Instant Mind Meld

June 9, 2014

Twitter is the best way we humans have to broadcast instant messages (short and sweet) to our colleagues – and to the whole world. And we all know the profound impact that Twitter has had on our global society, most clearly in the context of recent populist uprisings in the Middle East.

Yes, there are undoubtedly many more mundane messages on Twitter (and Facebook) than there are life-changing ones; but the impact of the messages that matter is worth all the idiotic ones about who you had coffee with, what your baby sister said this morning, or how much water your cat drank out of the toilet (and never forget that what you consider mundane might be cherished by someone else).

Once you get past those trivialities, our ability to send essentially instantaneous broadcast messages to almost every other human being on the planet is far more profound than most of us realize.

Last week (“Leading the Living”) I called for using nature as a role model for leadership, rather than imitating the machines that have dominated our economy and our thinking for the last 150 years.

Ken Thompson, author of Bioteams: High performance teams based on nature’s most successful designs, identified four principles that his research suggests are followed by nature’s teams (organisms of all kinds, the human immune system, bacteria, insects, and so on):

  1. Collective leadership – meaning different individual group members take the lead at different times, and any member can act as a leader (that was my focus last week: “Leading the Living”);
  2. Instant messaging – every member of the group can send and receive whole-group “broadcasts” at any time;
  3. Ecosystems – as Thompson puts it, “Small is beautiful…but Big is Powerful. The size of a group or team has direct implications for what it can and cannot do, and what it is best at doing.
  4. Clustering – getting the many involved by focusing on the few. Natural networks have some “nodes” with many more connections than average; find the few who are extremely well-connected and you have much greater leverage for influencing large numbers of people.

Human beings are certainly not machines; we are capable of complex reactions to events and to other people, to say nothing of creative insights and innovative actions. And we experience emotions, value relationships, and seek meaning in ways that no machines will ever understand.

This week we are focusing on Thompson’s second bioteam principle, Instant Messaging. The basic concept is simple: everyone gets the same message at the same time.

In Nature, instant messages communicate either opportunities (food, nesting materials for birds) or threats (predators, rivals). They are simple, direct, and able to be acted on instantaneously.

In a popular TEDglobal talk in 2012 (“Four Principles for an Open World”) futurist Don Tapscott described the collective behavior of starlings (known as “murmuration” after the sound of their wings) as an example of organizing and instant messaging in what he calls this age of networked intelligence (I wrote extensively about Tapscott’s perspectives back in January, in “Creating Through Collaboration”).

Tapscott drew on a YouTube video (“Amazing Starlings Murmuration”) produced by Dylan Winter (http://www.keepturningleft.co.uk) that shows a flock of thousands of starlings instantly turning on that metaphorical dime in response to a predator bird; the starlings had no need to consult with an expert on predators, or attend a class on predator defense strategies; and no group decisions had to be debated or made.

The birds just acted immediately (and collaboratively) in their own self-defense as soon as they got the message. They knew instinctively what to do and they just did it.

That’s the power of instant messaging: it puts everyone in the group (swarm, flock, school) on an equal footing, with the same basic information. In the best traditions of Dr. Spock (the StarTrek Vulcan, not the baby doctor), many minds are melded into one; the group consciousness knows what to do, and just does it.

This article may not be an instant message per se, but I do hope you understand my broadcast: putting everyone in the team on the same page – with the same information – is an incredibly important part of effective leadership in this age of networked intelligence.

Don’t hide information, or release it only to those who “have a need to know.” In fact, let’s abandon that old industrial-age notion that “knowledge is power” – and that only the powerful have the knowledge. When you share what you know with everyone else, the team as a whole becomes far more powerful, and that can only make you as a team leader more effective in the long run.

It works the other way too: encourage everyone on the team to share what they know with everyone else. You might even learn something important by listening to them.

Let individual team members decide if the knowledge you broadcast is important or relevant to them; err on the side of over-informing. You never know: that instant message you share with the whole team just might “click” with what an individual member already knows to produce a profound new product or process idea that  generates millions of dollars in cost reductions or new revenues.
 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Lister June 13, 2014 at 1:25 am

I love this Jim. I’ve been thinking recently about what we can learn about workplace strategy from entomologists, biologists, anthropologists, etc. Thank you for sharing!

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Jorge Yinat June 13, 2014 at 4:35 am

Good article.

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Robert Buss June 13, 2014 at 11:51 am

Hello Jim,
Call me a cynic, but I see that the information channels are overflowing with “instant” messages providing too much information that people don’t need to know, and certainly not at the time that they receive them. There needs to be another axiom that ensures that only important messages get sent.

Perhaps if people could only send one Twit per day, or one can only send a person one e-mail a day, it would improve the quality of communication. Questions about a mail would be answered on the following day so there is an incentive to get it right the first time – or use the telephone.

The example of the starlings is interesting in that the information and a quick response is necessary for survival. Bureaucracy is seen as lethargic but the survival of many political systems is a result of an effective bureaucracy. How many leaders were militarily successful and their reign ended shortly after their death? Rome outlived many incompetent leaders because their bureaucracy had inertia.

My point is that a better flow of information can counteract the positive effect that a structure with restricted information flow has.

Reaction time is one thing, heading in the correct direction is another.

Yours,

Robert

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James Ware June 13, 2014 at 11:53 am

Robert, thank you very, very much for your thoughtful comment. I have to say that I experienced some of the same concerns as I was writing the piece. Certainly information overload and being “bombarded” with often-useless or even the wrong information is a serious problem.

On reflection I realized that my focus in this piece was on the open sharing of current task-relevant information within a small group – not the widespread stuff that clutters up the public airwaves from Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media. That perspective is, I believe, very consistent with the scientific study of information sharing in small groups.

That said, you are right to be concerned about how we can filter out all the “noise” that takes up so much time and space in our lives – I wish had an answer for that! Your suggestion of a one-per-day regimen is intriguing but probably not realistic. But let’s keep the topic alive. There has to be a solution out there somewhere!

Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Jim

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