Self-Organization is a Powerful, Natural Phenomenon

One of the key insights from chaos theory is that nature self-organizes.

Machines do not self-organize. Studies have shown that living systems self-organize and follow many of the laws of chaos theory.

Self-organization is everywhere in the universe.

  • The galaxies are self-organized.
  • Our weather systems like hurricanes are self-organized.
  • The forests are self-organized.
  • Bee colonies, ant colonies and termite colonies are self-organized.

Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela have written about how living systems are self-organized in their book, The Tree of Knowledge.1

While out for a walk one morning, I realized that people are self-organizing all the time. This natural tendency to self-organize is so pervasive that we usually don’t pay any attention to it. It is like gravity…all around us, but usually unseen. In the early days of my work with Meg Wheatley, we wondered how we could get people to self-organize as if we had to do it for them. Our thinking was way off base because people self-organize all the time! We see it any time people come together to do something that is of interest to them. In organizations, people self-organize into groups sharing common interests.

The three conditions for self-organization are:

  1. Information (what do they know collectively and how do they process it)
  2. Relationship (their level of knowledge, trust and interdependence among them)
  3. Identity (the unique way that they see themselves in relation to the outside world)

Examples of self-organized groups are interest groups, gangs and clubs. In organizations, the different management levels and various crafts like chemists, pipe-fitters, electricians, machinists, and welders can be seen as self-organized groups. The ways these groups share information among themselves, how they relate to each other and see themselves, tends to set up dynamics of “us” and everybody else. Each group is unique and different. When they feel pushed by those outside their group, they bond more tightly and become defensive.

Think about a community gathering where everyone is mixing, talking and having a good time. The level of energy would be high. There would be a lot of noise. People would be smiling and talking. The groups would gradually evolve spontaneously as people moved from group to group to talk to new people and meet other friends. This is a chaotic system and is called a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) in looking at what was happening or a Complex Responsive Process (CRP) in looking at how they were talking, sharing information and responding to this.

This is the way things are happening within our organizations. The various groups of secretaries, supervisors, craft people, managers, sales people, shipping people, etc., are behaving in ways that are very similar to those I just described for the community group. There is a lot of energy and creativity in these groups. We can think about the organization as if it is a living system.

In my early development as a manager in DuPont, I was taught how to manage as if the organization behaved like it was a machine. We had various parts like sales, manufacturing, accounting, human resources, and research arranged like stove-pipes that were not connected very well. We reorganized by moving the parts and the people around as if they were pieces on a chessboard, hoping to solve a problem or get better performance results. This idea of seeing organizations as if they were a living system, like I have described, was a hugely different paradigm from the one I, and most other managers, had learned.

Operating out of the organization seen as a machine paradigm, when I was assigned into a new organization, I went into it with my ideas about how to improve it, solve problems and get better results. I would tell people about how things needed to be, reorganized as I felt suitable and told them what to do. We have all experienced this sort of management behavior. People resist change when it is imposed on them. They dig their heels in and everything gets very difficult. Improvements can be made, but it’s slow going and not sustainable. Most of the energy and creativity of the people in the organization is devoted to preserving the identity and safety of the self-organized groups that are being turned upside down and resisting the new world being imposed by me as their new manager.

There is great energy and creativity in the organization that can become very supportive and creative for helping the organization fulfill its mission providing it can be engaged in purposeful ways rather then being used to resist management and other groups. Learning to engage with the organization as if it is a living system is very much more effective and sustainable than in our traditional way of trying to impose our will.

This applies to any efforts that need to be changed, strengthened and improved. Safety is a wonderful example to consider. Most of our traditional ways to improve our injury and incident performance are imposed. I drove the safety improvement effort so that I was getting myself and everyone else very upset. There was a lot of fighting and anger. This hard pushing and driving people did result in improvements in our performance but it was harsh and not sustainable. But, once the safety fundamentals were in place, we were able to move to a different way of leading safety using the things I’d learned from CAS and CRP studies.


1 Maturana, Humberto R. and Varela, Francisco J. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, Shambhala.

About Richard N. Knowles

© Richard N. Knowles and Safety Sage Blog, 2014. You may use this article on your blog, website or in your newsletter or magazine, provided that full and clear credit is given to author, Richard N Knowles, Ph.D of Safety Excellence for Business with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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