew what was happening. So, the combination of self esteem building and humility that happened in these groups were very powerful.
LK: And I think that that ended-up pushing people to perceive themselves as leaders and to be perceived as leaders. And certainly, you know, that’s what people came out of these groups being perceived as. They were asked – in both cases, they were asked to speak to others, bring their ideas out – outward. And so, yeah, a lot of personal benefits. [Laughs]
DK: Wow. Beautiful. That’s outstanding. Okay, well, sometimes individuals have to be just productive on their own. They just have to put their heads down on a project and grind it out and finish it in their own little silos. When people have the awareness of being participants in self-organized work groups and the freedom to engage in those groups freely as – as they wish, does that do anything for their individual productivity?
LK: Oh, I never asked that question. I know that I personally experienced having more time than my peers. Like, people kept coming and saying to me, “How are you getting all this done? You – you’re doing too much. How could you – ? You’re working too hard.” And I wasn’t working more than 40 hours a week. I – and during part of my initial experience in my group, I was – in my first group, I was – I was going to school full time, and I was working full time. So, I was not pulling all-nighters or – I think – it doesn’t improve your individual – I guess – yes, but I don’t know. I know that it – it – the experience in the group changes people’s perceptions of you, and that I learned in my research that perceptions matter a lot. [Laughs] What is reality and what is perception, and some – some days when I was looking at what the peers and the managers and the administrators in the groups were saying, I was like, “Perceptions matter more than reality.” And the – the reality was that, people around group members perceived them as – as smart, getting smarter, learning and very collaborative, and as leaders. And the employee group was interesting because, as their pilot projects went on, they – the groups – the members needed more and more time to work on the group’s work than on their own individual work. And I watched as all sorts of people around them went out of their way and did things out of their way to make sure that those group members got their – got to do their group work, and that – this was peers, this was managers, this was – and I had – that was so interesting, because I had the very same experience in my own group. Where I had to, at one point, ask project managers who – I was more on the learning/creative side, and there were people called “project managers” that, like, did all the scheduling and made sure that we got all of our products out on time. And I, as part of this group, had to ask those managers to basically change their job. I said, “You know, we wanna do this pilot. We wanna bring-in external people from different parts of the world, and we wanna bring them together and we wanna pick their brains. And we wanna do this, and this and this. And – and so, I’m gonna need you guys to set-up the contracts and all of the nitty-gritty stuff that I don’t do.” And they did it. [Laughs] And it was like, they didn’t get permission to do it. And these are people who are, like, permission by-the-book people. And so, I didn’t look at individual productivity getting better, explicitly, as far as their – the work that they were doing outside of the group. But, my sense is that the work of the group permeates everything that you do, because you know, the – the – people like being part of these groups. They like being with the people that they are with. They spend more time with those people. They – they – they reflect more.
So, the teachers talked about, normally, when you’re a general ed teacher, you know, back to back to back to back classes. When you have 15 free minutes, you race, you know, down the campus to find a bathroom, and you race back. And they talked about these little, like, 10-minute reflections, ‘cause they – they – you know, the kids would leave from one period, and they would be, like, “Did that just happen? What just happened? What did we just do? Why did that work?” And they – they – you know, they started to kind of reflect in the moment more. And so, all the group members talked about getting better at their jobs. But, they didn’t – I didn’t specifically ask them about – you said increased productivity – is that what you said?
DK: Uh huh. Individual productivity.
LK: Individual productivity, yeah.
DK: Effectiveness, right.
LK: They were perceived by the people around them as becoming more effective, both peers and management or administration, as individuals. Yeah.
LK: And I think that they didn’t see these groups as something separate than – it wasn’t like – you know, I mean – I don’t know how your career has been, but for example, my time at Microsoft. You’re on this virtual team, and that virtual team, and you’re assigned to this and this, and you’ve got all these little pieces. And this group wasn’t – it wasn’t something that was separate from me. It was something that was me. So, I think that – there comes a point at which what you perceive as individual versus group productivity, they kind of overlap. The group made me, personally, better at my job, but over those two years I changed what my job was into what I wanted it to be. And I – by the end of the two years, I wasn’t doing my old job, I was doing the new one. And I could do the new one, because I was more productive. [Laughs]
DK: Would you say – would you say you were happier during that trans – transition?
