Bioteams: Nature’s Best Practices
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?
Thompson notes that traditional organizations rely heavily on permission structures to protect against mistakes by individual members. Bioteams, on the other hand, obliterate those structures and drive accountability through transparency and reliance on reputation. Accountability then becomes the natural consequence of bioteaming, not an artifact of hierarchical authority structures.
Thompson’s book describes several layers of bioteaming lessons, covering natural leadership, communication, virtual networked teams, and performance scorecards. The book concludes with several case studies of organizations that intentionally engaged thoughtful bioteaming methods to solve thorny business problems. The power and elegance of bioteaming is indisputable. Whether organizations will be willing to trade the perceived security blanket of traditional hierarchy for that power is another question entirely.