Authorization in Self-Organizing Systems

I’m zooming in on authorization, because I notice that when coaching Agile adoptions, there is always this sticky “authority aspect” in just about any problems that need addressing. Authority always seems to be the central concern.

Like Harrison Owen [1],  I believe that all systems are open and all systems are fundamentally self-organizing.

I also currently hold the following additional beliefs:

  • Self-organization in a social system (like a team) is actually the act of self-management. Management is a function, not a role. Manager-roles are obsolete, even as (self) management becomes more important than ever.
  • Self-management in a group is the act of distributing informal authority in real time. Authority is dynamically allocated (given and taken away) by the informal system in real-time. The informal system responds moment by moment to environmental change 1000 times faster that the best formal system. It is super-efficient. For this reason the “informal system” (the self-organizing universe) is superior in every way to formalized methods of authority distribution. The informal system wins every time. It’s “no contest.” Remembr: “All systems are self organizing”. There’s a REASON for that: Higher, better, superior performance.
  • All self-organization is self-management at the level of group.

This has serious implications for Agile adoptions. If the above is true, the following is strongly implied:

  • Allow teams to make decisions. The act of deciding requires authority distribution. This is self-organization.
  • If you routinely alter team composition, expect a rapid decrease in productivity as the propensity to self-organize is diminished. Making decisions for the team kills self-organization.
  • If you want more than the 25% improvement in whatever you are measuring, make sure you encourage genuine self-organization (dynamic authority distribution) inside your teams. Do this by encouraging decision-making. Note: Imposing Agile on teams routinely results in productivity gains from 15 to 25 percent. Self-organizing teams will get 3 or 4 times that. Imposing Agile practices on teams is not advised [2].
  • Never attempt to exercise authority from outside the team where team-level decisions are concerned. Let them decide. Otherwise you will reduce the propensity of the team to self-organize and this will result in a drop in productivity.
  • Don’t mandate the use of specific Agile practices, since this will kill the potential for genuine self-organization. Instead, create the best environment you can for teams to actively decide what practices are best for them, consistent with the Agile Manifesto [3].
  • Consider the use of Open Agile Adoption [4], which is set up to encourage self-organization by design


Related Links:

1/  Harrison Owen: TED talk in Self-Organizing systems. (link)

2/  The Agile Imposition. Essay. Martin Fowler. (link)

3/ The Agile Manifesto. Web page. (link)

4/ Open Agile Adoption Explained. Blog Post (link)