Virtual team organisation and three action rules from nature

Bioteams are sustainable self-organising systems


Introduction

In an earlier article, Virtual Teams - a new paradigm from nature, I argued that traditional teams have key weaknesses and limitations and are now being replaced in organizations by Virtually Networked Teams.

I described the problems these teams face and pointed to critical issues that can make technology both part of the solution and part of the problem.

What emerged as being critical is the recognition of the emergent nature of Virtually Networked Teams, as if the team itself were a separate entity from the constituent members who make it up.

I also proposed that this new understanding could be further promoted and made useful to a greater number of people by working around the establishment of a new discipline centred on the study of Bioteams.

Bioteaming is a new research area focused on the systematic study of natures' historically most successful living teams while identifying best methods and approaches to transfer and integrate nature's best solutions into the daily life of Virtually Networked Teams to alleviate their present handicaps and limitations.

In a subsequent articles, Virtual Team productivity - three action rules from nature, Virtual team connectivity - three action rules from nature and Virtual team execution - three action rules from nature

I introduced the first three overarching principles of Bioteams:

"Leadership: bioteams treat all members like leaders"

"Connections: bioteams are highly connected virtual networks"

"Execution: bioteams excel in taking action, co-operating and learning"

In these articles I introduced three triads of bioteam action rules (rules 1-9) which underpin these three principles:

LEAD:
Rule 1 - Send out timely information
Rule 2 - Everyone must broadcast
Rule 3 - Act don't Ask (Permission Granted)

CONNECT:
Rule 4 - Always On/Always Near
Rule 5 - Out-Team
Rule 6 - Nurture the Network

EXECUTE:
Rule 7 - Swarm!
Rule 8 - Tit for Tat
Rule 9 - Genetic Algorithms


In this article I will introduce a fourth overarching principle of bioteams:

"Organisation: bioteams are sustainable self-organising systems"

and the triad of three action rules which enable this self-organisation:

  • Rule 10 - Autopoiesis

  • Rule 11 - Porous Membranes

  • Rule 12 - Emerge!



Rule 10 - Autopoiesis


Bioteams define themselves in terms of network transformations - not outputs


Natures Way


Dr Humberto Maturana and Dr Franciso Varela, 2 Chilean biologist/neuroscientists, in their ground-breaking book "The Tree of Knowledge - The Biological Roots of Human Understanding" [1] suggest a simple but profound model known as Autopoiesis which is introduced using the simple little graphic below, to capture the very essence of living systems.

trinityimage_350.gif


This model covers the complete spectrum of living systems - from the smallest organisms and animals through to communities such as social insects right through to advanced human societies.

Let us look at the 3 main "cornerstones" of the model of "living systems":


1. The Self-Organising Network

"What is distinctive about them (living systems), however, is that their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between the producer and the product. The being and doing of a living system are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organisation" [1, pp. 48-49]

The outer ring represents two interdependent ideas - the circle represents the boundary of the living system and the arrow represents the processes and activities which operate within this boundary. The boundary and the processes form a unity - you cannot have one without the other. The processes create the boundary and the boundary provides a space in which the processes can operate. In simple terms the boundary demarks "the being" of the living system and the processes constitute "the doing". Each healthy living system is totally self-sustaining and produces everything it needs provided the necessary food enters in through the boundary


2. The Nervous System

The inner circle represents the nervous system which is defined as "the system which couples the sensory and motor surfaces of the living system through a network of neurons whose patterns can be quite varied". Thus the nervous system is a network of connections which enables the living system to respond through movement and other internal processes to triggers in its external environment. Nervous systems are important because they allow the development of language and self-consciousness within the living system. The more sophisticated the nervous system is the more external triggers it can respond to, the more internal states it can sustain and the wider its vocabulary of communications with its external environment.

I have already described the functions of a basic Nervous System in a bioteam in earlier articles through the concepts of Team Intelligence, Swarming and Generic Algorithms.


3. The Communications System

The two half arrows outside the circles represent all forms of communications between the living system and its external environment. This external environment consists of other living systems and non-living stimuli (e.g. heat, sound, light, chemicals) but living systems don't differentiate on this basis. Living systems do not "think" in terms of external entities they only react, through the nervous system, to the triggers they are sensitised to receive.

Now where two living systems begin to communicate in a recurrent way they are said to be coupled. In this case two things can happen - one can swallow up the other and they become one ("symbiosis") or they can start to co-evolve together as a higher level system within which their individual separate identifies are still maintained.


