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(Do) We all know how to self-organise at work (?)

Updated: May 2, 2019

I believe we do and have experienced it many times, that all kinds of people are able to organise themselves towards a common goal - regardless of their education, the type of work or weather they are paid for it or volunteering. Self-organising around work is about the shared purpose, the common goal and series of re-accuring conversations about how to organise ourselves best: what needs to be done next, how to adapt and change roles and tasks in order to make things happen.

The road that proves we can all self-organise

Recently at a large multinational company I was invited to meet a team of middle managers, and share some of my experiences as a leader leading my team towards self-organisation. The company is taking the Agile@Scale direction, and the only thing the team-leaders/middle managers understood so far was that in the new world there will be no (management) role for them. Despite their personal fears they were still interested, what is it that they can do to prepare their teams for this transition.

One aspect of this conversation was for these well experienced, very open leaders it was very difficult to imagine how in an adaptive, agile world their team members could function without them, the manager to tell them what to do. I heard their worries, fears, disbelieves and even the usual scepticism: “oh but our people are simple people- or our work is going out to the field – this is not software development, is not going to work. “

I have grown up seeing an example how “very simple people” could self-organise and self-manage, and be adaptive as a community. I believe we all know how to do it, we just forget to bring these experiences into our Work-life. We have all witnessed and even been part of such experiences,

So let me share with you my story, that I was part of in Yugoslavia in the late '80-ies. I was born on a farm that was one of about 50 farms spread out on a 5 km stretch by a road that lead into the village and further into town. The road was a dirt road and every time there was some serious rain, or snow, you could only manage your way into food shopping, kindergarten, school, to see the doctor if you took a tractor, not possible with a car.

I remember overhearing the adults to talk about it, that times have changed, everyone has a car, but no use of it, if the road is only good on the dry days. My father was a very committed pioneer in everything and soon he found allies between the other farm owners and they went to the municipality with their claim for the road to be asphalted.

It took some years, but finally they got the approval- and money for 1 km of the road to be covered. They could have been happy, but hearing their conversations I realized they were plotting a different plan: how could they make this road longer? This 1 km only reaches the first two farms, what about the rest? What if the road would be different? What if it would be just two lines under the car wheels? What if they would build it themselves?

I still have no idea till this day how, but they got permission for it to be done by themselves and only under the wheel stripes. And this is when I could witness as a 9 year old what influenced what I believe work is, how it can be done, and what people are able to achieve together.

Next summer, when harvest time was over, in the midst of the heath of July the road building began. The 50 man agreed they do not need everybody there at a time (not enough tools, no need for a crowd)- they worked out a system how many of them are needed there at a time, that always the people, whose farm was closest would do the hardest physical work, those farms will provide food and drink for the ‘road workers’ all day and the elderly and the children of those farms are responsible to water the new road in the heath.

This is how I got my very important role in the building work. As the road moved forward- the people changed, but they handed over not just the tools, but the little tricks they have learnt also. This way every farm and every single person living there could contribute: either shine their best recipes and get those shovels into work.

It took two summers to build it and when it was ready- we all gathered and celebrated: the road and the people who built it- US.

None of these people even had a secondary education, the work they did was physical work, but man- they did self-organise! They even found little tasks for a kid like me which were helpful and made me feel as an important part of the whole project and the community.

What did they know?

They had a clear purpose, clear vision about how it will be when it is done and the rest was discussions, agreements between each other and the way they did it was great for what they wanted to achieve. No one was appointed as a leader and everyone could join into the discussions, decision making and participate in the delivery in different roles.

I am sure you have a story too!


I have truly been inspired by the good examples of my parent’s generation and been endlessly experimenting with it ever since at my different roles as a leader. To share your stories and learn from others about how you can support your team/community/organisation on the journey towards self-organisation check out our Beyond Agile half-day workshop in Budapest or our one day Go Beyond Agile workshops in Lucerne.

The Orompart Road- still connecting the community

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