Gateway Drug to Synergism

Gateway Drug to Synergism

Tl;Dr: Self-organising teams – if you can pull them off – offer a path into the synergistic mindset.

A Gateway drug is “a habit-forming drug that is not addictive but the use of which may lead to the use of other, addictive, drugs”.

Self-Organising is Bizarre

Have you ever been in a self-organising team? A kind of super jelled team, as DeMarco and Lister call it, in their classic book “Peopleware“.

If you have, then you may understand a little about what self-organising really means. If you have not, then it’s a sufficiently rare and yes, bizarre, state of affairs that you’re unlikely to even begin to understand the dynamics and emotions involved.

Which is rather contrary to common sense. I mean, how hard can it be? People organising themselves, rather than having some one do it for them (or more often, to them). Sounds like it’s fairly straightforward, yes?

We can read books, watch videos, think and talk about the subject – and come to believe we know what’s involved. But really, unless you’ve experienced it, you just not going to get it. Sorry about that.

Maybe a better question is “Do you need to get what self-organising is really about?”. What is the downside of not understanding?

If you’re a member of a team about to dip its collective toes into the self-organising waters, then learning as you go along  seems like a fair approach, especially if you all have someone or something to help navigate those – sometime choppy – waters. A suitably-experienced team coach has a valuable role to play here. Books can also help (see Further Reading section, below).

If you’re a newbie joining an existing self-organising team, then the team should be able to sort things out for you, and with you, automagically.

If you’re a manager or executive (or Scrum Master or Project Manager) “in charge” of self-organising teams, or of introducing the idea to existing non-self-organising teams, then the downside of not understanding the new landscape unfolding before you is that you will unwittingly maim or destroy the very benefits that effective self-organising teams promise to provide:

  • Engagement in the work
  • Commitment to the goals
  • Alignment with the common (organisational) purpose
  • Joyfulness and higher self-esteem for all (not just the team)
  • Motivation to sweat the details, attend to quality, go the extra mile when necessary


Here’s what’s bizarre: if you attempt to exploit these benefits, they will be still-born and ephemeral. Which is why Servant Leadership or even Host Leadership offer a better path. And why I’d suggest approaching the whole effort obliquely. That is, not pushing for your teams to self-organise. Not pushing for engagement, commitment, alignment or motivation. But rather simply, calmly and quietly listening to them, and making yourself clearly available to engage with them in purposeful dialogue and mutual learning about how the work should work.


The paradox of self-organising is that the more you focus on it, suggest it, push it, the more elusive it becomes:

  • Focus on self-organising, and self-organising will take longer and end up weaker.
  • Focus on the team’s purpose, and self-organising will emerge, stronger and deeper.

Here’s some two simple questions to get the ball rolling:

  • “What is the purpose of this team from the customers’ (end-users’) point of view?”
  • “What measures will the team use to understand and improve its work?”

These two questions are sufficient to forge the necessary “crucible” for productive dialogue – as explained by William Isaacs in his book “Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together“. And to allow self-organising to emerge, unbidden.

And please note, although most folks talk about self-organising in the context of teams and teamwork, there’s nothing to say that you have to have teams to have self-organising. After all, it’s people – individuals – that self-organise. FlowChain is one example of a (synergistic) organisational approach that allows self-organising to emerge without the need for teams (and thereby avoiding the dysfunctions inherent in team-based working).

– Bob

Further Reading

The Great Game of Business ~ Jack Stack
The Power of Servant Leadership ~ Robert K. Greenleaf
Host Leadership ~ Mark McKergow
Obliquity ~ John Kay
Coaching for Performance ~ Sir John Whitmore
Freedom From Command & Control ~ John Seddon
Misconceptions About Self-Organising Teams ~ Esther Derby

  1. Hi Bob,

    You’re right that self-organising teams are rare in a commercial environment. However, I’ve found them to be quite common in non-commercial environments. With sports clubs or church groups the self organisation seems to happen quite easily. With everybody sharing a common goal and a good attitude it just happens.

    This leads me to suspect that part of the problem is the corrupting influence of money on peoples motivation (for example see and ).


    • Hi Ged,

      Thanks for joining this conversation. And for your helpful observation that non-commercial environments can have much less of an issue with self-organising. I wonder what it is about commercial organisations that signifies? Could it be the balance – or lack thereof – between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – cf. Dan Pink?

      – Bob

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