Virtual Teams - a new paradigm from nature
Bioteaming:Why virtual teams need more than internet technology to succeed.
Over the last ten years organisational teams have become much more distributed and complex. Despite the number of technologies available to assist team and group working it is still exceptionally difficult to manage such teams. In some ways these technologies can actually make things worse by distracting the team members into technology experimentation rather than the harder challenge of learning to work together.
I propose that even if we fully master the technology of teams there will still be something major missing which will stop our teams operating with the speed and agility we need. We need to look to natures' most successful teams to see what are the secrets of their longevity and dominance over millions of years of evolution. I will explain how they all share a small number of common natural principles which we can apply to our organisational teams.
I call this approach "Bioteaming" and I will introduce its main concepts in the first part of this article. In the next part of the article I will show you how you can begin to "bioteam-enable" your current team support environment to allow your teams to become faster and become more responsive.
2. The changing nature of organisational teams
It is now rare to find a team who all know each other, sit in the same work area day by day, work the same hours, work within the one organisation, have a common business culture and enjoy prior history of working together. Today's' teams are a complex alliance of staff members from different organisations, departments, professions, locations, using different technology platforms, with different technology backgrounds and engaging with varying levels of involvement from core member to part-time member to occasional reviewer. These are very different beasts to the kind of teams many of us grew up with. I believe that the difference is so significant that we need a new name for such teams - the Virtually Networked Team.
"Virtually" means that the team will be dependent on Internet technologies much more than before. Less obvious but equally significant is the fact that "virtually" also means that the team operates with "virtual capacity" where virtual is used in its original sense of "not physically present". This means the team constantly grows and shrinks its active membership throughout its lifetime which makes it much harder to maintain a coherent sense of team and purpose.
"Networked" means that the team is made of individuals who are not always part of the same organisation and even when they are, rarely share common reporting lines rendering a "command and control" approach ineffective
I define a Virtually Networked Team as a team pulled together by one or more co-operating organisations to achieve some important, urgent and specific objective such as the:
- planning and launching of a major event
- designing and running of a new programme or initiative
- developing and market testing of a new product
- running of a major campaign to open up a new market sector
- design and implementation of improved business processes
- planning and execution of a change management and training initiative
In today's organisations, supply chains, alliances and networks Virtually Networked Teams are now the dominant means for getting big things done!
3. The challenges and problems faced by these teams
So why is it more difficult to operate a Virtually Networked Team than a traditional team?
The Virtual Factor
It is very difficult to manage the involvement, commitment and trust building of a team operating "virtual capacity" because members constantly dip in and out of the team and some of them may never be present together in any physical meeting
The Network Factor
A Networked team does not share common accountability structures, business cultures and professional sensibilities. This makes it hard to agree standards, accountability structures and sanctions for non-performance.
The Technology Factor
It would be great if the team could take a week out to iron out glitches, play with and learn the team technologies before the project starts. This is rarely the case and new technologies show up as intrusive and as real obstacles to getting "real work" done particularly in the early stages of team formation.
The Business Factor
Today's rapidly accelerating business environment with its "Just do it - now!" business culture is not news to anybody. However when you overlay this on top of the complexity already there in Virtually Networked Teams due to the Virtual, Network and Technology Factors it just makes things all that more difficult. Doing a complex thing is ok if I concentrate and take my time. Doing something very fast is ok too if I can focus on it. But doing a complex thing very fast is altogether much more stressful
4. Statistics on Virtually Networked Teams
Virtually Networked Teams are a relatively young phenomenon in Management Theory terms so there is actually little hard evidence available for how well or badly they have been performing.
However one of the earliest forms of Virtually Networked Team was the IT Project Team. By its very nature such teams are cross-functional and thus Networked as they involve a mix of professions (e.g. IT, Change Management and Business Staff). They are also Virtual as they grow from small analytical teams through large development teams to medium size implementation teams adding and dropping members along the way.
Quite a lot of statistics are available about IT Project Teams and they are shocking - here are a few typical ones:
- Only a third of change initiatives achieve objectives (OPP Survey May 2004)
- 74% of IT Projects are unsuccessful (Standish Group Report 2000)
- Only 1 in 5 IT Projects are likely to bring full satisfaction to their organizational sponsors (OASIG Study 1995)
These numbers provide early but solid quantifiable evidence that there is something significant missing or wrong in the way Virtually Networked Teams are operating in today's' organisations.
5. Are Internet Technologies a solution to these problems?
With the emergence and maturing of a vast array of corporate strength intranets, extranets, portals and a multitude of supporting communications tools there is a huge potential for technology to bring real gains to teams. - particularly those which are physically distributed or highly mobile. Few people would dispute the potential benefits of effective communications technology or a private asynchronous team room or a shared real-time whiteboard for a Virtually Networked Team. However, in practical reality these technology-led benefits have not been fully realised.
Typically teams trying to be more effective through technology run into the serious problems in trying to make it work for them including:
- Technology adoption problems where the investment needed to learn the technology greatly exceeds the potential benefits
- Accountability issues where the team find it much easier to break virtual commitments than verbal ones
- Team mobilisation is effectively ignored by technology - although it could be immensely useful. Many team problems could be avoided by a more structured approach to initial team setup including goal setting, roles, risks, skills and accountabilities.
- New Working Practices which are novel and unfamiliar and are just too difficult to adopt
- Overfocus on Technology and Process and not on production of results
So I believe that Internet Technologies are certainly part of the solution and also part of the problem too. They may be necessary but they are certainly not sufficient!
