When is #selforganization… not? And does it matter?

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readMar 2, 2022


For many years, a favourite exercise of our is what we call ‘the Obolensky game’ — because we learned it from Nick Obolensky and his book ‘Complex Adaptive #Leadership’.

It is in fact, I think, a classic of the #systemsthinking | #complexity | #cybernetics genre — various called ‘the triangle game’ and something like ‘assassins and shields’ — you can google Nick or me or Dennis Vergne taking participants through the game on YouTube if you like.

You simply get a group of people into a defined space.

You tell them
‘look around the room and silently pick two people to be your ‘anchors’. Do not let them know or indicate to them in any way.
In a minute, I’m going to ask you to organise yourselves as a group. I need the room to end up with every person *equidistant* from their two anchor people — so each of them is the same distance from you.
Don’t stand right between them — things will get very cosy, very fast.
Instead, *triangulate* — put yourself at the top of a triangle, and have them as the other two points, the same distance from you.
You’re going to move carefully, safely, and — and this is important — in total silence.
No communication of any kind. Just move around until the system is set up with everyone equidistant from their town anchors.
Now, how long do you think it will take to settle?’

People will guess: ‘never’, ‘an hour’, ‘ten minutes’. Well, try it for yourself, but you’ll see it’s a lot faster than that.

It’s elegant, wonderful — self-organisation!

And you can go in and move some people around, and let the system come back to balance — it works time and time again.

(Except, for reasons we have never understood, in France. And, for reasons that are perhaps more explicable, in the NHS it ‘works’, but everyone cheats!)

You can even ask ‘what if I appointed a project manager and asked them to organise the same setup — how long would it take then?’

Everyone will appreciate that that would take *significantly* longer.

But, let’s be clear, this is not self-organising. Or, if so, it’s ‘within boundaries’.

In fact, it is a system where organisation is designed elegantly into roles and structures.

It depends on

- the authority given to the facilitator (like being in an organisation or not) — #leadership! :-O

- the dynamic between the leader and the team — trust, respect.
If I facilitate and ask a person with visual impairment to participate, in silence and without aid, my authority won’t last for long.

- questions and answers, clarification and ‘seeing as’, so everyone *actually* knows how to participate

- the willingness and competence of participants to play their roles

So (I owe this insight to Peter Cooper) we’re seeing the setting up of a leadership system with perfect boundaries and discretion for the task in hand.

Many examples of self-organisation are actually elegantly organised systems, with leaders, authorities, trust, boundaries and freedoms? So what?