LK: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I studied this, because when I – at the point at which I started in my own self-organizing work group, I was planning to leave my organization. I had been there about five years, and I was – I was so tired of the inane things that management – I saw – I kept watching management do what appeared to be really dumb things. Or they were either allowing it to happen, or causing it to happen, I couldn’t tell, ‘cause we were so busy. And I was gonna leave. I was burned out. I was tired. I was approaching bitter. I don’t think I ever actually crossed into bitter, but you know – and this group kept me in that organization three more years. And it – and when I left the group – or, when I left the organization, I left the organization still loving that organization. I still love that organization today. But – and I – but I left because this study became more important to me.
LK: And my focus had shifted. And I was helped by my own group members into seeing that. Like, this seems to matter more to you, now, than this, so.
DK: Let’s – let me ask you about the groups themselves. Is there an optimum size?
LK: I don’t know. I’ve been part of maybe four self-organizing work groups at this point, and I have studied two. So, I’m not sure that, you know, my exposure, my aware exposure to six groups makes me an expert on the optimal size. Four to five people is what I have seen. Yeah, so.
DK: Are the boundaries permeable? Can new members enter, and can old members exit when – ?
LK: Yes. And it appears to be simply by an act of human imagination that that happens. So, the – I was so glad I decided to involve several layers of people outside of the groups themselves, because I saw that in peers, especially the group of employees that I studied. I think I talked to five peers and three managers of that group, and some of those peers had been in – on one or more of the pilot projects and had thought themselves a part of the group at different points. So, those people, when they thought they were part of the group were part of the group. Some didn’t consider themselves a part of the group. Group members could consider other people parts of the group. For example, the teachers could consider their students part of the group, whether the other people knew it or not.
LK: And then, my own case, yeah, I mean, there were times when I thought of, you know, various customers or various partners as part of our group. And you know, in the real world, it gets interesting, because your organization or your management structure might have some boundaries about what you can and can’t say to a partner or a customer. And then, you’ve got this little group of people who are considering that customer or that partner part of themselves.
DK: Right, yeah, interesting.
LK: Yeah. I personally got in trouble more than once on that subject, but – yeah. I think that you get a lot of – one thing I didn’t mention in the personal benefits is power. I think, before I hit these groups I – I tended to hear the word power and think negative first. And – but that wasn’t my experience in this group. I – I was empowered by my group, and – as were the groups that I studied. And you know, I got to make some decisions. I’m gonna treat this customer as one of us, and I’m gonna talk to this customer as if this customer is one of us, and I’m gonna see what happens. And that never got me in trouble with the customer. In fact, that made customers, or partners, care much more about us. I occasionally got in trouble with management, but because of my group I had the power to do that, so.
DK: What did – what did trouble look like? Did they say, “We wish you hadn’t done that, but obviously you’ve got this awesome group, so it looks like you’ve got the power to do it?” Or – ?
LK: I got told once, “Don’t do that again.”
LK: Or, “If you’re gonna talk to somebody that honestly, don’t do it in e-mail,” which they had a point on that one. I should’ve done that in person, not in e-mail.
LK: I’m a writer by nature, so I occasionally get in trouble for thinking via writing as opposed to just speaking. But, there was never any – I mean, at the points where we got in trouble, the – the division had so bought-into what we were doing they weren’t going back. I mean, they had too much invested in it, and you know, it was kind of – what our group was doing was kind of rolling downhill. And really interesting finding out of my study, the employee group that I studied, there were people who were opposed to what that group was doing, who were actively pushing against it.
LK: People who were saying, “We don’t have the ability in this organization to work as collectively as they’re saying we do.”
LK: A year later, after the group was over, the – the group ended, their work continued ____ in the organization. None of the people who opposed their work during the lifetime of the group were still in the organization. They had either left of their own accord – like, nobody was fired, but they had, like, moved on to other divisions, or they had changed the group itself, and then became part of it; or they – they weren’t – they wouldn’t vocally speak up if they were still opposed. [Laughs]
DK: Right, right, right.
