IPMA International Project Management Association
18 February 2019 / 9:13

Self-organisation – a new paradigm for project-oriented work (1)

This is the first of a series of blogposts on self-organisation in the context of projects. The topic was discussed in depth last weekend in a think tank on “rethinking projects”, which will prepare the topic fundamentally and then discuss it in greater detail at the IPMA research conference in autumn 2020. Self-organisation is realized in the physics of non-equilibrium processes, and in chemical reactions, where it is often described as self-assembly. The concept has proven useful in biology, from molecular to ecosystem level. Cited examples of self-organizing behaviour also appear in the literature of many other disciplines, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences.

Self-organisation can be defined as “a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process is spontaneous, not needing control by any external agent. It is often triggered by random fluctuations, amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organization is wholly decentralized, distributed over all the components of the system. As such, the organization is typically robust and able to survive or self-repair substantial perturbation.”

We discussed why self-organising is increasingly of interest to people, organisations and our discipline. From the perspective of society and the context, we are experiencing an increase in complexity, accompanied by disruptive changes, a high pressure to accelerate, the change in essential values and the desire of people for self-fulfilment. People want to decide for themselves what part of their life they want to work and, above all, what this work looks like. They want to network and do things together. Organisations exist to make this kind of work and networking possible, otherwise they are no longer attractive for (young) people. They must therefore be much more responsive to people and their needs, i.e. both customer- and employee-oriented.

Self-organisation is therefore an interesting design approach for all kind of organisations, but especially for those who are service-oriented, performing projects for change, for being creative or starting new endeavours, to name only a few. These kind or part of organisations need to open up, network across their organisational border and organise internally in a different way. Organisations that focus on repetitive tasks, or that are bound in a tough regime of legal or safety requirements may not chose to self-organise their work. However, there is always self-organisation going on, maybe informally or hidden in certain areas. Most of the organisations have a dual operating system at work.

What are the potential benefits of self-organisation? On the one hand, it is an enabler to cope with an increasing complexity. It motivates and empowers people to reach higher performance levels, it enables creativity, flow and allows for better adaptation of the organisation as well as organisational learning. On the other hand, an organisation may run into the risk of overwhelming individuals (burnout risk), of losing orientation and causing troubles, resistance or conflicts. The efforts of self-organisation may be larger than in pre-set structures, the results (products, services etc.) may be refused by the embedding, traditional organisation or the part of the organisations using the self-organisation may end up being an isolated “island”…

Through the next blogposts of this series I will describe what constitutes self-organisation (in the context of project-oriented work), how differently leadership is performed in this context, what motivates and enables people to work in such a context and how the embedding organisation can really support self-organisation.

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.