Goals and the limits of self-organization

Thought-provoking post by Jurgen Appelo on the teleology of software projects (post here, check the perceptive comments too).  More properly, he points out that projects do not have a goal in and of themselves.  In his words, they don’t have intrinsic goals (other than self-preservation).

For me, this insight points to the limits of self-organization in initiatives.   IMO, without some degree of design — or extrinsic goals — a self-organized system (or pieces of that system) can get off the rails.  There is a tremendous amount of power in emergent-friendly systems — that’s what social media is all about.   For example, what emerges from Wikipedia is clearly emergent, but it has a explicit goal and with an extrinsic design model:

Wikipedia’s purpose is to act as an encyclopedia, a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge

Finding the proper balance between design and emergence is a fascinating topic.  In fact, my take is that this topic is the subtext of many of the arguments among methodology adherents — waterfall vs. agile. 

I’m always a bit leery of purist arguments.  In fact, I have a syncretist’s instinct to “square the circle”.  Perhaps what I’m looking for is something like Deng Xiaoping’s modifications to traditional Marxist dogma…   How about “Waterfall with Agile Characteristics”?


5 Responses

  1. Whilst it sounds rather flippant to say that self organisation needs to be organised, during the research for my forthcoming book (Leadershift – reinventing leadership for the age of mass collaboration) I have found four conditions which need to be in place for communities to be productive. I called these

    Simplicity (a coherent and simple way to engage),
    Narrative (an underpinning story for people to align to),
    Tasks (a clear set of tasks which participants can measure against their self image) and
    Love (the willingness to commit to making others stronger).

    These elements encourage emergence but are better designed. In many ways this explains the need for the famous “benevolent dictators” we have come to identify with emergent systems.

    Great post thanks for challenging me to think as always.

  2. Emmanuel, That sounds like a great approach. What I’ve found is that community-building tends to focus on conditions 1&4. These attract membership, but the community isn’t sticky without conditions 2&3.

    I’m going to post on your approach and link to your site.

  3. […] Goals and the limits of self-organization […]

  4. […] Gobillot commented on my post on self-organization (here).  I liked his comment so much that I thought it was worth highlighting below: I have found four […]

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