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):
- 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”);
- Instant messaging – every member of the group can send and receive whole-group “broadcasts” at any time;
- 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.
- 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.