Team transformation rule 1: Stop trying to control them

In this article I suggest that organizational teams, networks and communities who can adapt and adopt the "stop trying to control them" principle exemplified by nature's teams can achieve huge gains in agility and collective intelligence.



Natures teams, such as ants, geese, dophins and microscopic life forms are exceptionally agile. They are able to react and adapt quickly to unexpected threats and opportunities. Their collective behavior is so smart that it has spawned a new scientific discipline called swarm intelligence. They achieve all this through self-management and without any centralised leadership or command and control structures and by communicating information and not orders. This article suggests that organisational teams who can incorporate the "stop controlling" principle into their operations can achieve huge gains in agility and collective intelligence.

A major characteristic of biological teams is self-management. This means that these teams don't issue orders. Orders require too much intelligence to assemble and disassemble. This destroys the teams ability for instantaneous response. Therefore nature's team members take responsibility for constantly monitoring their environments and broadcasting important team intelligence for the other members to assess and act on. This article introduces the biological background to team intelligence and suggests how it can be implemented in organisational teams.


Bioteaming is about building organisational teams which are based on the natural principles which underpin nature's most successful teams.

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".

Zone 1: Leadership: Rule 1: Send out timely information

Nature's teams don't issue orders. Nature's teams broadcast information messages and expect receiving team-mates to take appropriate action 'just-in-time'.

The most dominant form of communication used by nature's teams is based not on audible speech but on chemical signals known as Pheromones. Pheromone signalling has evolved into nature's dominant communications system because it provides a number of unique advantages which are described further in "The perfect mobile group communications system".

In Nature there exist two types of key information messages: Opportunity and threat messages.

An example of opportunity information is where a bee spots a good nectar source and dances the waggle dance to show the other bees where it is. (See, for example, THE BEE WAGGLE DANCE: A LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS OF INSECT LANGUAGE)

An example of threat information is when an ant spots a predator and quickly broadcasts its presence to the other ants who will take the appropriate aggressive or defensive action. Ant behavior is described in detail in the famous book "Journey to the Ants" by Edward Wilson and Bert Holldobbler, 1994, Harvard University Press).

One unique trait that characterizes opportunity and threat information messages is that they tend to be urgent. If bees don't immediately exploit the honey source just found some other insect will. If ants don't have a razor sharp response to the enemy scout they may face a potentially lethal surprise attack.

In all cases nature's teams have evolved a simple approach to communicate urgent information widely and instantly without doing anything more than sending out just-in-time information messages and letting everyone take action in an independent fashion.

But why don't nature's teams issue orders?

The reason for this is that it is easy to demonstrate that orders have a higher 'information complexity' than situational information and are more difficult to assemble and broadcast quickly to team-mates.

Orders are also more likely to contain errors and to be misunderstood.

You can check this out by experimenting with work colleagues by giving out alternatively information messages and "order" information. You will discover that when you give order information you inevitably have to supply considerable more situational information to ensure that the order is properly understood.

What is evident is that Nature has evolved an approach of simple message transmission coupled with enough distributed self-intelligence within each of the receivers for being able to know what to do with it.

Team members have huge amount of local distributed intelligence (i.e. their brains) for working out the required action for them given their situation.

Learning from Nature

Learning from nature means that team-mates must be trained to expect information rather than orders and must be able to quickly work out appropriate responses without having to be told.

If we start providing just-in-time information messages to a team which has been exposed only to receiving "orders" and "instructions" there will only be one response - team paralysis. The team members will digest the information but will not take action.

Today's organisational teams face exactly the same problems as nature's teams:

Information needs to be communicated to all team-mates quickly

Members of a team are generally very busy and they don't have the time to read and understand complex instructions. They need brief, synthetic, focused, short messages

One-way is okay

When an ant or a bee broadcasts a message to another ant or bee it doesn't wait for a response.


Most times, in Nature, speed is of the essence.

The main reason nature's teams communicate this way is that if they waited for a response they would probably get eaten before it arrived. These insects rely on razor sharp fast responses to survive.

Nature's teams subjugate everything to speed. Speed enables living animals to move to more powerful positions further up their ecosystem. Speed is the essential difference between the species at the top and bottom of the food chain. That's the difference between a plant and an insect or animal.

As natures' teams are communicating information rather than orders it follows that their communications can be broadcast rather than conversational. Therefore these messages do not need responses - they are one-way.

This enables very fast team reactions.

But look at our organisational teams:

The current school of thought is that you should generally allow and wait for a response to electronic communications. However this style of working drastically hampers the team's speed, agility and responsiveness. Everything stops while somebody does not reply or somebody is away from his or her screen or someone's email gets bounced.

In today's organisational teams increasing speed and responsiveness is usually the number one challenge.

Adopting information for action and one-way messaging is an excellent strategy for addressing this challenge.

In aviation there are two critical communication terms universally used in all radio transmissions - 'Roger' and 'Wilco'.

'Wilco' means I have received your message and Will Comply with it. 'Roger' just means I have received your message but I may or may not act on it.

To be a bioteam you need to find a technological way to automatically achieve "Roger" and you need to minimise all communications requiring a "Wilco".

In conclusion

Set-up and encourage your team to expect and gather information and not wait for orders.

Only use two-way messages where you absolutely need to have a clear-cut response, where there is unavoidable complexity or where you require a particular bit of info.

Additional Resources on Bioteaming

The Bioteaming Manifesto

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner, author and speaker on collaboration and game-based learning.

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I absolutely agree with you. I realized that we don't have to strictly controll teams long time ago, but I couldn't find a better way to orginise ateam collaboration untill I found Wrike The tool actually lets your team members to share information and work together on tasks and you stay aware of all their updates and progress, as you get instant notifications. I've not seen a better way to organised perfect collaboration staying in control at the same time.


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