The secret DNA of high-performing virtual teams

Bioteaming – the secret to high-performing, self-organising, virtually networked teams

In my research into bioteaming I have (so far) identified four action zones and about a dozen action rules.This article provides a brief introduction.

These zones and rules constitute the DNA or recipe book for leaders who want to make their organisational/ project teams significantly more productive and much better at using virtual technologies by adopting the proven strategies and organisation structures used by nature’s best teams.

The four action zones are to a bioteam what the four chemical bases (A, T, G and C) are to DNA - their interdependencies and constantly repeating patterns providing the building blocks of the famous double helix structure common to all living things.

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Leadership Zone: Bioteams treat every team member as a leader

RULE1: Stop Controlling
Communicate information not orders

Traditional teams issue orders and mostly use 2-way communications.

Bioteams provide ‘situational information’ to the team members who are trained to judge themselves what they should do in the best interests of the team. They move exceptionally fast because they mostly use 1-way broadcast communications and only use 2-way communications where its really needed.

RULE2: Team Intelligence

Mobilise everyone to look for and manage team threats and opportunities

In traditional teams it’s the leader’s job to provide most of the “Team Intelligence” – information on potential threats to, or opportunities for, the team.

In a Bioteam it is every team member’s responsibility to constantly look-out for this team intelligence and to make sure it is quickly and effectively communicated to all the other team members who might need to know about it.

RULE3: Permission Granted
Achieve accountability through transparency not permission

Traditional teams protect themselves against member mistakes through establishing layers of permission which must be granted before a team member may take action in certain circumstances. I call these “Permission Structures”.

Bioteams have slimmed down these “Permission Structures” to the absolute bare minimum necessary to protect purely against the most serious potential mistakes which would threaten the team’s mission.

Accountability in bioteams is achieved through team ‘transparency systems’ not control systems.

Connectivity Zone: Bioteams connect the team members, partners and networks

RULE4: Always On
Provide 24*7 instant “in-situ” message hotlines for all team members

Traditional teams expect their members to go somewhere, such as their PC, to "get their messages".

Bioteams ‘take the messages to the team members’ via whichever device suits each individual member best at any particular time in their working day.

RULE5: Symbiosis
Treat external partners as fully trusted team members

Traditional teams pay ‘lip-service’ to team members from external organisations such as customers or suppliers in terms of transparency and trust.

Bioteams pick their partners very carefully but once they have committed to them they treat them identically to their own internal team members in terms of granting them full transparency and trust.

RULE6. Cluster
Nurture the team’s internal and external networks and connections

Traditional Teams don’t think about their networks – they believe it’s the team leader’s job alone to make sure they have all the resources they need.

Bioteams pay a lot of attention to the collective networks and relationships of each team member. This is to ensure they have adequate “strong ties” to get the work done well and be able to ‘call in short-notice favours’ as needed from external parties.

Also they ensure they have sufficient “weak ties” to quickly spot important changes and warning signals from the external market/operational environment.

Execution Zone: Bioteams experiment, co-operate and learn

RULE7: Swarm
Develop consistent autonomous team member behaviors

Traditional teams focus on team member individuality as a means of achieving creativity and innovation but neglect the hidden power of consistent member behaviors.

Bioteams have discovered that for a team to be really effective they must first put in place the foundations by ensuring there are a basic core set of team member behaviours which can be guaranteed to be executed consistently by all members at all times.

Bioteam members take an interest in anything which might affect the ultimate success of their project whether its within their defined project role or not.

RULE8: Tit-for-Tat
Teach team members effective biological personal co-operation strategies

Traditional teams try to play “Win-Win” and “Collaborate” but don’t actually have any practical strategies or tactics for achieving this.

Traditional teams are not really interested in the real, often raw, basic and undeclared, motivations of each team member.

Bioteams realise that “Win-Win” is an outcome not a strategy and use proven personal collaboration strategies to create the conditions for it to happen.

Bioteam personal collaboration strategies also address the "what's in it for me" question for each team member.

RULE9: Genetic Algorithms
Learn through experimentation, mutation and team review

Traditional teams believe that analysis is the main way to get things right. Consequently they engage in extensive planning, design and preparation before trying out new things or releasing new products to their customers.

Bioteams believe that live controlled experimentation is the only way to get things right and that most things won’t workout as planned anyway no matter how well they are analysed and designed.

Therefore they quickly try out numerous alternative actions in parallel in small safe ways to find out what works best and then they build on and adapt the most promising results.

Organisation Zone: Bioteams establish sustainable self-organisation

RULE10: Autopoiesis (aka "Self-Organising Networks")
Define the team in terms of ‘network transformations’ – not outputs

Traditional teams define their goals and roles in terms of the outputs and activities they are expected to produce – i.e. inanimate objects.

Bioteams define their goals and roles in terms of the transformations they intend to make in the people and partners they will engage with - i.e. living things.

RULE11: Porous Membranes
Develop team boundaries which are open to energy but closed to waste

In a traditional team the leader selects the members and the team effectively becomes “sealed” at the pre-ordained “right size” in terms of members very early in its lifecycle. There is a big focus on full-time members as the team “product engines”.

In a bioteam the members select the members and recognise that the "right team size" will only emerge over time no matter what the plan says.

So they keep looking for useful new members throughout the whole of their team's lifetime – particularly for part-time members, advisors, experts, "jungle-guides" and external allies.

RULE12. Emerge
Scale naturally through nature’s universal growth and decay cycles

Traditional teams grow as quick as they can to the agreed size as per the agreed project schedule.

Bioteams are aware that growth is not something that can be managed or controlled. The team leaders and members treat the bioteam like it is a “living thing” in itself and watch for and exploit natural opportunities for its growth.

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This is a great idea and is consistent with a presentation I delivered in 1988 at Oxford University for a renewable energy conference. The title of my presentation was (A Helical management System for Renewable Energy Systems". In emulation of DNA, I substituted the four alternating amino acids with alternating four blocks of project management. These are planning, organization, execution and control. The fact that we have a modular system a corruption in one ring does not corrupt the whole structure. I gave more than ten reasoning why this system should succeed. For example, alternating positions gives employees opportunity to work and learn from each other; avoids monotony as employees work alternatively on different assignment, which has the added value of reducing employees’ turnover rate. Bioteams is such a grand idea and is close to my chest.


Hi Anani

Thats a really interesting way to look at project management - using the 4 bases. Thanks for your excellent comments



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