posted 31 Jan 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 5
The knowledge | Ken Thompson
Taking time out from his career as a software engineer, Ken Thompson is bringing the lessons learnt from nature’s ‘biological teams’ into the workplace. Sandra Higgison finds out what we’re doing wrong and what makes ants, bees and geese interact so successfully.
By Sandra Higgison
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: what do you get if you cross a software engineer with an interest in nature? But instead of generating a bizarre punch line, Ken Thompson’s research into the behavioural patterns of biological teams is practical and accessible and has caught the attention of many. Taking his own experiences of teamwork – which he admits have, for the most part, not been very positive – Thompson has spent the past six years investigating what nature can teach us about collaboration and team dynamics, and has been applying his findings to organisations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.
Within minutes of meeting Thompson the energy he has for his subject becomes apparent and I can almost see his anecdotes and ideas battling for airtime in the hour we have to talk. As his coffee goes cold and my list of questions grows, our whirlwind discussion moves from subjects as varied as leadership styles and communication techniques, to technology in the third world, the problem with school trips and the rise of portfolio careers. He says that one of his weaknesses is that he tries to run with all his ideas at the same time rather than one by one, which, if our conversation is anything to go by, is no surprise.
After 25 years in the IT industry Thompson rewarded himself with a two-year sabbatical to research biological teams. “I chose to focus on collaboration because I think it’s the most important skill for any individual or organisation in the networked economy, and because it’s currently done so badly,” he says. From his studies Thompson developed his concept of ‘bioteams’, which formed the basis of a manifesto he wrote with colleague Robin Good. The document, published by Changethis.com, details the problems facing today’s businesses and the solutions offered from nature’s most successful biological teams. The manifesto also presents a set of principles and behaviours for high-performing teams that Thompson continues to validate in his work on team dynamics.
According to Thompson there are many reasons why teams don’t work. As it says in the bioteaming manifesto, the internet revolution has offered greater and more effective opportunities for collaboration, but business teams appear to be engulfed by:
Technology adoption issues;
A lack of effective communication;
Reliance on old working methods;
An absence of strong team motivation;
Effective cooperative workflows.
Much of this theory is based on mistakes he has made while working as part of a team, as well as coaching them. “Software engineering teams are some of the most difficult in the world as their members tend to be introverts and poor communicators,” he says. “It’s a classic problem: the team is made up of tightly connected individuals, which is great for productivity, but as they have poor connections with the rest of the community or organisation they often solve the wrong problem. It’s the other way round in a sales team, which is very well connected externally but can struggle to get things done.”
Thompson finds that teams have become more distributed, complex and harder to manage. New technologies that promise to take the pain from collaboration – a term that he says means different things to different people and generally involves less cooperation than you would expect – often make teamwork more complex. And while it is now common to be part of a global team that never actually meets, Thompson finds that these virtual commitments are more easily broken.
He has also identified patterns regularly followed by unproductive project teams. “At the outset everybody is focused on their collective success, people look out for each other and pass on information that affects them. But as the deadline approaches and pressure increases the focal point changes to one of individual avoidance of blame. People no longer care if the project works, they just don’t want to be the one to take the blame for its failure.”
Thompson lays responsibility for this breakdown at the feet of the leadership. He believes that a leader who uses team meetings to probe progress will create the wrong mood and set people against each other rather than encourage them to work together. “Humans are the only species that puts its trust in a small group of leaders to know what is good for the whole community,” he says. “Every other species uses its collective intelligence. If you observe how penguins march across ice deserts to their breeding ground or geese migrate thousands of miles, they don’t alternate leaders just because they get tired but because no one bird knows the entire journey: they use their collective intelligence. If you want a team to work effectively, you give it multiple leaders and allow it to self manage.”
It was while analysing the behaviours within ant colonies and beehives that Thompson had his eureka moment. “Ants are always foraging for food or foes. When they find something they transmit a message to the group through their pheromones, which leave chemical trails that are instantly available to the whole community.” Thompson figured that the ant’s pheromone is the equivalent of our mobile-phone text or instant messaging. His ideas on self-managed teams and short messaging formed the bioteams concept that shows teams how to operate successfully according to operational logistics, behaviour patterns, command structures and communication.
