Self-Organization – Nothing But Talk?

  • Gerhard Andrey

It's incredible how the topic of self-organization emerged over the past few years. In 2016 we reached an amount of attention we had never seen before. We were invited so many times to talk at conferences, in schools, for communities and many big corporations on all levels up to the top management. And the media covered the topic widely. Some in the industry even thought this was a marketing campaign above all. But far from it.

Time to reflect how we got here, why we gained this attention and where we are heading to.

First things first: Why did we become a self organized company?

At Liip self organization evolved over the years. We grew rapidly and after the first years, when the founders drowned in micromanagement, we knew we had to adapt our organization. First we extended the management team with another three colleagues to avoid installing a middle management. Already there we felt, this wouldn't work forever if the company continues to grow even more; it did the job for a while though.

Our roots

With our strong roots in Open Source, the way we practiced Scrum in projects and especially how we have seen us and each other as human beings in companies, our gut feeling told us that a traditional structure won't work for us in the long run. This was when we began to think to alternatives.

The beginning of self-organization

A colleague suggested to create cross-functional teams; a game changer. No more silos and real bonding within small groups of 10 to 15 people. The teams worked so well and at some point the management team did not have much left to decide. Hardware budgets or setting a company outing date suddenly were the most important decisions. When it became ridiculous enough, we stopped the management meetings and integrated ourselves into teams. Alignment throughout the company worked quite well with guilds; a concept we stole from Spotify. Already there we were almost self organized. Nevertheless informal structures were still in place, however not very visible. Often enough I heard things like: “Go ask Gerhard if you want to be sure about that.” An indication, that self organization was still too dependent on individual behavior.


By the end of 2015 we decided to go one step further. Not only to be clearer about our organization but also for on-boarding reasons. It simply was too difficult to explain newcomers how Liip really worked. We never took the time to formalize our way of doing things. And with a strong growth we had to have something way better documented. We chose Holacracy and so far it seems to be the right framework for us. It requires another blog-post to only tell the story of Holacracy at Liip though.

Why the attention?

Several trends pushed all kinds of actors to look into new ways of organizing ourselves. Companies need to become agile due to the tremendous speed the world changes. Employees should think out of the box, act fast but are stuck in bureaucratic processes within the companies. A new generation of employees arises that seek for other things than the generation before. Meaningful work and self-determination replaced what people strived for in the past: Being boss, ruling over others and having a great job title. And there was Frederic Laloux with his book Re-Inventing Organizations. An awesome analysis of the way organizations evolved over time and the bold statement, that traditional pyramidal organizations reach end of life soon and will be replaced by something else. His prediction: in order to survive, organizations have to become organisms and leave the machine metaphor behind.

In Switzerland only very few companies switched fully to self-organization yet. As it seems, Liip is the biggest one among them and I guess this makes us interesting to get invited and talk about it. We had dozens of presentations for communities, universities and many companies from different sectors. Lots of them heard from us through previous presentations and it was some sort of snowball effect. The media coverage – Bilanz, Tagesanzeiger/Der Bund, NZZ, Bilan and Le Temps to name a few – boosted the interest even more.

What's next?

Self-organization has emerged and cannot not be tamed anymore. When I hear that Swisscom – the biggest Telco company in Switzerland – is introducing Holacracy in multiple departments already, I thinks it's really serious now. The need for change is here. Holacracy will evolve and other ways of becoming self-organized will appear. There is no going back to traditional systems. Companies won't be able to afford to be slow and ineffective due to command and control structures and employees won't allow to be treated like children anymore. So I'm sure self-organization will become an economic advantage and a reason for highly skilled and motivated employees to join these modern companies.

But let's not forget, a reorganization this fundamental is hard work. It's tough on all levels, strategically, operationally, emotionally. Having the spotlight was never the motivation, and sometimes it doesn't even help. But renewing our commitment speech after speech, interview after interview helped us realize: we can only move forward, and so we will.

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