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Petra admits: I'm geeky about self-organization!

By petra - Posted on 17 April 2012

Have you ever wondered what makes Young Parents Support Network unique?

I have a theory about it and here it is:


Working with Self-Organization

Natural systems

Natural systems create themselves. This is true of human biology, star systems, cities, viruses, and grassroots movements. Natural systems obtain the energies they require to operate, develop and evolve, or else they end.  Natural systems do not owe their existence to human planning and control. 

Once human planning and control take precedence, the nature of a system changes, and it becomes both dependent on and limited by this planning and control. The first challenge with human-driven organisms, as opposed to their natural counterparts, is that managing a complex system, such as a non-profit organization, is a great deal of work. Consider the challenged faced by a human-driven organization like Public Health in countering a natural system such as influenza. Public Health can mobilize and counteract the flu, more or less, at significant expense. It can attempt to anticipate the next season’s flu and make shots available, but the success of this initiative is dependent on a number of factors, including 1.) Educated guesses about what strains of flu are most likely to appear the following year; 2.) The efficacy of the subsequent vaccine against these types and any of their possible mutations; 3.) The voluntary participation of the population in the immunization program; 4.) Distribution; 5.) Securing the funds for all the above. Whereas, the success of the flu initiative, as a natural system, depends solely upon one factor: its adaptability. Public Health may not be interested in behaving more like a virus, but in organizations we can work to depend on adaptability rather than on human control structures to achieve our mission. We can try to be more like the flu .

The second challenge in human-driven systems is that no matter what resources are available to ensure that the necessary work gets done, humans are not consistently able to anticipate the evolution and requirements of a given organizational system, or that of its dynamic relationships with all adjacent and otherwise interconnected systems. Humans are limited in their ability to consistently ensure adaptability, and therefore the long-term well-being of any organization through the methods of power and control. This is because we are not gods!

When we judiciously choose not to control, we can allow the inherently self-renewing and adaptive nature of the resulting natural systems to drive their own evolution. High performance organizations (those that can out-pace similar organizations in terms of desired outcomes) can result from this approach because natural systems are not human-driven and so are not limited by human planners & controllers. The decision not to control is not an abdication of responsibility, but rather a different way of partnering with the inherently self-organizing nature of the universe.


  Young Parents Support Network: a hybrid system

  Young Parents Support Network (YPSN) is a hybrid system. Some power and control do find their way into the works, but our collective goal is to minimize the negative effect of this interference in the natural system that is YPSN. YPSN, like all organizations, is a subsystem nested inside a number of larger systems, including Greater Victoria, the economy, the social justice movement, and on a macro-level, the Gaia system of Earth itself. Our inability to fully perceive all the ongoing & continual changes in these larger systems limits our ability to determine what adjustments need to be made within our own subsystem (YPSN) to ensure that it can adapt and maintain itself in the long term.  Maintaining itself, despite any attachment we may have to either the status quo or a preferred alternative, will always involve ongoing evolution through response to the concurrent evolution of adjacent systems.  Not only is YPSN, like all natural systems, aligning itself with the suprasystems of which it is a part, but it is continuously interacting with the neighboring systems that also comprise these larger networks, including other organizations and people. Every time a new participant joins YPSN, the organization adapts, and this adaptation spreads to other systems. Thus we all co-create YPSN, and the whole world we live in. Thus we can change the world. 

A primary assumption inherent to working with self-organization and natural systems in organizations such as YPSN is that people want to take pride in their activities and naturally move toward self-actualization given the opportunity.  Another assumption is that if a particular development is in the highest and best interests of the system, the necessary supports will become available, including the right people, the necessary funding, and unplanned opportunities.  In our experience, the role of a person who wishes to engage with self-organization is threefold:  1. Nurture the environment; 2. Pay attention; and 3. Offer ideas.  Additionally, there are two other factors that are important to consider: participation and intention. 

