Leading the Living

June 2, 2014

I’ve been stewing for many years about my personal experiences with Industrial-Age bureaucracies and the way they constrict, and even destroy, human creativity and innovation.

And I know it’s not just me. I’m convinced that the dismal levels of employee engagement (in American organizations at least) that have been reported recently by Gallup (see State of the American Workplace) and widely discussed (“The Costs of Ignoring Employee Engagement,” “Why You Hate Work”) are symptoms of a fundamental misfit between people, work, and current organizational practices.

The latest, and very articulate, commentary on this Very Important Topic appeared last Friday, May 30, in the New York Times (“Why You Hate Work”). If you haven’t seen that article yet, I urge you to go read it and then come back here.

Last week (“Listen to Your Mother“) I called attention to the obvious (at least to me) fact that organizations are composed of human beings who, last time I checked, are living things. We are not machines; managing people, with all their foibles and imperfections, is both far more challenging and infinitely more rewarding than turning on a machine and watching it spew out hundreds of identical products.

I suggested that it is way past time to start designing organizations that support, enable, and even require the kind of work that does engage people – work that matches the values, desires, and work styles of today’s well-educated workforce. Let’s create organizational environments that leverage human talent, turn it loose, and focus our energy on all the very real challenges the world is facing.

Okay, I hear you: That’s easy to say but hard to do. Last week I also promised to focus next on how to lead with a living systems perspective. So hang on; here we go (I promise to be brief – but to offer plenty of resources so you can pursue these ideas on your own).

By the way, my primary source for these principles is Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Most Successful Designs, by Ken Thompson (link is to book description on Amazon.com).

Thompson identified four core 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;
  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.

It is well known that when geese migrate different birds take the lead at different times. Thompson suggests that the rotating leadership in the flock is not because the lead goose gets tired, but because each goose knows the way along only part of the journey. In other words, the leader at any time is the one who is best informed about the task at hand.

Separate research into other birds, bees, and schools of fish has come to very similar conclusions. In fact, a recent article in The New Scientist (“Mind meld: the genius in swarm thinking”) demonstrates that, because of distributed leadership and instant group communications, flocks of birds, swarms of bees, and schools of fish are collectively more intelligent, and more capable, than any individual members of those groups.

Thompson doesn’t believe that phenomenon applies universally for human teams, but he does believe that effectively functioning teams are much less dependent on individual human brilliance than we generally think. And James Surowiecki’s classic book, The Wisdom of Crowds, makes a similar point: the combined choices and insights of a crowd – even a crowd of strangers – are often as accurate and as wise as those of individual trained experts.

The message of this first principle is clear: leadership works best when it is determined by the task-relevant expertise or capability of individual team members, not by some separate “appointment” to a formal leadership position. Let leaders emerge (and recede); don’t impose a single leader from outside or think that one person can do it all.

Oops: out of time and space. What made me think I could discuss all four of those principles in one short note? Come back next week for more.

I’ll continue this line of thought, and then explore what these principles mean for the way we organize and lead today. Finally, I will also speculate about what the future of work could be like in a world that recognizes and cherishes the near-infinite variety in human capabilities that we are so fortunate to have all around us.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark de Roo June 3, 2014 at 1:01 pm

While “crowd thinking” might be more accurate, even wiser, I contend that only happens if the context is right. This came to my attention in a sort of an epiphany when I participated in a group exercise with the question: what distinguishes a truly exceptional organization from an average one. Through the use of a “world cafe” approach, the answer was compelling. Exceptional organizations have a “robust communication culture.” This is marked by true transparency; by a willingness to both offer and receive feedback; by a willingness to not hold scorecards. As I drove home from that experience, I discerned an even deeper reality. Robust communication cultures are also emotionally intelligent organizations. And if I were to probe that deeper, I think key people in the organization even know and leverage the neuroscience by which they think and act—but that’s fodder for another time or another blog by Jim Ware.


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