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Self-Organization = Anarchy (Part 1)

20/05/2009

Bacteria-adroitv82-3257765842 In the beginning there was nothing. And then something formed quarks. And the quarks organized themselves into composite particles, like protons and neutrons. And these guys, with the help of some friends called electrons, subsequently organized themselves into atoms. And these atoms got together one day and decided to take self-organization to yet another level, and they formed molecules. Millions of different molecules were created that way, and they happily crawled all over each other for a while, forming planets and other crazy objects.

And then some of the molecules, swimming around in a warm and cozy pool, thought they were the trendiest of the lot, and they decided to replicate themselves. They adopted the trendy name RNA. The copying frenzy quickly went in many directions, and soon there were prokaryotes and eukaryotes (and viruses too). And boy, it didn't stop there either. These biological cells self-organized into millions of different species, and it didn't take long for the brain of one of those species (humans) to form consciousness. And this new aggregate system decided to take self-organization to even higher levels. It formed tribes, cultures, cities, businesses, and (as one of its least successful ideas) governments.

From the very beginning of the universe, everything in it was shaped by self-organization

Self-organization is a process of attraction and repulsion in which the internal organization of a system, normally an open system, increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. [Wikipedia]

So you see… self-organization is the norm. Self-organization is the default behavior of systems, whether they are atoms, molecules, viruses, species, or businesses.

Or software development teams…

It is a bit silly that self-organization of software development teams is often hailed as a "best practice" in agile software development. Self-organization is not a "best practice". It is the "default practice" of any system, including teams. Never did anyone direct me in my communication with my peers. Nobody told me how to enter the office, how to hold my mouse, how to write lines of code, or how to write Wiki-pages. Management was never concerned about those things. They always just happened, without direction, even long before agile was a buzzword.

But is what happens also happening in the right direction?

Though every self-organizing system chooses its own direction, the possible directions are limited by its environment. The latest theories of the universe suggest that our universe is just one out of many, and that our specific universe is "special" (for us), in that it has some very specific cosmological constants. It is these cosmological constants that have constrained and given direction to the self-organization of quarks, protons, atoms, molecules, and the whole shebang. (We can only guess what kind of particles could have formed in other universes.)

Likewise, the earth's environment has constrained and given direction to the formation of biological cells. And biological cells in their turn have constrained and given direction to the formation of viruses. And so on, and so on… No self-organizing system exists without context. And the context constrains the self-direction of the system.

And then humans acquired consciousness, and they invented the concept of value.

And humans turned the world upside down. (to be continued…)

(In Part 2: how command-and-control was invented after self-organization)

(image by V2)

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This article is written by on in Empowerment & Delegation. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • http://julianeverett.wordpress.com Julian Everett

    Hey Jurgen,
    Very interesting post, but I have to say I strongly disagree that self-organization is the default behavior of complex systems. On the contrary, I think self-organization is the almost-infinitely unlikely exception to the universal rule of degenerative entropy. That it appears as default behaviour is the great illusion of natural selection, resulting from the fact that all complex systems apart from those vastly unlikely exceptions never survived. I’ve just blogged more info about this here: http://julianeverett.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/complex-systems-and-self-organisation
    cheers
    Julian

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Julian,
    I believe we agree on the concepts and ideas, though perhaps not on some of the wording I chose in this article.
    But I understand what you mean. Similarly, the birth of life was a freak accident, but then the molecules that were able to replicate themselves quickly wiped out all the others that couldn’t.

  • Rodrigo Veiga

    There is a good text about “how the environment stimulates people working in groups”: http://collaboration.wikia.com/wiki/Stigmergic_Collaboration
    Very interesting read.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    @Rodrigo: Thanks for telling me about this. I bookmarked it to read it later.