Discovering The Dark Side Of Self-Organisation: 7 Common Challenges

By Peerdom and originally published at

Insights from the first Peerdom Forum, where we talked about common challenges in self-organised workplaces.

Self-organisation is often touted as the holy grail of the future workplace. Most information you find about self-organisation (or self-management, Teal, Sociocracy, Holacracy, *cracy, etc.) points out how such an organisational model will revolutionise the workplace by empowering employees, increasing market resilience, and abolishing unnecessary interpersonal hierarchies.

The bias toward highlighting its advantages and successes is understandable; passionate followers of any movement naturally expose the positive and downplay the negative.

At Peerdom, we’re also passionate about self-organisation and rethinking collaboration dynamics. Nevertheless, at the first-ever Peerdom Forum, we decided to focus on the downsides of implementing self-organisation, in order to better understand what still needs to be improved. We asked:

  • What unspoken frustrations arise in such workplaces?
  • What regularly goes wrong?
  • What are the reoccurring challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis in self-managed organisations?

We gathered a group of self-organisation practitioners, designers, and organisational coaches to muse upon this unspoken dark side of self-management.

During the workshop, we isolated 25 challenges that had been encountered in a self-managed organisation (see the full list at the bottom). 

We then clustered these challenges into seven categories and elaborated upon the essence of the respective problems. At the first Peerdom Forum, we did not actually have the time to discuss solutions to these problems — nonetheless, we’ve taken the liberty to suggest a few ideas of where and how to start.

At the first Peerdom Forum, we discovered seven recurrent challenges in a self-organised workplace.

Challenge 1: Transitioning to a “self-organisation” mindset

Over the course of our lives, we work in environments and participate in social groups that are hierarchically structured. For instance, in the case of a typical family, parents usually hold a superior position and children have very little autonomy.

Switching to a “self-organisation” mindset requires shaping new behaviours by unlearning certain interpersonal habits that have become deeply engrained in our collective social experience.

Self-managed organisations call for workers to value distributed power, unconditional trust, courage in the face of the unknown, taking ownership, openness, honesty, and willingness to constantly improve and learn. Judging by the number of forum participants who expressed issues in this category, these qualities do not come for free.

A potential solution: Try working with an organisational coach. Adjusting interpersonal habits and dynamics requires socio-psychological insight and active work. Coaches can provide exercises and tips and tricks to help break free from old reflexes. If you don’t know who to contact: we are in the process of setting up a network of organisational coaches — send us a message and we’ll find a companion for you!

Challenge 2: Maintaining leadership

In a self-organised workplace, previous managerial positions (e.g. CEO, CTO, managers, directors, etc.) no longer “command and control” others. In the absence of such directorial positions, self-organised workplaces often find themselves facing a lack of clear leadership.

Leadership may suffer for two reasons. First, your self-organised team may be averse to leaders because they have a hard time imagining a leader who is not a boss. This is for the simple reason that previously, leadership and management were confounded in the same job position. Likewise, those who used to be managers may be hesitant to take leadership for fear of still being perceived as a boss.

A potential solution: Remember that it is completely okay (and necessary!) for your organisation to be inspired and lead by certain individuals. Inform your team that being self-organised does not mean being without leadership.

Encourage natural leaders (who may be ex-managers, or may be other team members) to take charge. Leaders are experienced workers who inspire the team and help plan, strategise or guide —without having to tell others what to do. Leadership is about guidance, providing advice, and sharing experience.

Challenge 3: Decision-making

In hierarchically managed organisations there is a clear chain of command for decision-making. But when decision power becomes distributed, who is responsible for making decisions? Who calls the shots, and how are decisions made in times of crisis? How do you create a company-wide strategy with autonomous teams?

Participants at the Peerdom Forum expressed the fear of decisions collapsing into consensus mode, and in general, insecurity about collective decision-making mechanisms.

A potential solution: Do your homework. Actively fight consensus-mode thinking. Explore different decision making models: a good starting point might be Mikael Krogerus’ Decision Book, or NOBL’s Decider app.

Challenge 4: Transformation impatience

Another repeating theme was that team members regularly become impatient and frustrated that it takes so long to “fully transition” into a self-organised workplace.