LK: And that was just fascinating to me. Like, “Holy crap!”
DK: It’s amazing.
DK: You said the middle-manager kind just became part of the group when he joined. Does hierarchy disappear in these groups? Or, are there still power/distance relationships between different levels of participants?
LK: I would say – does hierarchy disappear? I would say leadership moves around. So, depending on what the groups were doing, somebody was the expert. And if it was marketing, or if it was sales, or if it was teaching to a kid with special education needs, or teaching this per – teaching economics, everybody in the group had a different area of expertise. So, depending on what they were doing, you could identify a leader. And people around the group could identify a leader. And it was really interesting to talk to the peers, because several of the peers were adamant. They were like, “Person X was the leader of that group.” And then another peer in a different – was like, “Person Y was the leader of that group.”
LK: And it was – it was – it depended on where they were when they interacted with the group –
LK: And what they saw happening.
LK: Yeah. It was really funny, actually, people being so adamant. “Well, I know who the leader of that – there was definitely a leader. It was X.” [Laughs]
LK: It’s like –
LK: And the groups themselves didn’t – didn’t talk about a hierarchy within themselves. So, if they had it I missed it. I – in my own group, I didn’t experience that there was. It was interesting, because – and it goes back – at work it goes back to who’s – who’s most expert at what, because, one of the five of us was a mid-level manager. So, in theory, that person had more power, but that person was not – was less expert than the rest of us at what we were trying to do. That person, I came to think of him as our – our politics expert. [Laughs]
DK: Yeah, exactly.
LK: I came to decide that that’s what management is good for. Like, you know, in my group we had a learning expert. We had a customer expert. We had a product expert. And we had our politics expert, who was our mid-level manager. And – yeah, and then in the group that I studied, I didn’t – I did see that things changed over time, too. So, one person could be, you know, considered a leader at this point, but then another person could be considered a leader at that point. And I would say that – no, I – hierarchy, to the same extent that, if you went to a great jazz club and saw a great improvisational jazz band playing, if you could pick-out hierarchy in that.
DK: And I’m guessing if somebody tried to exert position power in a group that it would be rejected – I’m guessing? Or not.
LK: Yeah, I mean, I think – I don’t know. The groups that I studied – the groups that I studied were so useful to the individuals within them, they didn’t – I didn’t see in any of them, them wanting to mess that up.
LK: Because they really did get so much. In both of the groups I studied, the introverts talked about, you know, like, “Oh, I got to drag the extroverts with me if I had to go give a talk,” or you know – or an extrovert saying, “Oh, God, I never knew any of the details, and anytime I had to talk details, I’d bring, you know, Y with me.” And so, I came to think of these groups – the people within these groups become little, like – like floaties. Like, when you’re in a pool, and you know, you see kids with the floaties on their arms keeping them up? That’s what the other people in the group become for you.
DK: Okay, okay.
LK: So, you would be pretty dumb to go after your own floatie. [Laughs]
DK: Right, right, yeah, yeah. And assert your own importance ___ __ ____.
LK: That’s not to say that there weren’t – you know, that there wasn’t conflict in the groups, ‘cause there was, certainly in my own group. But, in hindsight, I remember them – it being – I don’t know. Even the fights, even the oil and water guy with me, you know, it – the – the bigger experience was so positive that I even see that conflict as kind of part of, you know, a greater whole. And the conflict made me better. When I came into my group, the guy who was, like, oil and water with me, who I just didn’t – I didn’t even trust him. So, you know, the question of, “Do you have to trust people?”
LK: Not at first. [Laughs] ‘Cause I didn’t trust him.
LK: But, we were together long enough that that changed, you know.
LK: And I was with him two years. And I came to see him as a remarkable person.
LK: The person I had to learn the most from, because he was the least like me. You know – and, you know, today I know him as other things. Like, he’s an amazing musician, and he’s an amazing father.
