Former Reuter’s IT Europe Manager and VISION business consultant Ken Thompson’s book Bioteams is a little gem that describes how to create high performance teams based on examples found in the natural world. As he notes in the first chapter, “after [nature’s] 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival. We are learning, for instance, how to grow food like a prairie, create ceramics like an abalone, create color like a peacock, self-medicate like a chimp, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.”
The idea of biomimetics really began, Thompson observes, in the 1940’s when a Swiss inventor noticed how certain plant seeds clung to his clothing. Closer examination led to the discovery of a unique hook-and-loop mechanism, which led to the invention of Velcro. From that point, it was only a matter of time before theorists began to think more deeply about how to adapt nature’s designs for human use. Thompson observes that bioteaming is simply the application of biomimetics to groups in human organizations.
What better opportunity to apply the lessons of bioteaming than to a self-managed organization, where individual members enjoy a great deal of autonomy in pursuit of their respective missions? Without the organizational friction of bureaucracy and hierarchy, self-managing enterprises would seem to find themselves uniquely equipped to avail themselves of the best analogies that nature has to offer. And there are plenty to choose from.
From the ant world we learn about the power of instant short-burst, whole-group broadcast communication. Ants communicate both opportunity (food) and threat (predator) messages through whole-group chemical broadcasts. These short messages require no response (eliminating the need for two-stage communication), and trigger message receivers to act instantly. How efficient and effective is that?
A self-managed work environment demands free and open communication. When individuals need help from others, communication is request-not-command, since people in such a workplace only manage themselves, not others. For a request to be effective, it stands to reason that the request should be delivered in a respectful manner designed to elicit a positive response.
More broadly: what modern company, self-managed or not, doesn’t claim to foster teamwork, open communication, and professional relationships? It’s easy to imagine the recruiting challenges for any organization advocating rigid hierarchy, arbitrary command authority, and threats from superiors. Respectful communication is paramount. While that concept sounds simple enough, it’s not necessarily intuitive for everyone.
Psychologists Stephanie Donaldson Pressman and Robert M. Pressman* offer some insight into the mechanics of respect that could easily apply to many conceivable work situations requiring effective communication—especially those involving requests that are complex, continuous, or involve multiple stakeholders.
They describe a formula called “I Feel…I Want” that has the potential to help individuals express themselves effectively. Expressing emotion is important, they say, because a) everyone has emotions, and b) everyone has a right to experience their own emotions (while we sometimes like to think we are creatures of logic, brain science tells us that it’s virtually impossible to make a decision without emotion**). And it’s important for most people to have their feelings heard. The problem occurs when people use ineffective methods to express feelings (name-calling, always/never references, kitchen-sinking, reciting ancient history, etc.) that result in bad outcomes (escalation, counterattack, permanent animosity). The psychologists note that very few people listen well when they are being attacked—they are inwardly preparing a counterattack.
With The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager, Daniel Mezick has given organizations a high-performance set of not-so-secret success formulas. His writing is crisp, cogent and to the point. Best example: his riposte to people that check e-mail in meetings is “Give me a break”. Best of all, the advice is fully actionable. Right away. Anyone can pick up a copy of Culture Game and, within a couple of hours, brainstorm multiple ways to apply Agile thinking and Tribal Learning Practices to their organization. This book is designed to give leaders (and those aspiring to be leaders) the kinds of powerful business execution techniques that elude most organizations. If you don’t recognize the terms Agile or Tribal Leadership, they are easily googled for a quick intro.
Mezick’s first sentence in Chapter 22 is: “Eliminate the distinction between work and play”–what a concept! When you really think about it, despite the massive amounts of literature dedicated to achieving work/life balance, there is really only life (unless people at work are actually zombies!). Why not use games to make life at work as enjoyable as possible?
The author has a cohort of like-minded thought leaders and fellow experimenters (including Robert Richman, former head of Zappos Insights, and Michael Margolis, master storyteller), and he draws them out skillfully in interviews. Throughout, he builds out Agile principles in a logical sequence upon a solid foundation of history and context, and does so in an authentic and entertaining way. He gives full credit where credit is due, not only to Agile and Tribal Leadership, but to every resource that defines and/or reinforces his principles (including complexity theory, brain science, psychology, Toyota, systems theory, and many others). As a reader, I appreciated the references and learned where to go for more in-depth information.
Daniel Mezick has comprehensively defined the game of organizational culture. It’s safe to say that he, like his book, is a real winner.
Lord Acton, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, famously stated that: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It turns out that Acton’s observation was truer than he could possibly have known at the time.
Dr. Ian Robertson has discovered that there is a biological basis to the addiction of power. It turns out that in both men and women, the exercise of power increases both the levels of testosterone and 3-androstanediol (a testosterone by-product).* This chemical surge, in turn, increases dopamine levels—a short-term reward for the brain. Unfortunately, the addiction to power can simulate the physical addiction to cocaine—producing short-term euphoria but also leading to arrogance, impatience, egocentricity and lack of empathy. Most sentient adults have observed such sub-optimal behavior in organizational leaders of all kinds—with negative effects everywhere.
Dr. Robertson, a professor of psychology at the University of Dublin, is publishing a book, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, on June 7, 2012 (Bloomsbury)**. His analysis of baboon hierarchies provided key insights into the effects of dominant behavior in groups, and the effect on group dynamics. Baboons low in the hierarchy have low levels of dopamine. Once “promoted”, however, dopamine levels rise—making them more aggressive.
The Canadian Snowbirds Demonstration Team has been thrilling audiences at high-performance air shows across North America since 1978. A branch of the Canadian Air Force, one would think such a group would be rigidly hierarchical—but it’s not. It’s really quite self-managed.
One of the joys of working with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute is scouring the world for examples of self-management in action. Frequently, we find self-management in unlikely places.
One question that arises: how important is coordination (a.k.a. teamwork) in a self-managed environment? The answer: it’s everything! A core traditional management function, coordination (or the lack thereof) among team members can make or break an organization. Self-management is unlike Peter Drucker’s famous metaphor of organization as conducted symphony. To continue with the music metaphors, it’s much more like a cluster of jazz bands roaming around Bourbon Street. The trick is not to direct them, but just to make sure that each band is relatively harmonious and doesn’t clash with all the other bands.
In an organization with multiple geographic locations, one can speculate about the myriad levels of coordination that have to occur: between locations, between functions, between businesses, and between domains like sales, strategy and human resources. Pretty complex, right? Now imagine an organization of self-managed professionals in an unlikely organization, creating scores of high-risk public performances for six months out of every year—where coordination is (and, tragically, has been) literally a matter of life or death.