6. What else is needed ?
The fundamental thing missing from Virtually Networked Teams today is recognition of the dynamic and living nature of the team itself separate from its members.
A networked business team is a living thing in itself. A Virtually Networked Team is more than the sum of its members. An ant colony, one of natures' best teams, has a life of its own - albeit intimately connected to the lives of its members. In organisations we treat our teams mechanistically. We think of our teams more like clocks, highly predictable as long as you keep winding them up, rather than colonies which must be carefully nurtured and are inherently unpredictable.
Interpretation of the team as a whole, living entity, allows more insightful selection of the best course of action. The team is in itself a super-organism and as such it needs to be treated in ways that enhance and support its complex and interconnected nature. If you can see the team as a whole, and not as the mere aggregation of the individual parts that make it up, you can discover how much more productive, reliable and efficient a virtual team can be.
Once you have this new interpretation it automatically forces you to rethink how you should nurture, organise and support such teams and implies radically new approaches to:
- Team Mobilisation and Change Management
- New Processes and Practices
- Team Support Technology
- Ongoing Team Coaching
7. What is Bioteaming
Bioteaming is about building our organisational teams on the natural principles which underpin the most successful teams in nature.
Nature's most successful teams, in increasing order of size, include:
- single-cells and multicellulars
- the human immune system
- the nervous system (including the brain)
- micro-organisms such as bacteria
- ants, bees and termites
- big cats
- the earth
Lets look at a few simple examples of natures' bioteams:
Ant colonies are arguably the most successful team on the planet - they are so dominant in nature that even despite their tiny size they make up 10% of all living things by weight on the planet. No matter where you are in the world, it is said, if you are outside and you look down carefully you will probably see an ant. Ants have no overall leader - the Queens role is simply to reproduce. Even with their tiny brains Ants use Swarm Intelligence to solve complex route planning problems as efficiently as our best computers 
Flocks of geese fly amazing distances constantly rotating which bird handles the extra responsibility and air resistance of leading. A goose can fly 70% further in a team than by itself due to the optimisation of slipstream effects through the "V" formation. If a goose falls behind two birds will automatically drop out of formation to care for it (or until it dies).
The Gaia hypothesis states that all the different species on the earth work together as a team through mutually interacting ecosystems to maintain the climate and atmospheric composition at the optimum for life. For example vegetation contribute to regulating the earths temperature through the reflection of sunlight. Different types of vegetation survive better in different temperatures thus creating a self-regulating thermostat .
8. How does bioteaming work?
There are about a dozen characteristics bioteams have in common; here are three to start with:
The most well known trait of a bioteam is Self-Management or Autonomy. Basically each team member manages itself and does not need to be told what to do. This is different from most organisational teams which use "command and control" - wait till told and obey orders. So bioteams operate as "self-managed teams". This does not mean that there is no leader but that every member is a leader in some domain.
Application of this trait allows a team to successfully address the fundamental problem of accountability in a Networked Team Structure.
Non-verbal broadcast communication
Bioteams have superb communications, which do not rely on direct member-to-member communications. For example ants predominantly communicate through scent trails - different scents mean different things and the intensity of the trail determines whom the communication reaches . Ants don't have to meet each other face to face to communicate and they don't wait for replies to their communications by the other members.
This is hugely relevant today in our teams with multiple locations and every one working different hours where members can't physically meet that often. It also shows us that whilst face-to-face communication has an important place a team can often achieve its goals without it.
Application of this trait helps us to design the team's communications in a way which eliminates communication bottlenecks and redundancies.
Another trait is that bioteams solve problems and learn by rapid experimentation and evolution. Bioteams have very concrete goals which are hard-wired into the members genetically but the members don't have any actual strategies or plans for achieving them. They work by rapid experimentation and feedback. If something works and solves the problem it gets reinforced within their collective set of responses for the next time - if not it dies. Bioteams are action-focused - they act first and ask questions later!
Application of this trait enables us to design simple team member rules of behaviour and feedback mechanisms to enable a team to rapidly evolve improved effectiveness
I have shown how teams in organisations have changed in the last ten years and suggested a new name for the kinds of teams we now see - Virtually Networked Teams.
I have highlighted the problems these teams face and shown that technology is both part of the solution and part of the problem. What is missing in these teams is recognition of the dynamic and living nature of the team itself separate from its members.
I have identified that this new understanding can be achieved by adopting a new emerging discipline Bioteams where we learn from natures' most successful teams.
I have introduced some of the principles of bioteaming and indicated how their application immediately addresses some of the major team problems we encounter today.
In the next part of this article I will further develop the characteristics of Bioteams and Bioteaming and show how you can immediately start to incorporate them into your current virtual team technologies and processes to make your teams more effective and more satisfying for teams members.
A shorter version of this article is published on Collaboration Loop
1. Bonabeau, E., 1999. Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems, Oxford, pp. 9-7, 271-273
2. Margulis, L., 1998. The Symbiotic Planet - A New Look at Evolution, Weidenfield & Nicholson, pp. 33-49
3. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B., 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press
4. Marten, G., 2001 Human Ecology: Basic concepts for Sustainable Development, Earthscan
Thanks also to Robin Good (www.kolabora.com) for his very helpful comments and suggestions.
Bioteams Books Reviews
Leading complexity thinkers apply biological principles to enterprises: The Biology of Business is a set of essays by ten researchers and practitioners in Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS).