Self Organizing Teams

There's an old concept called Context Marker, that Gregory Bateson used to kick around. A context marker is a subtle environmental cue that pretty reliably informs people how to behave in a situation. Context markers mostly influence at a pre-conscious level. Paying attention to and deliberately setting context markers can influence self organization. 

An example: Set up a conference room into rows of chairs with a center aisle. Dim the lights. Place an open book, perhaps a candle, on a small table at the head of the room. Then invite people into that room and watch what they do. Conversation will hush as they enter. Some will fold their hands in front of them. Ask later why people sat where they sat and and you'll learn that quite a few chose a chair positioned where their family sat in church when they were kids. Were they aware that they were doing that? Most weren't until they reflected on it.

Someone was aware enough to recognize how that context marker might influence the people encountering it. This is an example of a light touch that works whether or not one is influencing an anarchist or an organization. We can become more aware of the contexts we find ourselves in and more deliberately choose how to respond, but without that awareness, we're pretty much slaves to these influences.

We find a lot of garbled context markers whenever we see an incoherent team at work. A team might, for example, espouse co-equal relationships but their leader "owns" a certain, dominant position at the table. No one consciously decided this "lowerarchy", but no one else would dare sit in that chair! Such groups seem to extend their 'storming' period. Perhaps because they are trying to resolve the pre-conscious incongruities surrounding them. 

I'm always amused when I attend a class or a conference promoted as different and find the same old context markers: Lectern, PowerPoint slides, talking head or dancing bear holding forth in front of a room full of people who cannot see each others' eyes. Notice how the really interesting conversations happen in the hallways and the bar? Context markers.

When context markers are mixed or haphazard, don't be surprised if you find that you need to do a lot of coaching and reminding about principles and protocols. When markers are consistent and deliberate, people seem to just act right.

We are more sensitive to context markers than we are conscious of them. Explaining doesn't influence in the same way. They represent tacit knowledge, stuff anyone raised in a culture just understands. Anyone not raised in that culture might not get it. 

Some mix-ups are unavoidable. Our contexts are remarkably incoherent these days. I'm always confused when I enter a company who claims to have a culture of trust, but also has an armed guard station and a metal detector at the entrance. Or one that claims a flat organization, but the managers have doors and gate-keepers. One of my colleagues, disturbed at the mixed message his office door induced, came in on a Sunday and took that door off its hinges and set it on two saw horses to make a conference table. A perfect metaphor for creating more congruent context markers. 

Self-organization does just happen. Whether self-organization 'just happens' as intended might have more to do with the intention than any anarchist or leader might comfortably acknowledge. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett introduced priests who had learned that if they prayed fervently (and quickly) for a rock to fall after they'd dropped it over a cliff, the Gods always answered their prayer. I've learned that if I can conjure up a sticky metaphor for what we're up to together and share it, we all seem to line up facing that goal. If I just explain where we're intending to go without attending to the context markers that correspond to people quite naturally going there, I'm herding cats.
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