The Way We Work
November 1, 2012 by Amy Sept

In 1996, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers described what they called self-organization: the evolution of a company into a living system that is flexible, intelligent, and can adapt easily to change.

“Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change,” they wrote in The Irresistible Future of Organizing.

Nearly two decades later, this organizational capacity for change is even more critical; the new business frontier has emerged as what some business leaders call chaos. “When businesspeople search for the right forecast…no credible long-term picture emerges,” wrote Robert Safian earlier in Fast Company. “The next decade or two will be defined by more fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm: if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern.”

As described on the oDesk blog in the past, in order to respond to this uncertainty the workplace of the future needs to be creative and adaptable and focused on results over process. In many ways, forming this kind of work environment means growing your business as a living organization and empowering your individual team members.

Lead With Intent

According to Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, self-organizing works because the individuals involved are able to form a collective. Observing social relations between insects, termites and even drivers in traffic jams, they noted that order emerges—even in the absence of leadership—because of a shared objective.

“Members develop connections with one another,” they wrote. “Each determines its behavior based on information about what its neighbors are doing and what the collective purpose is. From such simple conditions, working communities emerge, self-organizing from local connections into global patterns and processes.”

From an organizational point of view, supporting this kind of ground-up collaboration squashes the traditional management pyramid; layered hands-on management isn’t as relevant in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere business environment.

Instead, every individual is empowered to act. Organizational leadership becomes focused on intent and clearly communicating global goals and vision, and the role of the manager becomes one of mentor, connector, and advocate.

Help Team Members Find Meaning

“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat and tears.”
– Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why

A workforce of empowered individuals can be an intimidating thing; you have to trust that your team members will make decisions that support the organization.

That’s where being able to clearly communicate your vision becomes critical—first you need to find people who believe what you believe, and then you need to show them the link between what they do and the organization’s success.

“A company can spend lots of time developing a perfect strategy,” wrote Jacque Vilet on human resources blog TLNT. “But it means nothing if it is unable to ‘cascade’ that strategy down to the day-to-day work of its employees.”

Further, drawing a line between day-to-day work and overall vision gives people a sense of purpose—something that will stop people from walking out the door. A survey by Deloitte found that even in an uncertain economy, people want meaningful work that challenges them and makes good use of their skills and abilities.

Leading an organization with intent creates an environment where individuals can self-organize and self-direct—an environment that will prepare your company to compete as the future of work unfolds.

Do you think this kind of empowered workforce is the future of business, or is it more of an ideal? Please add your thoughts to the comments below.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor and Contractor

As the managing editor of the Upwork blog, Amy Sept works with regular and guest writers to share information that helps freelancers and businesses navigate the future of work. A writer and social media pro, she owns Nimbyist Communications and often works remotely with non-profits, tech companies, and small business owners.