Using Self-Organizing Activities in Proposal Development

One of the most exciting new research fields over the last decade has been the study of self-organizing behavior, which is characteristic of bottom-up systems that use indirect control to grow smarter over time by using positive feedback loops (problems lead to new ideas and solutions).  What is self-organizing behavior, and how can it be incorporated into proposal development to make proposal teams more effective?

In human organizations, self-organization is the spontaneous development of groups around specific issues that creates new ideas and patterns of behavior.  It is usually in conflict with the official hierarchy, and it is provoked by differences and conflict.

Despite their astonishing variety, self-organizing behaviors share certain features.  They draw upon relatively simple rules.  They are bottom-up rather than top-down systems that do not depend on executive direction to guide them.  Their intelligence comes from below, not above.  And their core principles are local interaction, positive feedback, nonlinear behavior, and indirect control.

Nonlinear behavior and positive feedback loops are keys to self-organizing behavior.  According to Cornell University mathematician Steve Strogatz, linear behavior describes “simple, idealized situations where causes are proportional to effects, and forces are proportional to responses.”  But “life depends on nonlinearity.  In any situation where the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts, when things are cooperating or competing, not just adding up their separate contributions, you can be sure that nonlinearity is present.”

In  proposal development, self-organizing behavior is likely to appear as a nonlinear feedback system that amplifies small changes to modify existing patterns of thinking and behavior.  Of course, it can appear only if proposal managers allow it because they the capacity to stifle new ideas and certain kinds of activities.

If proposal managers cannot create new ideas and paradigms by fiat, how can they create self-organizing groups to address important issues during the proposal development process?  Proposal managers can encourage groups to form around issues if they meet the following criteria:

  • They have the freedom to operate according to their own rules.
  • They must develop their own goals and objectives.
  • They must be composed of team members from different arenas – technical, management, and finance.  By drawing on a wide variety of perspectives, proposal managers can ensure that there will be plenty of perspectives, disagreement, and even conflict, which is how new knowledge emerges.

The dual challenge of proposal management is a paradoxical one.  On some occasions, proposal managers must use their power to make the bureaucracy run well.  On other occasions, however, they must encourage self-organizing behavior, which challenges the bureaucracy and allows innovations to appear.  Bureaucracies have difficulty changing, and that is why proposal managers need to carve out the time, space, and resources for team members to spontaneously form groups to address and resolve problems.

We need more self-organizing behavior on proposal teams if we are to remain fresh, stimulated, and motivated, and if we are to do our best work.

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