Self Organised Workgroups – Keystone Cops or Well Oiled Machine?

Recently my kids held a ‘garden party’, which has reversed many of my expectations. The end result has been a much neater garden; some repaired power tools and an enhanced reputation for me as a really cool dad. I’d like to say it was down to my supreme leadership, but actually I had very little to do with it. The kids just did things themselves. It’s astonishing what the shame of an unkempt garden can do for the motivation of teenagers wishing to impress their peers.

My expectation had been of something like an episode of the Keystone Cops, a complete mess, lack of coordination, and a great deal of energy spent achieving nothing (ring any bells?). Instead I got weeding in the rain, hedge cutting and internet searches to locate a replacement part for a broken strimmer. Wonders will never cease.

The point of all this is to direct a friend towards some advice on how they might get a group of people to self organise.  It’s a fairly straightforward challenge (compared to a teenage party).  Approximately 30 people who need to pair up to carry out some work together. The options currently being considered are:

  • Issue precise instructions on exactly how they should do things;
  • Get involved and organise them; or
  • Let them get on with it (they are after all grownups).

Here is the advice; watch this video who needs leaders? This was shown by Nick Obolensky one of the speakers at this year’s Welsh Public Services Summer School .

Nick’s video illustrates that it is possible for a large number of people to self organise to carry out a reasonably challenging task. The keys to success seem to be:

  • A clearly defined outcome that everyone understands;
  • Setting a limited number of clear boundaries (basic rules); and
  • Trusting people to get on with it and do the job.

I won’t spoil the video for you, have a look for yourself. In particular look out for the bit at the end where Nick asks, “how long would that have taken if we had put someone in charge?”

Back to my friend; my advice to them, go on, have a go at self orgaisation. All you need to do is trust them (and yourself). Imagine how much time and effort you will save, which you can then spend doing something much more interesting and productive than herding cats.

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Self organised workgroups are possible and do work, even with the most unlikely subjects (my teenage kids).
  2. Everyone having a clear understanding of the outcome and small number of basic rules is important.
  3. Above all trust is critical. Trusting people to get on with it, and trusting yourself to let go.

Link to herding cats post:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. This is so strange, I was actually thinking about this and Nick Obolensky’s video while driving into work this morning! Definitely worth a watch for those who haven’t seen it before, the end made me chuckle the first time I saw it at Summer School.

  2. Hi there! This blog post could not be written much better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept preaching about this. I am going to send this
    information to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi there! This blog post could not be written any better!
    Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I am going to send this article to him.
    Fairly certain he’s going to have a very good read. Thank you for sharing!

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