The Bioteaming Breakthrough for High Performance Teams

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With the emergence and maturing of a vast array of corporate-strength intranets, extranets, portals, and Web 2.0 with its multitude of supporting real-time and asynchronous communications tools, there would appear to be a huge potential for technology to bring real gains to team productivity. This would seem to be particularly true for those teams that are physically distributed or that are highly mobile. Few people would dispute the potential benefits of effective real-time communication tools or of shared and secure workspaces. However, in practical terms, hardly any of the supposed benefits are generally realized by teams utilizing these technologies.

Why? If we stick with our current "command-and-control" approach to teams, we will not be able to meet the growing needs of our customers or our communities in the high-change global economy. So, what's missing in today's organizational teams?

The fundamental thing missing from teams today is the recognition of the dynamic and living nature of the team itself as a separate and distinct entity from that of its individual members. A team is a living entity in and of itself -more than the sum of its members' abilities. For example, an ant colony, one of nature's most efficient and successful living teams, has a life of its own -albeit intimately connected to the lives of its members.

However, in organizations we treat our teams mechanistically. We think of our teams more like clocks or engines that are assigned to specific tasks and assignments. We want the highest control of them, and we want them to be very predictable in their work behavior. That's exactly the opposite of what nature's teams do.  Interpretation of the team as a whole, living entity, allows a more insightful interpretation of the most efficient courses of team action.

The team is in itself a "super-organism," and as such it needs to be treated in ways that enhance and support its complex and interconnected nature. If you can see the team as a whole, and not as the mere aggregation of the individual parts that make it up, you can discover how much more productive, reliable and efficient a virtual team can be.

Once you wrap your mind around this new way of looking at organizational teams, you immediately need to rethink how such teams should be nurtured, organized and supported in effective and suitable ways. This is why I am proposing in this book that we look at nature's most successful biological teams to uncover the secrets of extended cooperation and effective collaboration.

Nature offers us such an invaluable heritage of "best lessons learned" for how teams should be run and is the foundation for the new discipline I call "bioteaming."

Nature-derived lessons have been tested and tried over the course of hundreds of thousands of years under an infinite number of variables and scenarios. The approaches that did not work are long gone. The fact of evolution means that the study of nature's teams is the study of only the best of nature's teams.

If we are smart enough to humbly analyze and dissect the core characterizing traits of nature's successful team behaviors, we can devise and architect their use and growth within our human-based teams.

This is the mission of Bioteaming: a painstaking review and application of the common traits of nature's most effective biological teams so that we can transfer the learning to our organizational teams.

What Nature Teaches Us About Teams

Bioteaming is about building organizational teams that operate on the basis of the natural principles that underpin nature's most successful teams. Nature's most effective bioteams include:

  • Single-celled and multicellular organisms
  • The human immune system and nervous system (including the brain)
  • Micro-organisms such as bacteria and social insects (ants, bees and termites
  • Jellyfish, geese, monkeys, dolphins, big cats
  • Forests, rivers, ecosystems, the earth (as Gaia)

My research has identified a small number of characteristics of nature's teams that are not usually present in organizational teams:1. Collective Leadership. Any group member can take the lead.2. Instant Messaging. Instant whole-group broadcast communications.3. Ecosystems. Small is Beautiful … but Big is Powerful.4. Clustering. Engaging many through the few.

Collective Leadership Any group member can take the lead.

Nature's groups are never led exclusively by one member; different group members lead as needed. When geese migrate it is well known that the goose leading the V formation rotates. However, this is not just because they get tired and need to fly in another goose's slipstream for a while. The real reason is that no one goose knows the whole migration route. Collectively, between them, they know the migration route but no one individual knows.

So a goose leads the part of the journey where it knows the way and when it recognizes "I don't know where to go next" it flies back into the V and waits for another goose to take over.I call this "Collective Leadership," the right leader for the right task at the right time.The human species seems to be the only species that trusts in a single leader (or small management team) to know the whole path, on behalf of the community.