Nurture the Environment

The approach to supporting people or a project is the same: attend to the environment to support self-organization.  The physical and administrative environment is important.  Ensure space is optimized and time is created for connection and reflection, that necessary (and only truly necessary) administrative functions occur in a timely manner, and that the self-care capacity of people is supported.  The emotional and spiritual environment also requires attention.  According to Margaret Wheatley, an appropriate attitude to working with self-organization includes welcoming surprises, being curious, nurturing, connecting, and trusting.  Accept that the system will have periods of stability and chaos, and that there will come a time when involvement with the system will change or end.  The system will self-organize in any event, a process that can be enhanced by nurturing the environment.  Provide the right conditions, care for self, and trust that the information and assistance that is required will come.  In combination, these provide the environment that allows systems to emerge, thrive, and change.   

Pay Attention

Notice optimized outcomes, and began to pay attention and to cultivate the approaches that seem to result in these outcomes.  One can assist self-organization into high performance with less effort and substantially better outcomes than if one tries to control it.  Harrison Owen explains that “in the world of self-organizations all the ‘heavy lifting’ of systems design and implementation is taken care of by the system itself”.

Over time one may discover that a self-organizing system has a frequency, a certain ‘hum’, and that by paying attention to it, one can attend to the system’s health.  If it is healthy, focus on self-care and other projects.  The system will function better without interference, and a diffuse awareness of the system is all that is required.  By attending to the ‘hum’ one can also sense when a system is beginning to be out of alignment.  The role then is to pay attention.  The required information is usually readily available.  Someone will provide it, a synchronicity will occur, it will appear in a dream, an unexpected telephone call, or an overheard conversation.  If attending to the ‘hum’ of a system seems subtle, don’t worry. The hum is simply an early warning and will become more discernible. A misaligned system will make itself increasingly apparent, or it may realign itself It is worthwhile to attend to synchronicities.  Carl Jung was convinced of the importance of synchronicities, and in his latter years he used them to guide his everyday life.  Cultivate receptivity.  When confused: walk, ride a bus, be in nature, ask a bird, consider a rock, go somewhere new, listen, and talk to people.  Look not only in physical space but also in “possibility space” as “much of what we seek will never be found at the physical time/space coordinate” according to Harrison Owen.  In our experience, the needed change will make itself known if one is paying attention.  A small shift can be all that is needed.  Owen believes “it is essential to be in constant, conscious contact with the infinitely complex and changing world… even the smallest changes can represent the foretaste of emerging advantage or disaster”. When paying attention, it is useful to consider everything that comes into your field.  Margaret Wheatley explains that “fields encourage us to think of a universe that more closely resembles an ocean, filled with interpenetrating influences and invisible forces that connect”.

Offer Ideas

Once an idea makes itself known to you, then simply offer it.  In this approach, communication is implementation, so there is no need to choose between discussing and doing.  According to Ervin Laszlo, as a natural system, “the universe self-evolves through the propagation, transformation, and conservation of energy and information”.  Projects, friendships, partnerships, organizations and social movements self-evolve this way, too. 

When offering a suggested change, pay attention to the feedback from the system.  It may be just the thing and the system will indicate that it has returned to alignment.  Or alignment and stability may not be in the interests of the system at that time.  Or what is offered may be an iteration of the required change, perhaps what was needed to get people talking so that an idea can be generated (perhaps we need a day-long team retreat), out of which would come the needed intervention (we need a bigger office).  Or what is offered is not relevant to the system at all, but instead provokes an opportunity to learn or to take part in something completely unexpected.  This approach is self-organizing in that it is self-pruning.  Continue cultivating the emergence of the idea as long as it is supported.  If there is no receptivity, let it be.

