Wasafiri’s Experience with Self-organizing Principles

The streets of London are alive with Extinction Rebellion. Their message of climate emergency is well known if not heeded, however perhaps what is less well know is how they run their organisation. For, rather unusually they’ve looked to the world of business for inspiration and have adopted ‘Holocracy’ as their operating model. Holocracy is one of the best-known models of ‘self-organisation’- which emphasises strong structures to create distributed power in service of organisations that are creative and adaptive to a dynamic world. And it is this we are seeing lived out on our streets,

At Wasafiri we have been exploring the use of ‘self-organising’ principles to run our own organisation, drawing on Holocracy amongst other models and ideas. We have been formally doing this since mid 2017, learning a mix of both what works, what doesn’t work as well as we thought it would, and what still needs more work. In this blog, which is a little longer than normal, I’ll share the why, how and some of what we are learning in terms of creating self-organisation.

Choose your operating model

Most organisations use a very similar operating model. So whether they make computer chips, sell accounting services, run schools or hospitals; whether they are multinational megaliths or small start-ups; broadly, decision-making cascades down a ‘hierarchy’ of seniority with the quantity and relative consequence of decisions decreasing or increasing as you move up and down the hierarchy.  Junior people may push decisions ‘up’ the chain, senior people may override decisions made ‘down’ the chain. Within this logic there are varying levels of delegation, empowerment, bureaucracy and some very different cultures – but the hierarchical chain is the defining mode. Such an approach was really codified in the early 1900’s by Fredrick Taylor and the school of ‘Scientific Management’ – and sought to bring efficiency, predictability and order to the way organisations were managed; and by these benchmarks it has been pretty successful. However, what Scientific Management hasn’t been well suited to is creating organisations that can adapt, evolve quickly and learn from a diffuse set of voices and inputs – all of which are characteristics that our rapidly changing world, with its vast and fast data flows and ever more dynamic markets, increasingly needs

Leadership development theory has tried to respond to changing organisational needs by asking us to become different ‘sorts’ of leaders. Over the last decade there has been an explosion of theories, models and books espousing ideas on empowerment, of the servant leader, of listening more deeply and to more people and so on – all of which is good and important. But this focus on individual behaviour is mostly asking leaders to be a different ‘sort’ of hero, and still holds on (often implicitly) to the same old organisational structure; whereby power, knowledge and responsibility are concentrated ‘up’ the chain. But what if what is getting in the way of our organisations being adaptable, learning, evolutionary entities is not just our own powers as individual leaders but the very operating system of the organisations in which we lead?

What self-organisation is (and isn’t) for us

For us at Wasafiri, self-organising principles align with both the work we do and the world we work within.  Wasafiri works to tackle complex social and environmental problems by shifting the systems that produce these problems. Creating system change is about;

  • embracing complexity (not reducing it to a set of disconnected parts)
  • working with uncertainty (not managing it out of existence)
  • the ability to adapt and learn as you go (not predict and control),
  • being able to create new and emergent approaches (rather than rely on the ‘best practice’ of the past).

And so, we need to organise ourselves in a way that enables us to thrive in the complexity, relish the uncertainty, and grab the opportunities that surround us. We need to be an adaptable organisation, capable of decision-making in environments where we must ‘learn as we go’ and move at pace; and so we need an organisation overflowing with well-directed leadership.

Self-organising principles offer an alternative organisational operating system to that of ‘Scientific Management’. Like Scientific Management there is no single doctrine or approach, rather an emerging body of practice and thinking with which a growing number of organisations are experimenting. Here are a few core, common, traits:

It’s not less structure, it’s different structure.

Last week someone shared an elegant metaphor with me about organisational structures. All organisations have and need structures, most build structures to act like traffic lights – to control what people do and don’t do (so you sit at a red light regardless of whether it is 2am and there is no other traffic on the road, or it is busy rush hour). Indeed, research shows traffic lights reduce driver’s acuity rather than heighten it. In self-organising you equally need structure – but you seek to build roundabouts – which set clear rules but enable people to make decisions that are contextual, and actually heighten acuity. What I like about this metaphor is that a roundabout presents no less infrastructure than a set of traffic lights – it just works in a different way, to a different purpose. That’s what we are trying to do through self-organising; we create structures to liberate individual action and decision making, rather than structures built to control.

It’s not about consensus.

Over the years there have been many experiments with organisational forms. In trying to move away from hierarchical forms and create alternatives that include more diverse perspectives, ‘consensus’ based decision-making has been one of the most common alternatives. However, while consensus is great for inclusion, it is poor for efficiency and can be terrible for innovation, indeed consensus processes are particularly vulnerable to ‘group think’. Self-organisation is not about consensus. It is about clear ownership of decision making – it’s just that the decision makers aren’t the most ‘senior’ people.

It’s not no hierarchy.

We do have a hierarchy; we just have a lot less of it than many organisations. Some of us do carry more responsibility, and our decision-making domains are bigger and potentially more consequential. Also we hold responsibility for the governance structures of the organisation. However, what seniority doesn’t mean is that we have a veto on all other decisions. In traditional hierarchical organisations authority for decisions actually aggregates up a chain. By recognising that we have built a structure designed to balance speed, quality and inclusiveness of decision making, we then need to trust the decisions that the structure produces. It is this trust that results in the speed and agility of decision making that is one of the key values of this approach. And when it doesn’t work we need to change and evolve the structures.

