Only when information belongs to everyone can people organize rapidly and effectively around shifts in customers, competitors, or environments. People need access to information that no one could predict they would want to know. They themselves didn’t know they needed it until that very moment.
To say that information belongs to everyone doesn’t mean that all decisions move to the most local units. When information is available everywhere, different people see different things. Those with a more strategic focus will see opportunities that others can’t discern. Those on a production line similarly will pick up on information that others ignore. There is a need for many more eyes and ears, for many more members of the organization to “inform” the available data so that effective self-organization can occur. But it is information–unplanned, uncontrolled, abundant, superfluous–that creates the conditions for the emergence of fast, well-integrated, effective responses.
Relationships — the pathways of organization.
Relationships are the pathways to the intelligence of the system. Through relationships, information is created and transformed, the organization’s identity expands to include more stakeholders, and the enterprise becomes wiser. The more access people have to one another, the more possibilities there are. Without connections, nothing happens. Organizations held at equilibrium by well-designed organization charts die. In self-organizing systems, people need access to everyone; they need to be free to reach anywhere in the organization to accomplish work.
To respond with speed and effectiveness, people need access to the intelligence of the whole system. Who is available, what do they know, and how can they reach each other? People need opportunities to “bump up” against others in the system, making the unplanned connections that spawn new ventures or better integrated responses.
Where members of an organization have access to one another, the system expands to include more and more of them as stakeholders. It is astonishing to see how many of the behaviors we fear in one another dissipate in the presence of good relationships. Customers engaged in finding a solution become less insistent on perfection or detailed up-front specifications. Colleagues linked by a work project become more tolerant of one another’s diverse lives. A community invited into a local chemical plant learns how a failure at the plant could create devastating environmental disasters, yet becomes more trusting of plant leadership.
The Dynamics of Self-Organization
The domains of identity, information, and relationships operate in a dynamic cycle so intertwined that it becomes difficult to distinguish among the three elements. New relationships connect more and more of the system, creating information that affects the organization’s identity. Similarly, as information circulates freely it creates new business and propels people into new relationships. As the organization responds to new information and new relationships, its identity becomes clearer at the same time that it changes.