Bioteams: The Next Frontier of Business Process Management

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Support for collaboration is the hot discussion in BPM circles these days, and for good reason. It’s the human-to-human interactions of teams that count when it comes to innovation and agility. The age of the monolithic, vertically integrated company is long gone. In the interconnected world of the 21st century, you and everyone you work with must be able to function in and through internal and multi-company teams, and must also grasp what the latest concept of “team” really means. With the emergence of global Internet collaboration, social networks and mobile communications, there would appear to be a huge potential for technology to bring real gains to team performance. But wait, we are already suffocating with emails, and now all the new Web 2.0 communication channels could really choke us. Now that we are all connected, what do we say, how do we behave in a virtual team? How do we bring order to all the potential noise? How do we turn a traditional organizational team into a high performance virtual team that delivers results across the value delivery system?

Organizational Teams Are Not Delivering

Over the last ten years organizational teams have become more distributed and very complex. Despite the number of technologies available to assist teams and groups, it is still exceedingly difficult to manage teams.

I use the term “organizational” very loosely. By “organizational teams,” I mean teams working within organizations that could be solid, vertically integrated corporate entities, government departments, networked business clusters, nonprofit communities, informal task forces, social grouping and special interest groups. Individual team members may belong to many of these teams on a part-time and ad hoc basis – they may see each other frequently, or never ever meet physically – conducting all communications electronically or via the Web.

And, contrary to popular belief, the introduction of new real-time conferencing and collaboration technologies can actually make things worse. These new technologies may distract team members from their real business objectives and drive them into ongoing loops of technology experimentation. In these situations, the focus on the work mission is often lost in favor of mastering and attempting to extract ever increasing benefits from the technology itself.

So why is it so difficult to successfully manage teams today? I believe there are two main reasons:

  • Teams are using the wrong model to organize themselves
  • Teams are not keeping pace with the rapid changes in their business environments

Organizational Teams Are Using The Wrong Model

The underlying model in almost all teams today is “command and control.” In simple terms, this means that the members of the team wait for instructions issued by their single team leader. These leaders have limited span of control, so if their teams grow beyond a certain size they will create a hierarchical management structure to help them lead. The team members report back as they complete their tasks and they are given new ones. They also escalate “upward” any issues and problems that they can’t resolve themselves and await guidance from the leader on what to do next.

These teams can have huge amounts of member “down-time” where one piece of work is completed but  instructions are needed to begin the next task. Or, a problem crops up that has been pushed up through the “chain of command” to the leader for guidance before work can continue. In a team like this, it is nearly always safer for a team member to do nothing if faced by a new problem than it is to take initiative. You can think of two extremes of team “work styles” as shown below:

Team Work Styles

*---------------*-----------*---------------*----------------*

High Commitment
Low Structure
High Compliance
High Structure

On the far left we have a high commitment team but with very little structure, an extreme example might be a family on holiday fleeing from a rampaging elephant. On the extreme right we have a totally compliant team with lots of structure but little commitment, an example might be prisoners doing heavy labor on work detail.

The current “command and control” model places Organizational teams well over on the right side of the spectrum, high on compliance but low on commitment. It seems obvious that a better model would place Organizational Teams nearer to the center of the picture, the optimum balance of commitment (passion) and compliance (structure).

But surely today’s enlightened managers are no longer using such an out-of-date model to manage their teams?

Facts show otherwise – the single leader command and control team is very much alive and well in our business, government, nonprofit and social sectors. You only have to watch the popularity of programs such as “The Apprentice,” which showcases Alan Sugar’s authoritarian style of “hire and fire” management.

Command and control is totally the wrong model for today’s teams. Command and control was invented by the military and was adopted by organizations. It was a great model for warfare where you needed to be sure your team would instantly do what they had to do. This worked well because the job at hand was often something a team member would never do naturally, like climbing out of a safe trench into harm’s way. It was also a great model for mass production where you needed above all to ensure consistency of action in team members.

Takeaway

Today’s teams need a model that gives them some enabling structure but not at the expense of destroying team members’ autonomy and initiative. Applying BPM management principles and technologies across the value-delivery system is definitely not about command and control. Leadership goes to the core of what it takes to become a process-managed enterprise. Command-and-control leadership gives way to connect-and-collaborate, where every member of a business team is a "leader." In a process-managed enterprise, leaders don't give commands, they transmit information, trusting the team members' competencies and gaining accountability through transparency. True leadership is about cooperation, not control. It's about acting on opportunities, and letting others lead the leader when they know best about getting stuff done. I propose a new model, “bioteaming,” based on nature’s best designs, that I will explain in coming articles.

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 (www.mkpress.com/bioteams) and can be reached at  ken.thompson[at]redburnconsulting.com

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