Learning Dynamics (part 2): Self-Organisation

Mark Upton
Jul 14, 2016

“When I explain complexity theory to my old Mum, she looks at me quizzically and says, ‘Isn’t that common sense, dear?’”

In a recent post on Learning Dynamics I covered how patterns of behaviour emerge due to interactions between people in a system (or at a different scale of analysis, interactions of the bodies sub-systems). Sir Dave Brailsford was quoted as saying a team is always in a constant state of flux and changing all the time. There is inherent uncertainty in the path a person/team/organisation/society will travel.

In more theoretical terms, at the heart of all this is the process known as “self-organisation”, a key feature of complex systems. Now this is a contentious idea for some, perhaps because of either misunderstanding and/or somewhat liberal interpretation of the concept (which I have been “guilty” of myself). This might be a good opportunity to tidy up these things and consider the implications for coaches, managers and senior leaders in sport. For me, three key points fall out of it…

  1. How a coach/manager/leader is part of a complex system
  2. Patterns of behaviour or outcomes from processes of self-organisation are not inherently “good” or “bad”
  3. the potential to shape self-organising processes

I’ll use some passages from an excellent book I read a while ago and more recently been looking back through the (numerous) highlighted sections. The book is called “Embracing Complexity: strategic perspectives for an age of turbulence” by Jean Boulton, Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman. The authors do an outstanding job covering the theoretical aspects of Complexity Theory/Systems/Thinking as well as offering pragmatic advice to satisfy the “so what?” question the reader may be pondering.

An explanation of self-organisation and touching on the first key point mentioned above…

This process of establishing a dynamic balance, self-organization, is not organization imposed from the outside or ‘top-down’. Self-organization results in structure that does not come from a blueprint, is not designed, and is strongly affected by local interactions. The term self-organization can be confusing, however, because, in human systems, the process of self-reinforcing or antagonism still happens even if there is leadership or control or intervention imposed from outside, and we should see leadership, existing power relationships, and other factors as part of, as within, the self-organizing process, not as something additional. Leadership and control may disturb the system, they may in many situations shift it in the direction intended, but the actuality of what happens depends, as we have said, on the whole gamut of factors — leadership, history, context, relationships, and existing patterns and processes. It is all these factors together that contribute to what form results.

So this reflects what I covered in the previous post in terms of moving away from the ideas of blueprints and being able to completely control and predict outcomes. Some people’s takeaway from this is that formal leaders or roles that normally have “control”, ie coaches, are not needed or have no influence. However this is not the case – they and their actions are within the system and may be influencing the direction it takes.

Now, is self-organisation always a “good” thing?…

Another factor to mention is the idea, held by some, that self-organization expresses a sort of natural law, like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and that it almost inevitably leads to an ‘optimal’ balance. This is by no means the case. There is nothing intrinsically ‘good’ about the outcomes of self-organization. Sometimes, as we have described, depending on the order of events, certain features ‘lock-in’ and make it well-nigh impossible for later innovations or interventions to ‘invade’ the status quo. Self-organizing processes happen. There is no intrinsic superior morality or ‘best fit’ that emerges from the process.

Apparently not, hence the need for efforts to shape and guide the direction of travel…

If we want to influence outcomes, then we must look to how we act in the system, how we attempt to influence it, and what we introduce. This suggests that there is a need for some form of regulation, and some forms of leadership. This is not to say that leadership is necessarily top-down – but there is a place for shaping this emerging complex self-organizing process in a variety of ways.

Let’s look at that last aspect from two angles – a coach developing youth players, and a senior leader (or management team) of a national sporting organisation.