It is all about adaptability.

Whilst many of us might argue we ‘like’ how it feels to work in a self-organising way – this isn’t the primary reason we use it. Rather, the primary reason is to allow us to be able to move at the speed we need to, to be able to adapt to the opportunities and manage the risks we face. In practical terms, this means as an organisation we need lots of people making lots of decisions all day every day. And to achieve this we need us all to have a clear sense of our domains of responsibility, a clear sense of our own authority to understand the ‘round-a-bouts’ we need to navigate, and then to crack on – making the best possible imperfect decision with the incomplete information we have on the time line that life demands.

Some of what we have learned (so far)

Hierarchy has a gravitation pull, it takes constant work to create a new way of making decisions.

Looking back I had expected us all to jump at the chance for more distributed decision-making. For those of us in the ‘top’ jobs it was the opportunity to have more time and focus, for those in ‘junior’ roles to have more autonomy and power. But the reality has been a bit slower and harder. We have all grown up in organisations where hierarchical decision making is the norm, and in many ways it is comfortable and familiar. I find, as a senior leader, I like the feeling of being able to help, of solving problems for others and can find this mode a reassuring way to demonstrate my value. And sometimes that is exactly what I need to do. Equally for others passing a decision ‘up’ the chain can be reassuring and a way to mitigate the accountability that comes with decision making. However, just because this mode is easy and comfortable for all of us, doesn’t mean it leads to efficient, high quality decisions. We have to teach ourselves to work in a different mode. If I always default to ‘making the call’ then this is all I will ever do all day long – and the day is simply not long enough. And the truth is while I can ‘make the call’ this is not the same as making the best call. Our organisation is too big (and we are not that big), doing too many different things, for anyone to be informed enough to sit over the top of even half the decisions we need to make. The only way Wasafiri can make the quantity and quality of decisions at the pace we need to make them, is for everyone to be making them – all the time.

It’s work but it’s working.

Laloux in ‘Reinventing Organisations’ argues that self-organising is a higher form of evolution, he implies that once we have come to the right evolutionary state it will all be (sort of) easy. While I like his work, I also disagree. Self-organising principles are different to what we are all used to and that takes work. Building the organisational structures to allow coherent self-organisation takes a lot of work and care and ongoing consideration. And as well as investing in the structures, we also need to invest in ourselves. We are a global organisation and despite our distributed and culturally diverse nature we are all more used to the same, hierarchical organisational form. We have needed to spend time (and probably need to spend a load more) helping all of us build the confidence and skills that good quality decision-making requires.

It’s not that different, and it’s not an all or nothing approach:

Some of the literature on self-organising is almost evangelical, implying that self-organising organisations stand significantly apart from others, and that their leaders have achieved a higher state of consciousness. But I think most of us in Wasafiri would say “it’s a bit different but it’s not that different”.  Purists might argue that at Wasafiri we haven’t gone far enough (and maybe we haven’t – yet). Indeed, I am quite intentional in saying that we have adopted ‘the principles of’ rather than a wholesale doctrine (like Holocracy) of self-organisation. And we are not alone in this smorgasbord approach (see this HBR article for other examples). Our experience suggest you can build in some of the principles, and you can do it over time. However this shouldn’t be confused with thinking it will all just gently happen. I do find we need to keep attending to how we operate and especially when someone new joins to ensure we articulate clearly and stick to our discipline.

It can be hard to know where you fit.

Most of us have grown up in hierarchical organisations (including school). The short hand for working out our role, value, power is to ask ‘who is above me and who is below?’ and it can be tricky when the world doesn’t quite look like this. I do find that when new people join, they need some additional support to orientate themselves within Wasafiri, to see how they fit together with the rest of the team. This also has a resonance in the world outside Wasafiri. I find especially in the development sector, that hierarchy is the very dominant mode, that job titles really matter and that people plot their own careers and the relative value and power of others by job titles. At times we can end up out of step with a world that we need to interface with, both in terms of the clients we work with and the way we recruit

 It doesn’t work for everyone, and it is not the answer to everything.

In my naivety I couldn’t imagine why people wouldn’t want to work in this way; but it turns out for some people it really isn’t enjoyable. We have had people come into the organisation for whom this way of working is not right for them. We also still have the ‘normal’ organisational challenges – like choosing how to manage resources, how to spend our time, avoiding silos whilst creating connection and accountability. All these things still go on, it’s just we try and solve them in different ways.

It really is worth it (for us).

Building in self-organising principles is enabling us to create a growing yet nimble organisation, that actually runs on amazingly little management time.

Going down this route has not always been easy. But we have done it because for our organisation, in our world, it makes best practical sense; and because we like it. I find the management I do is supporting others to make complex quality decisions. I am not bogged down in details, or taking control of things I don’t truly understand, but I am able to provide the best of what I have to offer.


Holocracy- Beyond the Hype, Harvard Business Review 2016

Holocracy, Brian Robertson 2015

How the Anarchists of Extrinction Rebellion got so Organised, The Economist 2019

Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux, 2014