Benefits of Rule to Nature

As I have previously discussed the Nervous System and Communications System I will concentrate here on the Self-Organising Network.

The self-organising network is absolutely fundamental to nature - it is this which makes the difference between a living and a non-living system.

If something does not have a self-organising network it is not sustainable - is either 'not living' or in the process of dying.

For example, an on-going scientific debate is whether viruses are alive or not.

According to Maturana, viruses are not truly alive as they are not self-organising networks.

"Viruses must have a host cell to live and reproduce. Outside of the host cell, viruses are pieces of genetic molecules that can do nothing by themselves. Viruses are right on the border between living and nonliving". [2]


Application of Rule to Organisational Teams

Thus according to this model a key aspect of any living system is that the function of each component is to produce or transform other components in the network.

What does this mean for a team?

Teams traditionally define their goals and roles in terms of activities, tasks or outputs.

If a team wish to base themselves on natures teaming principles they should instead define themselves in terms of the transformations they wish to make on their network components.

This network includes all the teams members and partners, internal and external, individuals and organisations.

This leads us to the fundamental cycle of transactions which keeps a bioteam alive:

  1. Bioteam members produce and transform 'customers'

  2. These customers are prepared to commit projects, resources and support to the bioteam

  3. These resources feed and energise the team's metabolism to subsequently produce and transform more customers (step 1)....

and so it becomes a self-sustaining network.


So how do the members of a bioteam produce or transform the other network components?

They interact with them either directly (e.g. recruiting a new member) or indirectly through the following types of transformation:

  1. Helping them build more valuable relationships between each other
  2. Helping them acquire new practices and skills for working together
  3. Building new infrastructures (e.g. a collaboration web-site) to help them work together
  4. Assisting them to create new intellectual property which increases their collective value to customers

Biological processes often require a catalyst (or enzyme) to be present to enable and accelerate the required chemical transformations - the same applies in organisational teams.

Examples of important organisational catalysts include brokers (to identify prospective customers) and coaches (to help the team get better at working together).

The key point here is that each bioteam goal and role should be primarily defined in terms of what other living network components it transforms not in terms of inanimate outputs.

For example, a broker might produce prospective customers and transform them into committed customers.

A founding team member might produce prospective members and in partnership with other members transform them into committed members.

Collectively these set of role interactions must create a positive feedback loop around the team's customers for the team to be viable and exhibit the necessary circularity between the teams roles.

In other words the total set of interactions between the roles should create a "closed system" which provides re-enforcing feedback loops to sustain it.


Benefits of Rule to Organisational Teams

This approach can yield huge benefits to an organisational team

  • It puts the team's focus on making positive impacts on key people and enterprises rather than producing things

  • It brings relationships and collaboration right into the centre of the team

  • It creates virtuous cycles with positive re-enforcing feedback loops (for example I showed in an earlier article how a small group of effective win-win players can convert a whole team to this style of co-operation over time )




Rule 11 - Porous Membranes


Bioteam boundaries are open to energy but closed to waste


Natures Way

As I mentioned in the previous rule a very important aspect of living systems is the boundary between them and their external environment.

Biological research shows that these boundaries are very special in that they are both open and closed at the same time.

One of the best examples of these living boundaries is in the biological cell - a universal feature of all cellular life is a living boundary known as the "cell membrane".

Frijof Capra writes in [3] "A membrane is very different from a cell wall. Whereas cell walls are rigid structures, membranes are always active, opening and closing continually, keeping certain substances out and letting others in."

This membrane thus acts as a semi-permeable barrier around the cell which:

  • Maintains the delicate chemical balance of the cell to allow its metabolism to function effectively
  • Provides an exit for excessive calcium waste to be pumped out
  • Protects the cell from harmful environmental influences
  • Creates a safe space which defines the identity of the cell


Benefits of Rule to Nature

Cellular membranes provide three major benefits to the cell:


Good stuff gets in

Membranes allow energy, food, useful chemicals and helpful micro-cellular life (symbiants) to come in.


Bad stuff stays out

Membranes ensure harmful chemicals (poisons), and destructive micro-cellular life (parasites and pests) are kept out.


Waste gets put out

Membranes provide a channel for the removal of the cell's waste products and dead components which if not removed would soon poison the cell.


Application of Rule to Organisational Teams

How can we apply the concept of the biological membrane to our teams:


Good stuff gets in

A bioteam should be constantly open throughout its life of team to new members joining. Bioteams have a large set of part-time members, supporters and friends - they don't just run on core and full-time members. Bioteam have members who are external to the main organisation including suppliers and customers.

