We live in the marketing age of all things natural, organic, and sustainable. Some astute observers are turning to the natural world for examples of practices that allow human beings to work together effectively in the age of the self-managed organization.
Ken Thompson’s book Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Natures Most Successful Designs 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. Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best and brightest organisms in our habitat.”
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 group effectiveness in human organizations.
Had a great time talking with Ben Olmos, host of the Satisfactionist Podcast. We discussed Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization, and myriad other topics.
Listen at the link below:
My new HR Studio podcast with Kyle O’Connor of A.J. O’Connor & Associates:
Every organization optimizes on something. W.L. Gore & Associates is known as the most innovative company in America. To enjoy extraordinary customer service, customers can call Zappos and chat with a cheerful representative for hours about shoes. Tomato giant Morning Star optimizes on simple core principles.
A principle is a fundamental, primary or general law or truth from which others are derived. Human principles are not unlike physical principles (for example, gravity). Principles exist, and they’re always working. People can choose to align their behavior with fundamental principles or not, but choosing to ignore principles (like gravity) can have serious consequences. Similarly, choosing to ignore human principles (like respect for the voluntary nature of human interaction and keeping commitments) can cause enormous damage. Notorious examples abound, like Charles Ponzi fraudulently promising investors unrealistic arbitrage returns.
While ignoring basic human principles carries serious costs, aligning actions with principles conveys significant benefits.
Self-Management is Fractal Management
The world is becoming more complex. Some reports indicate that human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, writes that with over 13,000 ways for the human body to fail, medicine today is the art of mastering complexity, if it can be mastered at all. Complexity is a constant of modern organizational life.
Well those drifters days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out…
–Bob Seger, Against the Wind
Item: Ben Farmer, in The Telegraph (UK), reports on research that shows parents’ immersion in smart phones has left some neglected children starting primary school unable to hold conversations. One head teacher said: “There is limited parent/child interaction. Four year-olds know how to swipe a phone but haven’t a clue about conversations”. Another primary school leader warned: “We are having more and more children entering our early years stage with delayed speech and a lack of school readiness.”
Item: The Pew Research Center reports “the volume of texting among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user. Older teens, boys, and blacks are leading the increase. Texting is the dominant daily mode of communication between teens and all those with whom they communicate. The typical American teen is sending and receiving a greater number of texts than in 2009. Overall, 75% of all teens text.”
Item: According to USA Today, a study conducted for online casino Yazino found that one in four people spend more time socializing online, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, than they do in person. The study also found that even when there is an opportunity to see people face-to-face, on weekends for example, up to 11% of adults still prefer to stay at home and communicate on their devices instead.
Item: Arvind Suresh, writing in Discover magazine, reports that Jacob Sherson, an associate professor of Physics at Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark, and his colleagues have been working on ways to develop quantum computers by efficiently manipulating atoms with lasers. They are working to transcend the challenge of developing ever-smaller transistors to crunch bits of information in one of two states, 0 or 1. Quantum computers, based on quantum systems (atoms, electrons, photons) allow bits to exist as 0 and 1 simultaneously, allowing for massive, parallel increases in computer power. One challenge in manipulating atoms is “sloshing”, where a sudden move with a laser “tweezer” may cause an atom to slosh in the tweezer and produce calculation errors. Inspired by a Danish tech radio show, Sherson decided to gamify the challenge and invite citizen scientists to find the best solution. The project, Quantum Moves, created games where players manipulated atoms as efficiently as possible. By mapping the mouse positions of successful players, thousands of scientists can solve the problem far faster than one lonely researcher trying to find the perfect algorithm.
Item: Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto, describes how Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital decided to try a radical idea: a checklist for ICU doctors. He created a simple, five-point checklist for doctors to avoid infections when putting in a central line (first point: wash hands with soap!). For one month, nurses observed how often doctors followed each step. In more than a third of patients, doctors skipped at least one step. The following month, Johns Hopkins administration authorized nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skip a step—a revolutionary move in the hierarchical hospital environment. Over the next year, the ten-day line infection rate dropped from 11 percent to zero.
According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, US companies today have an average span of control — the number of people reporting to a supervisor — of 9.7, rising as high as 11.4 at large companies. These findings are congruent with research reported by authors Gary L. Neilson and Julie Wulf in 2012, where they noted that the CEO’s average span of control, measured by the number of direct reports, has doubled, rising from about five in the mid-1980s to almost ten in the mid-2000s.
Concurrently, virtually every survey of employee engagement shows 60-70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged at work. The Gallup organization reported that a majority of employees, 51 percent, were still “not engaged” and 17.5 percent were “actively disengaged” in 2014. Gallup estimates the cost of disengagement at more than $450 billion per year — a staggering number.
Do managers affect engagement? Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World, devoted an entire chapter to the fact that people leave managers, not companies. He highlights the centrality of the relationship between manager and employee as a critical factor in the disengagement epidemic.
The troubled relationship between management and engagement begs a question for organizational leaders: how’s all that management control working for you?
Like staccato bursts of data from the interstellar spacecraft Voyager, the workplaces of the future are sending new messages to the people that will be soon be joining them (and in many cases, already are). The new messages are replacing the outdated memos crafted for the dawn of the industrial age, when information traveled at the speed of Morse code.
Message 1: We Trust You. This message replaces the standard subliminal workplace meme that “we don’t trust you.” Examples of bad practices abound: absurdly restrictive limits on purchasing authority, elaborate inventory controls on disposable work supplies, ubiquitous surveillance and tracking.
How about giving people the freedom to implement solutions to problems and seize opportunities in the workplace if they are equipped to do so? Brian Carney and Isaac Getz, quoting former Chaparral Steel CEO Gordon Forward in their book Freedom, Inc., describe the current reality as managing for the 3 percent. In other words, creating rules to control the small number of nonconforming employees who might misuse their autonomy, while suppressing the innovation and creativity of the 97 percent who just want to do a good job. Carney and Getz relate the story of the small company CEO who saw a secretary dipping into the office supplies for back-to-school needs, so he banned anyone from ordering office supplies during the summer. That’s the recipe for an engaging workplace!