Purpose ' The paper aims to describe the application of theoretical principles derived from a study of self-organisation and complex systems theory and their application to school-based capacity building to support planned change. Design/methodology/approach ' The paper employs a case example in a Hong Kong School to illustrate the application of the principles and discuss their potential to sustain the effect of capacity building in schools.. The descriptive case study is used to illustrate six theoretical propositions of self-organization. The case is then unpacked using each of the propositions to illustrate the application of the theory to capacity building in a secondary school setting. Findings ' The case illustrates the way each of the principles are reflected in a design process undertaken by the school's principal and its leadership team to create a self-organizing approach to capacity building. Originality/value ' The value of this paper is threefold. First it shows the way in which capacity building can be theorized for practical benefit in school settings. Second, the theoretical approach described in the case study addresses the longstanding and largely unresolved issue of the sustainability of capacity building efforts in school settings. The case analysis links theory to practical strategy that can be used by school leaders to design their own capacity building efforts that disperse control to the community, are sustainable, and self-organizing within the school.