A key responsibility of the leaders and senior members of a bioteam is to constantly look for new talent who may be useful in some capacity for the team.

Instead of "sealing" our teams at the early stage of a project we should instead be constantly seeking to grow the team network throughout the life of the project as the need and opportunity arises.


Bad stuff stays out

There are two types of bad stuff in teams - pests and parasites!

A pest is somebody who intends to achieve their goals at the expense of the rest of the team - no matter what the cost.

Typical pest behaviour is using information gained through the team to ones own personal gain even if it damages the team.

Pests should be avoided at all costs - however they can be hard to detect as they are usually secretive or you would not have them on the team in the first place

A parasite is somebody who is in the team purely to satisfy their own goals - they don't care either way what impact this has on the team.

Parasites will usually stop short of actions which would destroy the team as they need the team to exist if they are to keep feeding off it.

Typical parasite behaviour is doing as little work as possible but still trying to share the full rewards of any team success.

Parasites are as destructive as pests and even more difficult to spot because their behaviour is more subtle.

Parasites embody 'freeloading behaviour' which results in other team members becoming over-worked, becoming resentful, demotivated and even leaving the team (if not physically then 'emotionally/mentally').

In a nutshell the difference between pests and parasites is that parasites need the team to survive but pests do not!

In another article, Bioteam members "recognise" each other, I describe how bioteams can use Species Recognition to avoid freeloaders, Kin Recognition to build strong work-groups and Individual Recognition to ensure mutual team member co-operation.


The first barrier to pests and parasites is the team selection process.

A bioteam can avoid 'bad eggs' by ensuring that the other founding team members views are respected in the choice of team members.

The key thing to look out for here is a mismatch on values and motives. Problems with competencies can generally be corrected whilst problems on values are very difficult to resolve.


The second barrier to pests and parasites is team ground rules.

Team Ground Rules capture succinctly the non-negotiable membership behaviour rules for being a 'good standing member' of the team.

One of the best ways to define the ground rules is by asking the whole team a series of questions such as:

  • What behaviour by another member would make you no longer wish to be part of this team?
  • What behaviour is forgivable and what is not?
  • What rules do you wish to have around the balancing of information transparency versus reasonable privacy?
  • How to you wish to resolve issues (about the project) and conflicts (between team members)?

The best way to do this is not a group discussion but to get the individual team member responses uninfluenced by the other members, aggregate them and then discuss as a group the points of agreement and the points of difference.

The team members should also define the 'sanctions system' which they will apply (and be subject to) when team members fail to honour the ground rules.

These should start informal and progress gradually e.g. a quiet word, a verbal warning, a written warning....etc


Bad stuff gets put out

We will develop this further under the next rule


Benefits of Rule to Organisational Teams

Therefore adopting the biological membrane approach in an organisational team can provides two major benefits:

Firstly the 'continuously open' team approach ensures a wide team with access to the required talent, influence and grapevine networks.

Secondly the use of 'ground rules' ensures that members are productive and avoids both team pests and parasites.




Rule 12 - Emerge!


Bioteams scale up in harmony with natural growth and decay cycles


Natures Way

Let's start by looking at the typical lifecycle of an Ant Colony - one of nature's most successful teams.

Whilst Ant colonies vary greatly in their social structure, they all share four basic stages in their development and life which I have generalised in the diagram below:

Bioteam_lifecycle_350robin


The Founding Stage

The first stage is the founding stage, in which a young virgin ant queen 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.

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%![4]


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 will utterly ruthless in trying to destroy a young colony as they represent competition for food and other resources.

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%![4]


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 [4].


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" [5]


Benefits of Rule to Nature

Again the benefits of this rule to nature are absolutely fundamental!

The process by which living things come into existence, grow and survive is very high risk, with critical vulnerabilities in the early stages which must be catered for.

It needs time to be nurtured and all of this must take place in a dangerous, unpredictable and extremely hostile environment.

The natural lifecycle outlined here is nature's optimum solution which has evolved over millions of years for the best way in the long-run for living things to grow - we disregard it at our peril!


Application of Rule to Organisational Teams

This biological model is quite different from the normal linear models of team development maturity we are used to.

Traditional team development models which show teams nicely progressing, always forward and upward, from one well defined stage to the next do not reflect nature or real organisational life.

Any change management approach to incubating bioteams therefore needs to start with a realistic lifecycle!

Let's apply the 4 stages to organisational teams


The Founding Stage

Just like the ant colony this is the stage where the team makes choices which cannot easily be reversed.

