Team Transformation Rule 2: Cultivate Team Intelligence

Cultivating Team Intelligence provides organizational teams, networks and communities with a much better early warning 'radar' thus enabling them to spot and deal with problems/opportunities sooner.

Portuguese man-of-war

The portuguese man-of-war jellyfish is sometimes found floating, some even say "swarming", in groups of thousands. It is not a single animal but a colony of four kinds of highly modified individuals [polyps]. The polyps are dependent on one another for survival..

For more on the portuguese man-of-war see Cooperation not competition underpins evolution.


Instead of issuing orders, nature's teams such as ants, geese, dophins, jellyfish and microscopic life forms, function by providing timely information to the team members and then allowing and expecting them to take the appropriate action. Curiously, this information is not provided by the Queen nor a leadership group but by the 'rank and file' members. Team Intelligence provides a team with a much more sensitive and long-range early warning 'radar' than the conventional approach which enables them to spot problems and opportunities sooner and to react to them more effectively.

Team intelligence constitutes the Early Warning System of a team. However most teams are vastly unexploiting the potential for every member to be part of this early warning system. I will show how Team Intelligence can be implemented in organizational teams by learning from biological 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 2: Leadership: Rule 2: Everyone must broadcast

As you can see, Nature's teams don't issue orders.

In an ant colony the Queen's job is to reproduce - not to try to control what the other ants do.

And this is why some colonies can have up to a 300 million members while the Queen has no real idea of what each of colony members are doing at any given time.

It is not the Queen Bee who finds the good nectar source and dances the "waggle dance". (See, for example, THE BEE WAGGLE DANCE: A LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS OF INSECT LANGUAGE)

Neither is it the Ant Queen who spots the ant from the rival colony out on a scouting mission. (Ant behavior is described in detail in the famous book "Journey to the Ants" by Edward Wilson and Bert Holldobbler, 1994, Harvard University Press)).

Human bioteams need to imitate nature by becoming teams of peers and leaders where every member understands that it is central to their role as a bioteam member to be on the look-out for just-in-time, critical information which may be of value to the team as a whole.

Team Intelligence constitutes the nervous system of the team: the ability to respond to external stimuli quickly and effectively. It is interesting that the term "central nervous system" is in fact something of a misnomer - the nervous systems of all living entities are distributed. At one extreme basic organisms such as a worm have a highly distributed "nervous cord" whilst at the other the human nervous system, although it is most dense in the brain, extends throughout our entire body - otherwise we could not even move! For more on this see A Design Framework for Bioteams.

Team Vital Signs

But how do we make sure team members will know what info to send out?

How can we prevent them from constantly spamming other team-mates with pet topics, irrelevancies and trivia?

Well, team members need to clearly know what is vital and what is not.

To support this need a bioteam needs to design a dashboard of team "vital signs" which always require immediate attention.

An analogy with medical emergencies is helpful here - think of the vital signs for a human being - breathing, alertness, heart, pulse, and blood pressure. We need to distinguish between what signs are important, which are urgent and which are both. For example, high cholesterol is important but not urgent in the same way as a heartbeat irregularity.

So what are your team's vital signs, what changes in them requires attention and how urgent are they?

The easiest way to do this is to have the team identify and agree upon the key external and internal situations which everybody needs to pay attention to.

In other words what are the key internal team state changes that need to be constantly monitored?

Techniques such as the Balanced Business Scorecard can be used here to help construct a team vital signs dashboard.

3 Guidelines for Team Intelligence

Three important tips will help you manage team intelligence:

1. Find Intelligence before it becomes urgent

Steven Covey describes the difference between URGENCY and IMPORTANCE in Principle-Centred Leadership. Covey points out that the most important strategic work for any individual or team is that which is IMPORTANT but not yet URGENT. This is the work that builds the foundations for the future - not the work which is just simply URGENT or even the work which is URGENT and IMPORTANT. (This task area is also known as Quadrant 2).

The same applies for Team Intelligence - it needs to be found early enough for the team to do something with it. This is a sign of good Team Intelligence - it functions as an early warning system.

2. Check the early warning system is still on

An effective team intelligence system requires all team members to watch beyond their functional briefs. This concept is explained in much more detail in Seven model behaviours for bioteam members. Projects and teams often start this way but as the project gets under pressure and blame starts to get apportioned team members start to focus only on their own work. The reason they do this is a perception, fueled by poor team leadership, that their own work is where they will ultimately be praised or blamed not the teams overall performance.

One of the pillars of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is whether an individual is moving towards pleasure or moving away from pain - this is known as your Towards-Away orientation.

For example, Thom Hartmann says

"We never stand still. None of us. We are always doing one of two things, and only one of those two things. We are all always, every moment, either moving towards something we want, moving toward pleasure, or moving away from something we don't want, or we're afraid of, or we want to avoid, we're moving away from pain. So we're always either moving toward pleasure or moving away from pain. These are the basic strategies that govern literally every moment of our lives. And people make decisions based on these strategies"

We can apply this in our teams. At the start of a project we are probably aiming towards collective success. But by the end of a project we are often aiming away from individual failure.

Somewhere in the middle the project has "crossed the line".

Often this happens because the project gets under pressure and a team member gets some public blame heaped on them.

The other team members quickly work out that to avoid this happening to them they should focus all their energies and time on doing their own job properly at the expense of taking an interest in what anybody else is doing.

So they retreat into their narrow individual roles at the expense of their team member roles.

At this point I say a project has "crossed the line" and exchanged the prize of playing for collective success to the lesser prize of playing to avoid individual failure.

The leaders in the team need to be constantly on the lookout for this - because the minute this happens, and it will, the team is flying blind.

The team's radar has been switched off and they lack any kind of early warning system. So that is a key element of team conversations and meetings - establishing if the early warning system is still switched on or not.

3. Don't 'fire and forget' intelligence

It is the responsibility of a finder of intellgence to make sure it is communicated to a) the right people and b) in a way which grabs their attention. Team members often do the first part but not the second part.

The rule with Team Intelligence is that the burden of it remains with the finder until they have got the right people to engage with it and determine what if any action is required. This rule eliminates the possibility of sending out an email or leaving a voice message and feeling that your "obligations are fulfilled".

In conclusion

Team Intelligence is the nervous system of a team. Most teams have an overly centralised nervous system which contrasts with biological nervous systems which are usually highly distributed.

To operate effective team intelligence you need to identify the teams vital signs and be on the lookout for intelligence on them before it becomes ugent.

You also need to be able to communicate team intelligence to the other members quickly and effectvely and be able to detect when the green light has gone out on the team early warning system.

Additional Resources on Bioteaming

The Bioteaming Manifesto

Why teams dont work and why bioteams do

Team transformation rule 1: Stop trying to control them

About Ken Thompson

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

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The term cyborg is used to designate an organism which is a mixture of organic and synthetic parts so designed to enhance its abilities via technology. William Mitchell a professor at MIT Media Lab believes that through our mobile devices we are all becoming mobile cyborgs and its for the better. In his book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City which he discusses in an interview with James Harkin Mitchell describes how the new communications technologies have overlaid our city spaces with central nervous systems connecting us into the wireless ether via our mobile devices which act as umbilical cords to anchor us into the information society's digital infrastructure.

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