Monthly Archives: March 2013

There Is No Team

Consider ants searching for food. From the outside, it seems like a well-coordinated effort of searching, finding, signaling, and swarming. But when you dig deeper, a more boring reality becomes apparent. One of the ants wandering around finds a bit of food and its body begins emitting a chemical trail. When others stumble upon this trail, they instinctively follow it knowing that it will lead them to food.

Consider a school of fish evading a predator. From the outside, it seems like a well-coordinated effort of angling, disbursing, and re-connecting. But when you dig deep, a more boring reality becomes apparent. Fish traveling in schools instinctively prefer to swim close to other things that are roughly of their size, shape, and color. So when your neighbor moves away, you follow it.

This is a phenomenon of emergence. Simple interactions between a group of individuals, when observed, suggest a single creative force driving the group.

Consider a team of people who were persuaded to work together with money and free pizza. From the outside, it seems like this is a single well-coordinated entity, moving about, making things appear, day in and day out. We throw about phrases, such as “the team thinks, the team agreed, the team … feels.”

But when you dig deeper, a far more boring reality becomes apparent.

Can a school of fish think? Can a flock of birds feel? Can a colony of ants agree?

Can your team?

When we interact with one another, there are two things happening. When we converse, one of us is speaking, another one is listening. When we show, one is pointing, another one is looking. When we communicate with written methods, one is writing, and another is reading.

It is tempting to think that these highly complex interactions are happening simultaneously, but they do not. Each one is an observe-respond pair of actions. A action triggering a response, triggering further actions.

Combination of these individual actions combine to form an an illusion of an interaction. When we multiply these interactions by the people involved, the emergent system is your team.

You cannot change the emergent behavior of a team by trying to change the team as a whole. The team is not a thing you change, it is a thing you observe.

If you dislike what you observe and you would like your observation to change, you must aim your actions at individuals.

Yes, you must constantly scheme to force what emerges to be in the state you find pleasing.

Do you not like that your team is constantly in the dark and you would like the team to be more open? Talk about it with your team mates. Be open with them yourself. Ask them specific questions you feel they’re hiding.

Do you not like that your team does not appear to be motivated and appears to be just a bunch of slackers? Motivate them by your own example. Come up with ways to engage one person at a time with a problem. Trick them if need be.

Even by wanting to be left alone, you are in effect controlling your actions to minimize reactions, and this behavior directly leads to the kind of a team you are wanting to see.

In reality, you do this anyway, you just may not admit it to yourself.