If the founding leader (or leaders) 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 in ant colonies equates to the organisational team leaders badly choosing, designing and shaping the teams initial aims and objectives. It is the shaping of these objectives which will motivate the team members and ensure realistic chances of success

Note the 99% mortality rate - I think this same percentage also applies to organisational teams but we don't actually spot that the team died until much later when it fails to deliver. Sometimes our teams are effectively dead right from the start of the project but not buried till the end of it!


The Ergonomic Stage

The ergonomic stage is where the team gets "filled-out" into the right shape and scale for the task.

Like the ant colony - 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 will not achieve peak performance.

Good role definition which enables effective division of labour is critical at this stage.

Division of labour requires team members to be able to do different things at the same time.

In another article, Virtual teamwork - nature's four collaboration methods, I introduced the four different types of biological groupwork and showed how only one of these is actually teamwork according to the division of labour definition.


The Reproductive Stage

When an ant the colony reaches a suitable size, it can enter the reproductive stage.

In organisational teams this should be when the team objective is secure and there exists an opportunity to seed other teams with the learning to avoid staleness and enable organisational, rather than just individual, learning.

Unlike an ant colony human bioteam members can exist in multiple bioteams (even simultaneously) which creates the important opportunity for us to "reproduce" and join new teams before our current team dies.

A good strategy is to have the stronger bioteam members play coaching and advisory roles to newly forming teams.


The Terminal Stage (i.e. Death!)

Organisational teams like natures teams cannot be immortal. There must also be an end otherwise the members become stale and cease to function effectively.

So an organisational team needs a way to recycle members out and bring new members in on a regular basis

As well as addressing the problems of staleness this is also crucial in terms of organisational learning.

Arie De Geuss [6] writing in 'The Living Company' suggests that job rotation is absolutely critical for organisational learning - otherwise you just have individual learning.


Benefits of Rule to Organisational Teams


Firstly the natural lifecycle allows you to find out where you are and plan accordingly

If you are setting up a new bioteam then you have the luxury of starting at the founding stage and can take 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.


Secondly the natural lifecycle allows you to design a realistic strategy for change management in the team.

The biological team lifecycle should remind us that the team is not just a collection of its members but a living thing in itself and must be encouraged and nudged towards more advanced states rather than simply being wound up like a clock!

Change in living systems cannot be 'managed' - living system can only be perturbed - so we should not think so much in terms of change management but more in terms of perturbation management.

Ecologists recognise two types of change in ecosystems and social systems [7]:

  • Type 1 - Progressive change due to internal self-organising processes
  • Type 2 - Quantum change from one 'stability domain' to another because of external disturbances

A key leadership role in a bioteam is to act as a catalyst to help it 'jump' its operation and performance to a higher level stability domain through Type 2 change.




Summary

In this article I have introduced a fourth overarching principle of Bioteams:

"Organisation: bioteams are sustainable self-organising systems"

I have also introduced a triad of action rules which enable this:

ORGANISE:

  • Rule 10 - Autopoiesis - bioteams define themselves as network transformations

  • Rule 11 - Porous Membranes - bioteams are open to energy but closed to waste

  • Rule 12 - Emerge - bioteams scale-up in harmony with natural growth cycles!

These do not stand by themselves and must be integrated with the other bioteam principles and rules.

If you can start to experiment with, adapt and adopt these four principles and twelve rules of bioteaming then you will begin to nurture teams which are energised, agile, sustainable and self-organising.

Teams such as this will possess all the attributes, agilities and advantages of "living systems" in a genuine biological sense.

They will also be able to use virtual collaboration technology in a natural and much more effective way to support them as a team.


References

1. Maturana, H., Varela F., 1987. The Tree of Knowledge - The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Shambhala

2. "Are Viruses Alive?" BeyondBooks.com http://www.beyondbooks.com/lif72/2c.asp

3. Capra, F., 2002. The Hidden Connections, Flamingo

4. Gordon, D., 1999. Ants at Work, Norton

5. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B. 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press

6. De Geus, A., 1997. The Living Company - Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business, NB Publishing

7. Marten, G., 2003. Human Ecology - Basic concepts for sustainable development, Earthscan



About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors.

Ken is recognized as a leading expert in the emerging area of Virtual Enterprise Networks and has successfully incubated a number of these networks in the UK and Ireland.

Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and workflow.

His strategy includes the use of key sets of team dynamics, multiple coaching interventions and the effective integration of a small toolkit of virtual collaboration technologies


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