posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Why penguins have no commanding officer…
By Ken Thompson
Many people have been enchanted by the film The March of the Penguins, especially when they realise that the penguins have no single leader. But if they have no leader then how do they know where to go?
This is a good question because it reveals the essential difference between human teams and nature’s teams. The answer is that no single penguin knows where to go, but they know where to go as a group.
This is known as collective or team intelligence and is a key feature of other biological teams, such as ant colonies. Perhaps surprisingly, humankind is the only species that operates ‘leader intelligence’ – the trust that a small group of leaders knows best for the whole group.
Traditionally, human-team management is classic command and control – good for warfare or civil engineering, but poor for organisational teams, especially when distributed, mobile, semi-formal and with ill-defined structures and boundaries.
Biological teams are ‘self-organising’. Instead of relying on a few leaders, every member has the potential to be a leader in some domain and at some time. How can organisations learn to become more like these biological teams?
Step one – convert command and control teams into ‘self-organising teams’ with distributed leadership structures.
In addition, biological teams do not use long or complex messages to communicate the way we do. Instead they use short messages. For example, ants use chemical messages (pheromones) and bees use visual messages conveyed through dance.
When you analyse communications in these teams you quickly notice certain common characteristics:
* Peer systems. Everyone in the group or team communicates like this, not just the leaders or elders;
* The messages are sent and instantly received in situ. In other words, the messages come from, and go, to wherever the other members of the group happen to be – they are not stored for processing later (like e-mail);
* They are predominantly ‘one to many’ broadcast messages (‘shouts’) with some ‘one to one’ messages (‘whispers’) but not much ‘one to some’ messages (‘gossips’);
* They often only use one-way messages – the receiver can take action (or not) without having to reply first. This makes it fast and responsive.
Contrast this style with what we typically have in our teams – leader-dominated broadcasting and a proliferation of e-mails and attachments. Also, the tendency to delay action until replies are received from all team members, which is a great way to destroy productivity and responsiveness. An unfortunate side effect of our vastly superior intelligence over the insect and animal kingdoms is that we have forgotten natural ‘messaging instincts’ in favour of ‘document instincts’.
Step two – rekindle messaging between team members as the dominant communication mechanism, instead of e-mail and documents. In other words, move from ‘document-review-talk’ to ‘message-talk-document’, which produces shorter documents and greater ownership.
Mother Nature teaches us that we can implement collective intelligence through self-managed teams. We can recover our natural ‘messaging instincts’ through mobile-phone text messaging, for example, and instant messaging. The result should be teams that work more naturally. In other words fast, responsive and adaptive with every member engaged to the best of their abilities.
Ken Thompson is a specialist in the area of team dynamics, virtual teams and business networks and author of The Bioteaming Manifesto – A New Paradigm for Virtual, Networked Business Teams. Ken can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his blog: www.bioteams.com.