DK: Beautiful. Are there any attributes, personal attributes, that the ideal work – work group members should have, or do they really – they really embrace just about anybody?
LK: I love that question. I think you have to be a human being to be in a self-organizing work group. Although, I’ve got two Australian shepherds who come pretty dang close, so. I think that, you know, the attributes that matter most are going to depend on what you’re doing, your organization, when you’re doing it. You know, all of these other things. I think – I, again, don’t want to put – I have no interest in putting barriers up in front of people who want to try self-organizing work groups. And I think identifying attributes that are gonna make you better at this is potentially that. I think that, at the very, very beginning, because fostering a group a lot happens within you before you can actually see action. I think that it takes somebody who is aware enough to recognize something – to see somebody that they’re working with, and to – to think to themselves, “Wow, that person is really good at X.” And to have enough awareness to recognize, that person is better at that than me. Or, that person – I could really use what that person’s got.
So, the smallest amount of personal awareness at what you could be potentially better at, and what other people are good at around you, I think is all it takes. Like I said before, with all – with, you know, my years of looking at data under my belt now, I think people self-organize. I think that’s the nature of living beings. And I think the greater barrier to becoming part of a self-organizing work group is a – a simple awareness of recognizing yourself as part of one, than any attribute that you can think of. And it’s so funny that that’s what management and administration in my study fell back on. When I said, “What do you think fostered the group? What do you think sustained the group?” They had a lot of great ideas, and they – they taught me a lot, actually, that I had never thought of from an employee perspective. But, they – they – they eventually fell back to, “Well, I think it was because X had this attribute, and Y had this attribute.” The group members themselves didn’t go there. The group members themselves talked, or – if they did go there, to a much smaller degree.
It was all about the group, and the – the attributes of the group. And so, I think – I look forward to studying more groups, because I think that they – they will look very different in – with other people and in other places. But, I don’t think that there’s any one attribute, or any set of attributes that I – that opts people into these groups. I think that it’s being a human being, and if you’re gonna be able to recognize yourself as a group member, you have to be able to recognize that there’s something that you, personally, could be better at, and something that people around you are good at.
DK: Very good. How do you measure the effectiveness of a self-organized work group? Or do you? You just kinda look at the results at the end of the project?
LK: Well, I can tell you how the groups that I studied did it. The teacher group looked at their initial goal, “We want all of the students to graduate.” And their end goal, all but one graduated, and the one who didn’t, all amount of miracle working that they attempted was not going to help this one kid. And so they measured it for themselves. And then, people around them noticed, “Holy cow, they seem to be able to” – the one peer that I talked to actually shared an office, shared a workspace with two of the teachers, and she really saw, over the course of that year, some of the things that they talked about is experiencing that being in sync and not always having to talk to each other, she saw that happening. And people are really drawn to that, and people really want that. And so, that peer spent as much time with this group as humanly possible. And in the end, that peer got so confident in her own abilities, thanks to the group, that when – after the life of the group, one of the group members left – gave up. She was also the special education department chair. The peer took over her job and felt she could do that because she had been watching that group for a year.
But, back to effectiveness. How do you measure effectiveness? That is not my area of expertise, nor is it my interest.
LK: But, the employee group, you know, they ended up getting so much more than they were expecting, that it would’ve been impossible to set-up a measure of effectiveness at the beginning. They just wanted to experiment with making a – a better planned family of products. It took them two years. They didn’t know at the beginning if it was gonna take six months, or two years, or ten years. But, they got all these other things. You know, they got – they got partners asking for – they raised partner expectations for what the division could do. They raised other divisions’ expectations for what that division could do. So, I haven’t thought too much about that question, because in my own experience, greater effectiveness is a byproduct if working in this manner. It’s not something you have to shoot at. It is a fringe benefit. And I’m – it’s gonna take somebody smarter than me to figure out how to measure something as emergent and spontaneous as what happened in these groups.
DK: Right, right.
