The Lifecycle of a Bioteam
How bioteams are born, grow, reproduce, decline... and die!.I would like to use the Ant Colony to introduce and illustrate a general model for the lifecycle of a bioteam. Whilst Ant colonies vary greatly in their social structure, they all share four basic stages in their development and life. Like the Trinity of Living Systems this is a general model which applies to all living systems.
It is however quite different from the normal linear models of team development maturity we may be used to. Such models which show a team nicely progressing, always forward and upward, from one well defined stage to the next are not the way natures teams develop. Any change management approach to incubating bioteams needs to start with a realistic lifecycle!
The Founding Stage
The first stage is the founding stage, in which a young virgin antqueen leaves the nest of her mother and flies until she has met and been inseminated by a few males. The males soon die without returning to their nests. Then the female finds a suitable place in the soil or in a rotting tree to build her nest. She forages and cares for her first brood until they are adults.
Size and balance of team members is a very important consideration for a bioteam at each stage of its evolution. First is what I call "Survival Mass". In the ant world there is a fascinating "bootstrap scenario" in the founding stage where the Queen must give birth to exactly the right blend of workers who must quickly grow and find food to replenish her weakened state of energy to allow her to continue giving birth and begin populating the rest of the colony. If she gets this even slightly wrong then the colony simply dies. The other main risk at this stage is the choice of nesting location - it needs to work in terms of both protection from predators and proximity of food sources. Mortality rate for queens (and their colonies) at this stage exceeds 99%!
Analogous risks apply to the founding stage in human bioteams. If the founding leader does not pull the right people round them to bootstrap the team then it will fail too. Similarly poor choice of the location for nesting equates to leaders badly chosing the teams initial aims and objectives.
The Ergonomic Stage
Next the colony enters the second stage, known as the ergonomic stage. Now the queen devotes herself to egg-laying while the workers forage, care for the young, protect the queen and enlarge the nest. This stage, which centres on colony growth lasts for a period ranging from four months to five years, depending on the species of ant.
In the ergonomic stage the main focus is to quickly get big enough to avoid being easy prey for enemies and to stake a position with the neighbouring ant colonies who can be utterly ruthless in destroying a young colony. The ergonomic phase is about getting the team to a viable critical mass and blend of castes as quickly as possible. If a colony can make it through to the 2 years mark then its mortality rate drops to about 5%!
Likewise for human teams - it is important to know the optimum size and blend of skills and roles to enable the team to achieve its purpose. If the team operates below this level then it is unlikely to achieve peak performance.
The Reproductive Stage
When the colony reaches a suitable size, it can enter the reproductive stage. Now new queens and males are produced, which at the right moment leave the nest to produce new colonies, beginning the founding cycle all over again, but for new colonies. Typically after about 5 years colony size starts to stabilise. The colonies become as big as they are going to grow and they then enter the reproductive stage. Once a colony reaches this stage it has a 95% chance of staying that size and surviving for the next 10 - 15 years.
The Terminal Stage (i.e. Death!)
Why does a colony die?
Natural or man-made disaster aside, the primary cause of colony death is the death of the queen. More precisely the ending of the queens ability to produce offspring. Typically a queen, and thus her colony, can live for about 20 years. Some species of ants, such as Pharaohs ants which occupy an ecological niche, produce multiple queens and can thus effectively live forever. However there is a cost! Such immortality leads to in-breeding which leaves the species less able to adapt to the environment. Death of the colony is therefore part of the process - as Edward O. Wilson says "for most kinds of ants old colonies die so that new colonies can be safely born" 
In human bioteams there must also be an end lest its the members become stale and cease to function effectively. Unlike an ant colony however human bioteam members can exist in multiple bioteams (even simultaneously) which creates the opportunity for them to "reproduce" and join new teams once their current team dies.
Developing Human Bioteams
First find out where you are
If you are setting up a new bioteam then you have the luxury of starting at the founding stage by taking care of all the prerequisite steps. If your team already exists you may be fully operational (i.e. in the ergonomic stage) but with some key foundations missing (e.g. Ground Rules) to be an effective bioteam. It is important to make a realistic assessment of where you are, what are the gaps and what needs put in place before trying to move forward. If you don't do this the team will not reach its potential in the ergonomic phase and certainly will never reach the reproductive stage where the team members have the experience and ability to reproduce by "founding" other successful bioteams within or outside your organisation.
Second recognise that the team is alive
The lifecycle should remind us that a bioteam is alive and must be encouraged and nudged towards more advanced states rather than simply being wound up like a clock!
1. Gordon, D., 1999. Ants at Work, Norton, pp. 13-16
2. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B., 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press, pp. 29-39
Bioteams Books Reviews
A crowd draws a crowd but you need to be fit too. Distinguished Physicist Albert Laszlo Barabasi in his excellent book "Linked - the New Science of Networks" lets us into the secret of how any kind of network grows.