 The concept of offering ideas does not does not imply passivity, or that perseverance is unnecessary.  The commitment to do the necessary work to support an unfolding, as well as a willingness to let something unfold, are required to work with a system that is realizing its evolving potential.  The ability to discern the difference between facilitating change and attempting to control is essential.  In 2011, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) celebrated their Fortieth Anniversary with over 3 million members and 14 stores across Canada.  MEC was started by four young mountain climbers in a soggy tent who wanted to save themselves the hassle of crossing the border to the States to buy climbing gear.  They decided to form a cooperative so they could order equipment for themselves and have it shipped directly to Vancouver.  They offered the idea, and then worked to keep up with the demand for it, welcoming the presence of others who were willing to join them.  Forty years later, MEC’s mission is the promotion of self-propelled wilderness recreation, and in addition to being the go-to place for outdoor   recreation gear in Canada, it has donated 17 million dollars to environmental preservation projects across the country.


“Everywhere in the new sciences, in living systems theory, quantum physics, chaos and complexity theory, we observe life’s dependence on participation.  All life participates in the creation of itself” writes Margaret Wheatley. Organizations are formed of people and their relationships with one another.  When people who are in relationship to one another become accustomed to a pattern of working with self-organization, they come to see that their participation is voluntary.  Harrison Owen observes this in the minimalist ground rules he sets out for Open Space Technology, an approach to working with self-organization and groups.  The Open Space participation rule is “whoever cares should come, and the fact that they care is sufficient to ensure their attendance”.  The four principles of Open Space Technology are equally simple:

1) Whoever comes is the right people.
2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
3) Whenever it starts is the right time.
4) When it is over it is over.

If people can sense that change is in the best interest of a system, someone will likely volunteer to champion that change, either out of genuine interest, a desire for a new challenge, or a willingness to take on the task through commitment to the project or organization.  In this way, responsibilities are not assigned in the traditional sense in a self-organizing system.  Anyone can offer an idea, including the idea of sharing responsibility, but only those who can embrace that idea with the required enthusiasm to permit its success will know this about themselves.  As Ervin Laszlo says, “like all complex natural systems, human institutions and societies function best when they are spontaneous expressions of the freely chosen activities of their interrelated members”. 


The images that we have of our organizations are what determine how our organizations function.  In other words, alignment with an intention for our organizations determines what we are able to manifest in partnership with self-organization.  Eckhart Tolle writes, “Action, though necessary, is only a secondary factor in manifesting our external reality.  The primary factor in creation is consciousness.  No matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world”.  Our beliefs create reality, and taking time to set intention ensures that our beliefs serve the organizations we want to participate in. 

An example of self-organization at YPSN

  The following is a story to illustrate self-organization in action within YPSN. It is used with the permission of the participant:

Some years ago YPSN provided support services to a young mother who wanted to go back to work, but had no money to cover daycare fees for the time it would take to find a job and receive her first pay cheques.  She felt stuck on welfare.  We had recently learned about the success of microcredit in the majority world, and wondered if it might have utility in Canada.  We floated the idea by the participant, who was interested, and we started a pilot project. The first year, YPSN offered three $300 microloans to young parents who wanted to return to work or school.  Two were repaid in full, but the participant who first helped create the idea defaulted on her loan. 

Four years later, she reconnected.  She accessed support services, and her outstanding microloan was forgiven due to an exceptional hardship that she and her child had recently experienced.  After receiving support, she expressed her desire to give back to our organization.  At that time, there was a large amount of money available through a government grant for preventative support in the area of mental health.  She was interested in working on a community engagement process regarding mental health support services, as she had struggled with her own mental health for years.  With the support of a staff member, she convened numerous community meetings and brought information back, which assisted us to determine the need for improved support services for Indigenous young parents.  She then contacted a personal friend, who we hired on a two-week contract to co-investigate this need further.  What resulted was a service delivery partnership with a local First Nation.  As a result of this partnership, and the other community engagement work done by this participant, we were awarded the grant of $200,000.

This participant still connects with us regularly, her friend became a member of our staff team for a while, and we have a new partnership that will enable us to provide service to young parents living on a local reserve.  None of this would have occurred if we had tried to control the unfolding of events, or if we had been unwilling to float ideas.  These events emerged naturally, as ideas and through conversations, and became what they were inclined to become, and are still becoming.  In this way, a $300 defaulted microloan can become a $200,000 grant, with the potential for additional ripples of manifestation that cannot even be imagined.