organizing with networks, teams, self organizing and empowerment

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Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self Organizing and Empowerment


  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    1 Author: Kaj Voetmann,



    Written by Kaj Voetmann,

    Networks and teams have become central in the way we organize ourselves inside and between

    organizations. With Kurt Lewins idea that there is nothing as useful as a good theory, it is

    remarkable that both the concept of networks and the concept of teams often are defined very

    implicit and seldom are used consistently.

    In this article I will address some of the reasons creating this situation. The main reason is that we

    in the western hemisphere is in the middle of something Peter Senge calls Galilean shifts, where

    our traditional worldview no longer is sufficient to explain phenomena like networks and teams.

    Peter Senge identifies three major Galilean shifts:

    1. THE PRIMACY OF THE WHOLE. The defining characteristic of a system is that it cannot be

    understood as a function of its isolated components. First, the behavior of the system doesn't

    depend on what each part is doing but on how each part is interacting with the rest. Second, to

    understand a system we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part.

    Third, and most important, what we call the parts need not be taken as primary. In fact, how we

    define the parts is fundamentally a matter of perspective and purpose, not intrinsic in the nature of

    the "real thing" we are looking at.

    2. THE COMMUNITY NATURE OF THE SELF. When somebody asks us to talk about ourselves, we

    talk about family, work, academic background, sports affiliations, etc. The self is not a thing, but a

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    2 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative a narrative striving to

    connect with other narratives and become richer.

    The constitution of the self happens only in a community. The community supports certain ways of

    being and constrains the expressions of individuality to certain patterns of behavior. A systems

    view of life suggests that the self is never "given" and is always in the process of transformation.

    3. LANGUAGE AS GENERATIVE PRACTICE. We invent structures and distinctions to organize the

    otherwise unmanageable flow of life. That organization allows us to operate effectively, but it can

    become a tranquilizing barrier to exploration and creativity. The more efficient a model of the

    world turns out to be, the more it recedes into the background and becomes transparent. The more

    successful the model's strategies, the more the "map" of reality becomes "reality" itself. The

    danger of success is that the thinking behind it can become entrenched and disregard the

    necessary context of its effectiveness. When a model loses its "situation" and generalizes its

    validity to universal categories, it sooner or later stalls our capacity to deal freshly with the world

    and each other.


    The traditional way of perceiving organizations is that an organization has a clear boundary to the

    environment, that it is relatively stable and that all the people are organized in small well defined

    jobs, which creates a well ordered hierarchy.

    In these organizations there are departments, where a series of well connected jobs are

    supervised by a manager. And teams are nothing like departments and the leader of a team has

    very different responsibilities than the traditional manager of a department.

    In the traditional views on organizations there are some ideas about leadership and cooperation:

    All leaders (and employees) are expected to be in control of things

    Some of the assumptions behind the idea of being in control are:

    The future is known and looks like the past and present

    The premises for the present set of well functioning solutions are stable

    The solutions and tasks have to do is defined correctly and are non-negotiable

    The way the tasks are solved is efficient based on the criteria, that was instrumental

    in the choice of the solutions and tasks

    Everyone who is affected directly or indirectly agree that the way the tasks are

    done is efficient

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    3 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    The structures of society both local, national and international are unchanged

    These assumptions are nowadays part of an on-going dialogue and negotiation between more and

    more people, who often lives far away from the head quarter of the organization.


    In this article I will introduce anoter way of perceiving organizations, which is much closer to the

    everyday life most people live in organizations. An everyday life, where today doesnt look like

    yesterday and where the idea that one person can be in control of everything are no longer


    Nature is a good metaphor for the everyday life most people experience in and around

    organizations. Gareth Morgan has described the metaphor of a Spider Plant in his book

    Imaginization, and I have updated it to 2008. A Spider Plant looks like this:

    Figure 1. A Spider Plant Illustration: Hans Mller/

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    4 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    Figure 2. Another Spider Plant Illustration: Hans Mller/

    Figure 3. Mother plants collaborating


    A spider Plant begins its life as a small offshoot, which can grow to become a big and beautiful

    plant and begin to make new offshoots. The offshoots produce new offshoots and so on. This

    growth can be an example of a new organization, which grows from very small to very large

    organization. It can also be an example of a project that starts with an idea, which have no access

    to soil, water or fertilizer, but over time it will grow big and then it will spread into many offshoots

    and often it'll transform itself to a new operating unit.

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    5 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    Figure 4. The first offshoots Illustration: Hans Mller/

    Figure 5 Growing up Illustration: Hans Mller/

    The spider plant can also be an image on an early morning, when the organization actually doesn't

    even exist, but then life is filling it up and it grows up until people begin to go home again.

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    6 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    Figure 6 Dying plant Illustration: Hans Mller/

    The metaphor also introduces the idea that the plant and its offshoots can die or some parts can

    die while others survive and thrive. It even makes it possible for an offshoot to become an

    independent plant.

    Figure 16. Creating new independent plants Illustration: Hans Mller/

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    7 Author: Kaj Voetmann,


    To ensure that the life forces can flow back and forth between the different parts of the plant

    there are strings or umbilical cords that contain several channels dealing with different life forces.

    One channel contains shared mission, vision and values, which holds the business and the social

    community together. Another channel contains the infrastructures and the mutual

    accountabilities, which builds on the trust that is necessary when you put part of your own

    destiny into the hands of other people. A third channel contains the resource flow that the

    mother plant exchanges with the offshoot. A fourth channel contains the information flow

    between the mother plant and the offshoot and a fifth channel distributes the contributions and

    the gains developed in the life of the plant.


    In the daily life of the organization there is a need for many kinds of conversations between

    people who works inside or outside the organization. These conversations take place through

    physical and cordless strings between the different parts of the plant. Originally these

    conversations took place by people walking around and talking to each other or writing to each

    other. Today lots of this physical activity has been replaced by many kinds of conversations

    carried by many different technologies. In the traditional organization distance was a great

    challenge especially because of the delay created by the physical transportation between the

    participants in the conversations and the hard process of writing down and decoding written


    Mission, vision and values

    Infrastructures and accountabilities



    Contributions and gains

    Figure 7. Umbilical cord with several channels Illustration Hans Mller/

  • Organizing with Networks, Teams, Self-organizing and Empowerment 2012

    8 Author: Kaj Voetmann,

    Figure 8. String conversations Illustration: Han

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