Multi-Leader groups possess much greater agility, initiative and resilience than groups that are only led by a single exclusive leader.

Instant MessagingInstant whole-group broadcast communications.Nature's groups use short instant messages that are instantly broadcast and received "in situ" wherever the receivers are. These messages are very short and very simple – essentially just two types:

  • Opportunity Messages. Food, nesting materials, Prey
  • Threat Messages. Predators, Rival colonies

Ants achieve such messaging by using a range of chemical pheromones that they emit and lay in trails, and that are instantly picked up by the other ants. Bees use dances, for example, the waggle dance that is danced by a hive member who has found a food supply. The hive mates watch the dance and the angle of the axis of the dance points them to the food supply. It is important to note that:

  • These messages are group broadcasts and are not replied to.
  • They are received and acted upon immediately; there is no concept of a 2-stage communication that is received at point A and acted on later at point B.

 A critical point is that these instant messages are so simple they really act just as "alerts." The recipient has to "decide" what to do. Such instant messages do not convey orders or instructions.


Small is Beautiful …but Big is Powerful.

In nature, the size of the group is always right for the job and small groups link into bigger groups, that in turn link into still bigger groups. Where you a have a very large group or a crowd, it is only possible to achieve coordinated action if each member does the same thing at the same time. Thus a crowd can move a stone or excavate a hole but large scale innovation is another thing altogether. So large groups enable scale, mass, reach and range.

However, in a small group each member can meaningfully do different things at the same time. In other words, "Division of labor" and complex coordination. So a small group may not be able to lift a large weight but it could design a clever tool to make lifting that weight much easier.

So nature shows us the importance of having the right group size for the job at hand. It also shows us that "one size does not fit all," in terms of groups, by its ability to have all sizes of interconnected groups. For example, in the ant world we have castes within colonies, within food webs, within ecosystems.

A critical point for human teams is that they need to allow members to enjoy both the small group dynamic for innovation, and the large group dynamic for scale.


Engaging the many through the few

Nature's networks are clustered. The technical term for this is "scale-free networks. " In simple terms, what this means is that in most naturally occurring networks some of the nodes have many more connections than the average.

This makes sense instinctively. For example, some of our friends seem to know everybody. If we need to reach someone we don't directly know, we might try them first. This structure also describes the neurons in the brain and other emerging social structures such as the 'hub' sites that are the best connected on the Internet.

What this means for teams is that if you are lucky some of your team members will have extreme connectivity in terms of relationships. The team needs to take advantage of these existing connections rather than try and have the team leader(s) create and manage new connections from scratch.These highly connected people are described elsewhere in various terms, including alpha users, connectors and influentials. But no matter what they are called, if they are well managed and motivated they can provide the most efficient and effective channels for the team to engage with its wider community.


To succeed in work environments today, you must be able to work in teams - but they are not your father's teams anymore. Bioteams and bioteaming are the most appropriate ways to think about teams, networks and organizations in today's interconnected world. Nature's teams display four traits that don't naturally seem to occur in organizational teams and that I contend would make a huge difference to human performance.

This article is only a quick snapshot of how biological teams operate. In my book, Bioteaming, I develop these ideas in much more detail, including the notion of mass collaboration. I also describe the obvious differences between biological and human teams, intelligence and autonomy. In order to go beyond raw Internet connectivity and on to improving team performance, I provide seven proven techniques for successful bioteams.

With the emergence of global Internet collaboration, social networks and mobile communications, the very meaning of the word "team" has changed -changed utterly. Because BPM and IT leaders are serving as agents of change by introducing the new collaboration technologies to their companies, they too can lead the way in teaching the methods and techniques of bioteaming. After all, it's not just the collaboration technologies that count, it's what we do  with those technologies. Let the bioteaming begin.

# # # Ken Thompson, former European IT Manager with Reuters in London, is a leading expert in the area of biomimicry, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams. He is author of Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Most Successful Designs and the just released book, The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the Future Through Virtual Enterprise Networks ( and can be reached at


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