LK: That said –
LK: The – I could say that these groups saved their organizations time and money. The reason I could say money, is that the employee group, right around the time they were doing their third pilot project, the PMs, a separate formal group, were so impressed by what they were seeing that they spontaneously started to attempt to measure the impact. And they did their own little study and figured out that they – that this group had cut planning and design time for at least two of the four silos by 70-percent. They figured out that one of the groups was saving – I don’t know – $6,000.00 per product, simply because that group now knew what this group was doing, and this group could use part of what that group was doing. And so, in the one group I studied, in the business environment, a separate self-organizing group sprung-up to defend what the first one was doing, by doing that sort of hard measurement stuff related to money and numbers and saving time and saving money.
And then, all three of the – the categories of people in the study also talked about product quality improving by the time the third pilot product – project happened; which was what they were after. But, it’s interesting, because I said earlier that the groups had – like, the groups – each individual in the group had different goals. So, in the case – in the case of the employee group, if one person was after product – a couple of people were after better products, or closely tied together products. One, actually, had been thinking about sales and selling and numbers all along. And so, I would think that, individually, group members themselves could come up with, in my area, whether it is sales or marketing or prod – you know, product quality or whatever, I think that we’re gonna be able to do this. But, the problem with doing that is – I don’t know, goals are tricky, because in my own group I, personally, couldn’t have imagined how much success we got. So, if I was writing down formal goals, I would’ve been shooting lower –
LK: Than where we actually ended up.
LK: So, yeah, that’s a good question. [Laughs]
DK: Good – very good answer.
LK: I don’t know. When you find out – find somebody who knows the answer to that question, let me know.
DK: Yeah. Well, I’m down to my last question. This is my partner, he said he noticed your Margaret Wheatley books in your reading list, and he wants to know if there’s any relationship between complexity theory and self-organized work groups.
LK: Sure. In – I need to go up and get my dissertation to give you the complete answer on that one. It depends on what he means by complexity theory. And if you’d like, I could send you answer to that question.
DK: That’d be great.
LK: Because it – that one is more complicated. The – the – the – the short version is that – yes, there is a relationship.
DK: Okay. Awesome. Okay. I actually wasn’t even sure if I’d get to that question, but if there – if there is a relationship, I know he’ll be interested in it. So, I’ll send you an e-mail and just kind of, you know –
LK: Yeah, ask me that question and I’ll – I’ll write it down – write it down for you. Yeah, so much of the theory and research that I founded my own study on came out of the hard sciences; chaos theory, complexity theory are all related. However, I was trying – so, from my perspective – yeah, like – I don’t know. Probably two dozen different fields talk about the idea of self organizing. And so – and chaos and complexity theories both are – do as well. I was attempting to not – most of the research out there on – attempts to take what people have learned in the hard sciences and apply it to human beings. And I was attempting to take what human beings did and apply it to being able to do it again.
LK: So, I actually think that there was – the people who are gonna be most interested in my doctoral dissertation research are probably, oddly, in the hard sciences, because there’s not a lot of people who – at least researchers, who are looking and thinking about human beings as being self-organizing living systems. So, yeah, I think if there’s other researchers who are gonna find my actual study interesting, it will probably be physicists, biologists and chemists; people who are thinking about complexity and chaos.
DK: Yeah, I thought I saw Ilya Prigogine in – in your list ___ ____.
LK: Yeah. I wish he was still alive.
DK: Right, yeah.
LK: I would love to go get the chance to talk to him.
DK: Exactly. His chemical clock and all that cool stuff that he looked at.
DK: Amazing stuff.
LK: He – he really, really helped me, because some of the stuff that he saw, when he saw it, and then he said it, sounded flat out nuts. And I had to do that in my doctoral study. I had to actually say a couple of things about what I saw and what I thought it meant that sound flat out nuts. [Laughs] So, just having the – him having written several books, and you know – it didn’t completely ruin his career to say things that sounded nuts.
DK: Exactly right.
LK: Yeah. I would’ve liked to have gotten a chance to thank him.
DK: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I really thank you for your time, Lori.
LK: Thank you.
PUBLISHED BY THE MORNING STAR SELF-MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE, FEBRUARY 8, 2010