Natures four teamwork systems
What is Teamwork? Although there are many different definitions, in nature the definition of 'teamwork' is very precise. There are four different types of "teamwork" in biological teams: Solowork, Crowdwork, Groupwork and Teamwork itself. A bioteam knows how and when to use all four forms - the choice depends on the specific task at hand.
What is 'Teamwork'?
When we talk about Teamwork we generally mean different things. For some a team is a group of people with a shared purpose. For others a team must also have a deadline. For others a team must also embody some degree of co-operative working. If we are really serious about improving teams and teamwork then we need to get more rigourous around what we actually mean
A Biological definition of 'teamwork'
Carl Anderson and Nigel Franks  have undertaken unique research into insects, animal, human and even robot teams. They are interested in the degree to which these different groups are capable of exhibiting 'teamwork'. To do this they developed a rigourous but practical way to assess whether particular group activities constitute 'teamwork'.
Teams undertake different kinds of tasks
If instead of focusing on the team members we look instead at the tasks they undertake together we find four types:
- Individual Task
- Group Task
- Partitioned Task
- Team Task
These can be completed by single individuals without help. I call it 'Solowork'. Solowork is an important aspect of organisational team behaviour - sometimes it's the best way to get things done.
These tasks require multiple team members to do the same activity concurrently. For example, ants or soccer supporters conducting ritual symbolic displays in territorial battles with another groups. There is concurrency but no division of labour. Different individuals must do the same things at the same time. I call this 'Crowdwork'. Crowdword has a place in organisational teams such as team review meetings, brainstorming and team social gatherings. However crowdwork can also be an indication of poor role definition and consequent misuse of resources. For example a meeting where everyone starts to play the same role at the same time generally does not produce useful outcomes.
This is where a task is split into two or more subtasks that can be organised sequentially. For example for a Bee "Collect and Store Nectar" can be split into Sub-Task 1 "Collect Nectar" and Sub-Task 2 "Store Nectar". There is division of labour but no concurrency. I call this 'Groupwork'. Lots of organisational teamwork can be achieved through Groupwork - it lends itself particularly well to asynchronous communication methods such as email and shared document areas.
Requires multiple individuals to perform different tasks concurrently. Different individuals must do different things at the same time. There is both division of labour and concurrency. This is real 'Teamwork" and requires the most complex co-ordination between team players. In biological teams "Teamwork" is used extensively for critical activities such as responding to a threat or exploiting an opportunity.
What blend of 'teamwork' is your team?
Your should try to assess the different kinds of teamwork in your teams.
For example, take a look at the way your team does Collaborative Document Development. One popular approach is that a single author develops the entire document, copies it to the other members and then decides what to do with all their review comments. This looks mostly like Solowork with a little bit of Groupwork at the end.
Another common approach is to break the document up into multiple independent sections each with a different author. They are independently reviewed and edited. A single author is appointed to pull the document together via a management summary and common formatting for the different sections. This still pure Groupwork but still not Teamwork.
A more Teamwork-oriented approach to this would be to allocate each team member certain horizontal responsibilities which span document sections (Teamwork) plus some vertical responsibilities for specific sections of the document (Solowork) plus some group review responsibilities (Groupwork)
Your need all flavours of teamwork in your team
All forms of teamwork and collaboration are needed in a team:
Each is type of teamwork appropriate for certain tasks - a bioteam uses them all and in the right context
- Solowork is a valid and useful activity in teams - in certain situations it is simply the most efficient way to get things done
- Groupwork lends itself well to asynchronous communication methods
- Crowdwork may point to poor team role definition which wastes team members time
- Teamwork (in the biological sense) seems to be relatively rare in organisational teams. It requires more co-ordination between team members because different individuals need to do different things at the same time.
In biological teams "Teamwork" is used extensively for critical activities such as responding to a threat or exploiting an opportunity.
We need to be able to use it effectively in our virtually networked teams particularly for complex problem solving and situations where real creativity is required.
1. Anderson , C., Franks N., 1989. "Teamwork in animals, robots and humans", Advances in the Study of Behavior, pp. 1-27
About the Author
Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:
Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs
The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks
Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.
Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more response and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.
Bioteams Books Reviews
If you think that there is not much human teams can learn from nature think again! Temple Grandin in her amazing book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (p303-307) puts forward the incredible theory that early humans only became today’s successful homo sapiens because they learned to act and think like the wolves they co-habited with.