A potential solution: Properly manage expectations. “Becoming” a self-managed enterprise only means that you embody and embrace constant change. Evolution has no set beginning or end — it is a journey rather than a destination.

There is no need to rush to the finish line exactly because there is no finish line. Remind everyone that there will never be a day when you are “fully transformed” — rather, your team will just continue to get better at iteratively improving.

Challenge 5: Information management

In self-managed organisations, work is done in parallel and decisions are made autonomously. Given its distributed nature, there are fewer centralised points where information is concentrated.

This novel environment requires openly sharing one’s work, so that your peers can inform their autonomous decisions with a maximum amount of available information. However, open and transparent information sharing can also lead to information overload and distraction.

A potential solution: Digital collaboration tools such as wikis, channel-based chat clients, and cloud storage systems facilitate the sharing of information.

However, it’s up to your team to be attentive and clever about how the information is organised and how it is made available to those who most need it: make it easy for people to find the information they need, but don’t push everything onto everybody.

Challenge 6: Human resources

Human resources embody a wide set of critical company operations such as compensation, professional development, performance assessment, recruitment, and work culture maintenance. These operations are generally standardised and centralised, which means they require careful reconsideration in the context of self-organisation.

A potential solution: Learn from other self-organised companies about how they handle each of the above points. Mix and match from this information to create your own, unique solution that fits your company culture.

Start somewhere, and trust that your team is capable of evolving from there. Richard D. Bartlett has put together an amazing collection of resources for decentralised organising, some of which touch on the HR topics mentioned above.

Challenge 7: Organisation design

For many companies, a venture into self-organisation will be the first time they explicitly consider how their organisation works. Organisational design is a complicated beast and many questions arise.

For instance, how and when does it make sense to define circles? How and by whom are roles and accountabilities defined? How can those unfamiliar with organisation design or organisational theory be easily onboarded to these new concepts?

And in general, how does your organisational design enhance your day-to-day work rather than remain a theoretical concept?

A potential solution: Take advantage of digital tools that help you explicitly define circles, roles, and accountabilities (e.g. Peerdom MapholaSpiritMaptio, or GlassFrog). Affiliate yourself with an organisational design coach or workers from another organisation who have gone through such transformations. And feel free to tap into our knowledge and contact us to ask us anything. 😉

Where to now?

The first Peerdom Forum gave us the opportunity to gather a community of like-minded individuals and identify some of the reoccurring problems that arise in self-organised environments. In future editions of the Forum, we will further explore solutions to these challenges. Please let us know if you are interested in participating, have ideas about how to approach these issues, or can think of a theme worth exploring.

In the next editions of the Peerdom Forum, we will further investigate these challenges and share how they may be overcome.

Appendix: The full list of self-organisation challenges

Below is the full, unedited list of challenges that were brought up during the Peerdom Forum. Is there something we forgot? Don’t hesitate to let us know!

  • Difficulty in making implicit assumptions explicit
  • Tensions arising through personal opinions and not specific roles
  • Learning curve: onboarding individuals unfamiliar with the theory
  • Maintaining personal development
  • Egos entering the equation
  • Over-involvement in too many projects
  • Lack of taking ownership and being proactive
  • Difficulty fostering purpose-driven thinking
  • Lack of methods and tools to train new behaviours
  • Wrong assumptions about how long it will take until “transformed”
  • Addressing fears and doubts of the team (needs management)
  • Fear of what to do in times of crisis
  • Trust
  • Interfacing with outside entities that do not operate in this way
  • Maintaining congruence between daily work and organisation design
  • Understanding autonomy vs. alignment
  • Holding peers accountable
  • Collective decision-making
  • Company-wide shared strategy / metrics
  • Defining circles in an organisational design
  • Defining roles and distributing accountabilities
  • Maintaining awareness about roles and their position in the organisation
  • Information management / tendency to over-share
  • Unlearning old habits
  • Finding compatible HR processes (budget, salary, hiring)

Republished with permission of the author.

Featured Image and some paragraph spacing added Enlivening Edge Magazine. Featured Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay