Bioteams: an introduction
Almost all of us have been part of some team in our workforce or organisation or even a sports club. Usually this is a mixed experience - we have some victories but lots of failures too. A lot of people from the technology world, myself included, hoped that all the communication technologies like email, the Internet, broadband, instant messaging and mobile phones would make things better for teams. The reality is in many cases it's made things worse. So how is it that nature's teams seem to work much better than ours and what have we forgotten?
Bumble Bees & Honey Bees
The fact that bumble bees can fly goes beyond current human understanding of aerodynamics - they should not be producing the "lift" their wings generate - they are the wrong shape - they give us the important clue that all things are possible!
From the bumble bee's distant cousin, we observe how the honeybee can point the other bees in the swarm to a distant honey source simply by performing a complicated waggle dance, which acts like a compass to show the heading the others need to fly'.
Ant colonies are arguably the most successful teams on the planet - they make up 10% of all living things by weight. 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. Even with their tiny brains they regularly solve complex route planning problems as quickly 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 group than by themselves 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).
Historians tell us that the invention of the "arch" was one of the central defining milestones of human civilisation. Yet we now know that lowly termites build arches on the plains of Africa within their giant mound like nests, some over ten feet tall, thousands of times larger than themselves. These nests even have full air conditioning!
These examples are only the tip of the iceberg - we could go on and on!
So Bioteaming is about what we can learn from the teams in nature in our organisational teams. It is about how we can base our teams on natural principles, which have developed and proved themselves useful through millions of years of evolution.
Now some of these ideas have been tried before with some success and some failures. However I believe that now because of the advent of a whole new generation of internet-based communication technologies and tools it is now possible, for the first time, to create the truly successful human bioteams
These principles are expressed in the form of 4 Action Zones each of which has 3 Action rules: a total of twelve rules. The action zones and rules are summarised in “The secret DNA of high-performing virtual teams.”
There are, however, two massive differences between biological and human teams - intelligence and autonomy.
Human teams have vastly superior intelligence to biological teams and much greater potential for autonomous behaviour by individual members. So whilst we need to learn from biological teams we also need a way to accommodate the extra “human factor” in our teams which is not present in nature’s teams.
Bioteaming accomodates this "human factor" by making it a central tenet to address team beliefs as well as team behaviors. This is described in detail in “The seven beliefs of high performing teams”.
What are the foundations of bioteaming?
There are a number of characteristics bioteams have in common, for example:
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 of our teams which traditionally use "command and control" - wait till told and obey orders. Some business teams are now operating as "self-managed teams". This does not mean that there is no leader but every member is a leader in some way.
So in designing technologies to support teams we need to focus on timely information rather than providing orders and to-do lists.
However bioteams are not just about self-management - there's quite a few other important traits, for example:
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 - they don't have to meet each other face to face to communicate.
This is terribly relevant today in our teams with multiple locations and every one working different hours where members can't physically meet that often. Bioteams show us that whilst face-to-face communication has an important place a team can often achieve its goals without it.
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!
We tend to treat our human teams more like clocks than colonies! They are going a bit slow so they need to be wound up. Bioteaming teaches us that we cannot be prescriptive about what will work and what won't work - we have just got to try it and see!
Another key principle is the way each member strives to maintain a dynamic relationship with to the other members, the external environment and the colony itself. Each bioteam member is fundamentally 3-dimensional - they constantly engage autonomously with their close team members, their external environment and the colony as a whole.
Often human teams are much more 1-dimensional with team members only concerned with part of the big picture. Again technologies such as internet-based tools can help us make our teams more 3-dimensional. Experiments have shown that if you remove a complete caste (of workers) from an ant colony the others will adapt - just try that with a human team!
But can bioteaming deal with all the motivation and conflict issues we see in human teams?
Motivation and Conflict
Yes - Human Bioteaming extends biological principles, which cover the mechanisms for being effective as a team to also deal with these hugely important issues. It's about the "why" as well as the "how" or the "what".
For example when an ant or a microbe gets a stimulus it just responds, like Pavlov's dog, it does not have any choice. Human teams have huge amounts of discretion and self-awareness. Ant colony members don't need to be motivated and rarely get distracted. That's why human bioteams need a coach - we can't treat a human team like an ant colony.
Another key difference is the importance of the individual in a human team. If one member of an ant colony gets it wrong there are so many others who get it right that it does not matter. Human teams are smaller and one member's behaviour can make a huge difference. Think of a dodgy goalkeeper in a sports team. However if the Ant Queen makes a mistake in choice of nest location then that's another story..... In general however the consequences of individual member failure are much higher in human bioteams and we need working practices and tools (such as accountability and transparency) to protect us from this.
Also Human Bioteams are of course much smarter than nature's teams - at least in an individual member sense. A principle of biological teams is that complex group behaviour can arise from simple individual behaviour given sufficient time, scale and feedback loops. In other words exceptionally well co-ordinated morons (apologies to social biologists) can produce dazzling results! What then might an exceptionally well co-ordinated smart human team, employing the same principles, produce?
So bioteaming is not about us all behaving like ants or bees - rather it is about how we incorporate natural principles, based on 10 million years hard won evolutionary experience to make smart human teams much more effective and how we can use technology to help!
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
Bioteams Books Reviews
David Bolchover, author of The Living Dead: The Truth about Office Life, writing for the UK Times Newspaper in “Sickness at work: the big story” asks the big question: Why do smaller companies have fewer absences? And what can the big corporations do?