Nicole Werner

Facilitator & Coach

First Steps to Implement Self-Organization in an Association

The Perspective of a Board Member

For a good year now, I have been on the board of an association of organizational consultants. This exclusive network celebrated its 25th anniversary two years ago. It was the last of the three-day annual meetings, always held in January, where the majority of members met physically before Corona severely limited our opportunities to meet.

Here I don’t want to write about Corona and the challenges it poses for many associations, networks and communities around the world. I want to write about the opportunity that this association gave me and continues to give me to help shape the transformation process toward a self-organized community. In my work as a consultant for leadership and organizational development, I accompany people and organizations as an outsider. I am aware of the uncertainties and inner resistance that accompany major changes among those affected. On the board of this association, I now have the opportunity and the great fortune to experience – to practically feel – these feelings as a participant in leadership.

Over the last few months, our four-member board had been organizing an elaborate conference with external speakers on the topic of leadership development for all members, when Omikron approached in December and a large part of the members finally decided not to be physically present. However, some explicitly expressed their desire for physical connection.

Thus, we on the board decided to cancel the originally planned large annual meeting in favor of space for bonding get-togethers and, at most, to use the opportunity to address leadership in our association on a smaller scale; not least because otherwise the association would have faced high hotel cancellation costs and the four of us had reached our personal work limits with the additional challenges associated with Corona.

Individual members expressed their concerns about tackling such an important issue only in a small group without the greatest possible participation. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this year we held our three-day annual meeting on a much smaller scale than usual. Only 14 of our nearly 80 members physically met.

Transformation in several stages

Background: During a transformation process of about three years between 2016 and 2019, the approximately 80 organizational consultants and coaches in our association decided to change from a network to a self-organized community. Three years in which a lot was discussed and philosophized together about self-organization and participation; a time in which everyone learned a lot about methods and concepts for implementing agility and self-organization in favor of evolutionary organizations.

Since then, the board team involved individual members in the twice-yearly meetings more than was usual before, up to the anniversary meeting in 2020, to which almost all members present contributed. What did not change was the internal structure of the association itself. The four-member board remained at the helm after 25 years, albeit with three new people on the team. In addition, there was little transparency about what being a «community» meant to individual members.

In my view, an important aspect of community is to shape and implement together, in appreciative connection with one another, what the community exists for – what its purpose is. In other words, it is not the responsibility of the board alone to carry out the tasks that arise and to fulfill the wishes of the members. This is the task of everyone. But what does it take for members to take on responsibility – and to do so with as much enthusiasm and commitment as possible?

For more than 25 years now, the four-member board of directors has taken on the important functions of conference preparations, member and association administration, accounting and communication in changing line-ups. The board members have performed the associated tasks on a voluntary basis. Resources beyond that for actively shaping and changing the structures and processes of the association were lacking. As a systemic consultant, I know this phenomenon all too well from my work with executives in organizations: With the one-sided focus on the operational drudgery in the system, the creative work on the system is lost.

« With the one-sided focus on the operational drudgery in the system, the creative work on the system is lost.»

At the beginning of January, we took a decisive step in the direction of more participation in the 14-member group of those present. Together, we initiated the internal restructuring as well as the sustainable participation of all members, without making decisions over the heads of those who were not present. The result: Over the next year a working group will work on the system of our association. All members of the association are invited to sign up for participation in this group, which will work out proposals for the adaptation of structures and processes. The lot will decide which of the interested persons will be part of this 8-member working group. We will only make sure that there is at least one new member and that women and men are equally represented.

The struggle for the next steps

From the “position at the top”, I was able to initiate a two-day group process with my colleagues on the board, in which everyone present was able to participate. It was not an external consulting mandate, not a workshop in which I accompanied others, but I and all of us were part of the system. We didn’t talk about models of how «you should or could do it. Participation and self-organization were not buzzwords, but we experienced directly in the group what is involved and how demanding it can be for those involved.

We started first with a broad range of topics that we collected from among those present to work on collaboratively to get started. One of several topics was leadership in our association. At the beginning of the second day, the group decided together to put other concerns on hold in favor of this topic – after questions from individuals in the group had already been taken up the previous evening.

Now the struggle began. Some expected the board to provide more structure, to let go less. Others asked us to let go more and also to physically step back in the room from the frontal position into the circle of the whole group. Again and again I was torn between my inner and outer voices. Like the others in the room, I had to engage with what was emerging in the moment.

We were immersed in an intensive process of being able and wanting to contribute, of jointly seeking and enduring unpleasant feelings such as impatience, insecurity, irritation and tension, as they inevitably arise in group dynamic processes. It was a struggle about how things could and should continue in this group.

Factors of success

In the course of the process, decisive factors for success became apparent to me: a clear vision and a group of people who share this vision. Sufficient participants who, in the interest of the big picture, repeatedly put aside their own ideas of what they think is the right course of action. And the inner capacity to take responsibility for one’s own unpleasant feelings and not pass them on to others.

As a board, we contributed to this by creating the framework for trusting one another at the beginning, by making ourselves vulnerable and attackable, and by stepping out of control. Last but not least, it was the small size of the group that made all this possible. Perhaps it is also thanks to Omikron that we can now take a new path.

The consultants present knew tools and methods for self-organization and participation. We actually applied a few of these tools. In my perception, it was above all the loving connection with each other that made it possible for us to keep pushing each other and to come to a wonderful and fruitful result in the intensive time with irritations and tensions.

« In my perception, it was above all the loving connection with each other that made it possible for us to keep pushing each other …»

At the end of an intense second day, we were all exhausted. Not only those present from the board were relieved and happy that «the paradigm shift has now been heralded», as one of the participants put it later in the official virtual general assembly.

I am indescribably happy about and grateful for this learning and development opportunity. Albert Einstein knew, «Learning is experience. Everything else is simply information. It is a great gift for me, as a normally outside consultant, to be able to experience for myself what it means to relinquish power and share responsibility at the top of an organization.

The road is rocky, there are gusty headwinds, tensions and criticism, and it is challenging for all members – like a high mountain climb. But after last week’s experience, I’m convinced it’s worth it – the view from the summit will reward us. By distributing functions across the community in the future, we can tap into the collective intelligence of the association’s members. Now there will be room to work on the structures and processes of our association.

One long-time member told me at the end, «This was one of the best annual meetings I’ve experienced in many years. That makes me happy and yes, I admit it, a little proud.