The six key processes in a biological team
In traditional organisational teams we have processes like selection, mobilisation, planning, operations and dissolution. Bioteams have a totally different set of natural processes: Foraging, Co-Evolution, Reproduction, Nurture, Maintenance and Metabolism.
If we wish to successfully emulate nature then we need to assess the degree to which these natural processes are present in our teams.
A bioteam is a self-organising network
Fritjof Capra in his book “The Hidden Connections”  defines the biological cell, which is also a self-organising network as follows:
“We have learned that a cell is a membrane-bounded, self-generating, organisationally closed metabolic network; that it is materially and energetically open, using a constant flow of matter and energy to produce, repair and perpetuate itself; and that it operates far from equilibrium, where new structures and new forms of order may spontaneously emerge, thus leading to development and evolution.”
From studying biological teams (such as the cell) and socio-biological teams (such as ants , songbirds and dolphins) it is clear that these teams operate a small number of common processes which enable them to react very effectively with their environments and to take care of their internal members and structures.
These bioteam processes and the relationships between them are illustrated in the diagram below:
The first two bioteam processes focus on the team’s external environment:
The Foraging Process is how the team engages with Energy Sources to provide food.
In a human bioteam this translates to how the team engages with its prospective customers (at many levels) and sponsors who can generate “food” for the team through contracts, project briefs, funding and authorisations.
If a bioteam has an inadequate foraging process it will not obtain the kind of work and kind of support it will need to produce significant value.
The second key externally focused bioteam process is the Co-Evolution process.
The term co-evolution is used frequently to refer to the fact that a living system is impacted by and impacts on its external environment.
A simple example given by Maturana  is that our feet co-evolve with our shoes. Our shoes change our feet and our feet change our shoes.
I could also have called this process the “Co-opetition” process after the book of the same name  which points out that businesses often have to co-operate to create value and compete to capture it.
Even deadly enemies have to co-operate sometimes – an example is terrorist groups using agreed codes to ensure governments and police forces know they are not dealing with hoaxes.
Co-evolution is about how a human bioteam focuses on external resource pools (individuals and groups) and draws in talent either in the form of team members and alliances.
A key element of this process is managing the tension between the team and other (sometimes) competitive groups or situations which might compete with the team for resources such as finance, potential members or senior management attention.
The other four bioteam processes focus on the teams internal mechanisms:
Reproduction concerns how new members get signed up and successfully inducted into ‘operationally ready’ team members.
The reproduction process needs to be fed with a stream of prospective new members from the foraging process.
Most team leaders know that if they start with the wrong set of people in their team then they are probably doomed no matter how well they manage them.
Nurture is about developing the skills and behaviours of all levels and types of team members.
This involves learning new practices around collaborative working as well as skills which relate to the specific purpose of the bioteam (e.g. software development, marketing or Six Sigma).
It also includes looking after team members from a relational point of view.
Maintenance is about maintaining and developing the bioteam infrastructures (both virtual and physical) which the team will rely on.
Maintenance is similar to Nurture with the fundamental difference being that nurture looks after the members of the team whereas maintenance looks after the artefacts of the team.
One of the best examples of Maintenance in biological teams is Termites. Termites are considered to be the master architects of the animal world.
Mitchell Resnick  notes:
“ On the plains of Africa, termites construct giant mound like nests rising more than ten feet tall, thousands of times taller than the termites themselves…Certain species of termites even use architectural tricks to regulate the temperature inside their nests, in effect turning their nests into elaborate air-conditioning systems”.
We should not forget that, like ants, termites are totally self-managed.
Metabolism is the last and the most important internal bioteam process.
In the biological world metabolism is about converting food into energy to fuel the organism’s growth.
In a human bioteam metabolism is about transforming good project opportunities identified through foraging into undisputed value for their customers,
This creates a virtuous feedback cycle where energy is produced to sustain the team and its growth through money, resources and enhanced reputation.
This process is the "engine room" where the bioteam members, working collaboratively, create value or not!
Bioteam processes need to network
It is important to note that these bioteam processes are massively interdependent and should not be thought of in a siloed manner. Similarly the distinction of “external” versus “internal” process should not be overly stressed
For example, an effective bioteam will co-evolve with customers engaged through foraging and serviced through metabolism.
1. Fritjof Capra - “The Hidden Connections”
2. Wilson and Holldobbler - “Journey to the Ants”
3. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela - “The Tree of Knowledge – The Biological Basis of Human Understanding”
4. Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger - “Co-opetition”
5. Mitchell Resnick - “Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams”
Bioteams Books Reviews
A few months ago I read the book "Leadership and Self-Deception". Then I became a friend of the Arbinger Institute, went through some training with them in London and may be involved with them in the future. So I suppose the book inspired me – here’s why! Guest book review by Mario Gastaldi.