Many good coaches and clubs already have a (tacit) understanding and effective way of working with the complexity inherent in long-term player development, shaping and guiding the young persons journey. A formalised framework designed to help coaches manage this complexity and positively influence self-organising processes is the Constraints-Led Approach (hence the saying “self-organisation under constraints”), an approach underpinned by understanding and appropriate manipulation of Person, Task & Environment (physical & socio-cultural) constraints. For example, the coach may change the size of the pitch (Task), acknowledge and show patience with a players coordination difficulties due to a growth spurt (Person), and even walk away from a small-sided game to encourage players to play with more freedom knowing the coach is not there to assess and disrupt “their” game (Environment – social). The coach could also re-design the space in the training facility where tactical meetings are held to make it more inviting for players to engage in discussion rather than be passive consumers of information. (Environment – physical). Keen observation, use of judgement and willingness to adapt/change/experiment at certain key times are features of leaders working in complex systems, including this example of coaching. This type of coaching can challenge some peoples notion of the role of the coach, possibly reflective of a worldview where authority figures have all the answers and are in complete control of outcomes. A worldview that can also be detrimental in this next example.

National Sporting Organisation (NSO)

You’re a member of a senior leadership team of a NSO that has just merged its smaller federations to operate under the one national banner. You have around 500,000 people involved in a variety of roles in your sport, geographically dispersed and with diverse cultural histories and peculiarities. You have two inter-related strategies on the agenda that are common to many NSO’s – increasing participation and quality of performance pathways.

Now, what you are clearly part of is a complex system. Acknowledging this, and having read this blog ;-), you will be aware of the implications – self-organising processes that you can influence but not control, uncertainty, ill-defined timeframes for progress, the inappropriateness of blueprints and “rolling out” detailed strategic plans. So what you wouldn’t state is something like this…

“Our next step will be to develop the actions, milestones and targets to deliver the strategy”

Yet many do (this is a genuine quote from a sport in a similar scenario as what I have described above). Why do they do this? This quote and method of “delivering strategy” is underpinned by the “clockwork universe” and machine worldview — like with notions of coaching, that authority figures are in control, have the answers and deliver top-down change. We have the answers, we know what to do, it will go smoothly and predictably. So all we need to do is document the actions, establish milestones and create clear targets that are measurable and we can assign and hold people accountable for. Bingo! – isn’t that what a senior leadership team should be doing? Isn’t that what gets reinforced as “best practice”? Sadly, yes it does. And so without any critical thinking, this misguided approach is allowed to continue. When things don’t work out as expected (which in reality is to be expected), the blame-game begins, things disintegrate and we start the cycle again with the next round of detailed strategies (likely delivered by a new senior leadership team).

“The need to understand that a complex system has to be managed in the present with a general sense of direction but no specific goals is always difficult” – Dave Snowden

Lets rewind back to the point where we have the two high-level strategies. This is needed – we have a direction of travel set. Where to now though? Well, similar principles can apply in terms of constraining the self-organisation of the sporting system. The merger will have created instability so things will change and shift. Can we influence that? Can we develop a portfolio of experiments (micro-strategies) to probe the system and help us learn about the dynamics? If we start seeing positive signs in response to implementing some of our experiments, how can we amplify them? If there is no response we have to use judgement as to whether to persist or try other experiments. We can’t observe and directly interact with all the people and programs within the system, so we need to find other methods of capturing the narratives that are emerging and looking for patterns that will guide our actions. Gradually we figure out “what works” for certain contexts (maybe a coach development initiative for the performance pathway) and so we may be able to scale it (have to be careful with scaling though as inevitably that means some change in context).

Ultimately, by managing and acting in the present – “playing what’s in front of us” – we evolve forward to a desired stable state, in this case increasing participation and/or quality performance pathways. There is no need to create the “illusion of control” by locking in milestones, targets (some magical round-number of qualified coaches is my favourite) and discrete actions from the get-go (although it may be appropriate to do some of this in some form later on).

Mum’s Wisdom

As Jean Boulton has said in one of her blog posts

“When I explain complexity theory to my old Mum, she looks at me quizzically and says, ‘Isn’t that common sense, dear?’”.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of similar sentiments (not from mum mind you). What keeps bugging me though is this…if it’s such common sense, why is it uncommon to see it reflected in the actions and strategies of those in leadership positions in sport?