Thompson says that the bioteams approach has been particularly successful with small businesses, as one of the challenges they face is gaining access to the big contracts. By developing a virtual-enterprise network with other like-minded or complimentary businesses, they can give themselves the same scale and reach of a large corporate. “We’ve done a lot of work to bring these businesses together to help them improve their speed, responsiveness, innovation and flexibility, and reduce their overheads.”
Despite their early success at generating discussion around the subject, Thompson felt that bioteams was ahead of its time. “We were five years too early,” he says. “A friend of mine told me that the best way to get it to truly take off was to embody it in a software product.” Taking his findings on how ants, dolphins, geese and bees communicate effectively through short messaging, Swarmteams is a messaging system that enables mobile groups to communicate and collaborate using whichever medium is most appropriate at the time, be it the web, e-mail, text messaging or instant messaging. It enables one-to-one as well as one-to-many interactions within a ‘swarm’ or group of people.
Thompson says that humans have replaced the messaging instinct found in nature with a document instinct. “Because we are so intelligent, we’re conditioned to communicate via very complex mail or documents, which pushes us away from each other. What I’m suggesting is that we adopt a completely new approach: message, talk, get agreement and work with short documents.” Looking at the characteristics of groups that use this form of communication it’s easy to see the value this approach can bring to business teams:
Peer systems: everyone in the group communicates in this way, not just the leaders;
Messages are sent and instantly received in situ: messages come from and go to wherever the other members of the group happen to be, they are not stored for processing at a later date;
They are predominantly one-to-many broadcast messages (shouts), with some one-to-one messages (whispers), but not many one-to-some messages (gossip);
They often only use one-way messages: the receiver can take action without having to reply first, which makes it incredibly fast and responsive.
This method of communicating also has clear benefits for knowledge sharing within an organisation. “When you’re looking for knowledge it’s just as important to find who has the knowledge you need as it is to find the knowledge itself,” says Thompson. “If you look at the corporate structure chart and then look at how work is done, they rarely match. Everyone has their buddies in different departments who they regularly call. This invisible cell structure is the organisation’s ecosystem and organisations need to be able to support it. Short messaging can help groups, or ‘swarms’, quickly and easily broadcast questions or information.”
One application he highlights for Swarmteams is for school trips. “
While Thompson’s ambition is for his concepts to be adopted by enterprises, his work also dovetails with his commitment to charity work in developing countries, and
With so many potential avenues for his ideas, Thompson needs his energy to pursue them all. Looking back on the path he has taken so far he offers lessons to other would-be entrepreneurs. He says that creating and maintaining his blog has been a significant investment. “I wrote an article every day for 18 months and the site now gets 200 visitors a day. If you’re thinking of starting a blog think about it carefully and then commit to doing it for at least a year. And when you have an idea write about it, but also try it out immediately otherwise you become just another theoretician.”
This entrepreneurial spirit seems to be rife in the Thompson household. His eldest son sold his first business, an online football forum, at the age of 18, and his eight-year-old boy has built his own website to showcase his drawings (when asked if given £100 what he would spend it on, he simply replied ‘staff’). Thompson says he takes inspiration from seeing people take control of their lives, which is what he hopes for his children. “In the future there will be a minority of people who are in a single job for life, as Charles Handy says, we’ll all have portfolio careers. I want to create a desire among my children to take control for themselves.”
Thompson’s thirst for learning extends beyond team dynamics. He studied for, and gained, his pilot’s licence three years ago and more recently learnt to snowboard. “Everyone told me that I was over 40 and couldn’t start snowboarding as I’d hurt myself. And they were right! I think you just need to have the right attitude towards learning and be ready to take a risk. You might as well get your falls in early and realise that there’s no safe way to learn: you can’t learn to ski without falling over.” And in the same vein, Thompson can only bring bioteams to businesses and communities by changing and, in some cases radically altering, some deeply set behaviours. But with Mother Nature on his side, it’s difficult to have a more persuasive argument.
To contact Ken Thompson, please e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.