Virtual team productivity - three action rules from nature

In this article I introduce and identify the fundamental key overarching principle of Bioteams and define the first three action rules that can enable existing "Virtually Networked Teams" to start integrating Bioteaming full potential. By Ken Thompson and Robin Good.

A special 20 minute streamed audio visual presentation to accompany this article is available by clicking on this link.


In a previous article, Virtual Teams - a new paradigm from nature, I have argued that traditional teams have key weaknesses and limitations and are now being replaced in organizations by Virtually Networked Teams.

I described the problems these teams face and pointed to critical issues that can make technology both part of the solution and part of the problem.

What emerged as being critical is the realization of Virtually Networked Teams strong character and dynamic nature, almost as it would be a separate entity from the members making it up.

I have also proposed that this new understanding could be further promoted and made useful to a greater number of people by working around the definition and establishment of a new discipline centred around the study of Bioteams.

Bioteaming is as such a new research area focused on the systematic study of natures' historically most successful living teams while identifying best methods and approaches to transfer and integrate nature's best solutions into the daily life of Virtually Networked Teams present handicaps and limitations.

Key overarching principle: Bioteams treat all team members as Leaders

In an perfectly working bioteam there are no leaders. Everyone contributes to the well being of the team and to achieving the agreed goals.

In a bioteam there are no leaders issuing orders, as everyone is broadcasting relevant bits of information just-in-time to all other team members.

Leaders are not needed as there are no rigid permission structures and any team member can take timely action relative the information received. Direct, responsible individual action is supported and facilitated.

Transparency and clearly agreed policies are the foundations for all this to happen.

Rule 1 - Send out timely information

Nature's teams don't issue orders.

Nature's teams broadcast information bits and expect receiving teammates to take appropriate action just-in-time.

In Nature there exist two types of key information bits: Opportunity and threat information bits.

An example of opportunity information bit is where a bee spots a good nectar source and dances the waggle dance to show the other bees where it is [1]. An example of threat information bit is when an ant spots a predator and quickly broadcast its presence to the other ants who will take the appropriate aggressive or defensive information [2].

One unique trait that characterizes opportunity and threat information bits is that they tend to be urgent. If bees don't immediately exploit the honey source just found some other insect will. If ants don't have a razor sharp response to the enemy scout they may face a potential lethal surprise attack.

In all cases nature teams have evolved a simple approach to communicate urgent information widely and instantly without doing nothing more than sending out just-in-time information bits and letting everyone take action in an independent fashion.

But why don't nature's teams issue orders?

The reason for this is that scientific research shows that orders have a higher 'information complexity' than situational information and are more difficult to assemble and broadcast quickly to teammates.

Orders are also more likely to contain errors and to be misunderstood.

You can check this out by experimenting with work colleagues by giving out alternatively information bits and "order" information. You will discover that when you give order information you inevitably have to supply considerable more situational information to ensure that the order is properly understood.

What is evident is that Nature has evolved an approach of simple message transmission coupled with enough distributed self-intelligence within each of the receivers for being able to know what to do with it.

Team members have huge amount of local distributed intelligence (i.e. their brains) for working out the required action for them given their situation

Learning from nature means that teammates must be trained to expect information rather than orders and must be able to quickly work out appropriate responses without having to be told.

If we start providing just-in-time information bits to a virtual networked team which has been exposed only to receiving "orders" and "instructions" there will only be one response - team paralysis. The team members will digest the information but will not take action.

Today's organisational teams face exactly the same problems as nature's teams:

  • Information needs to be communicated to all teammates quickly

  • Members of a team are generally very busy and they don't have the time to read and understand complex instructions. They brief, synthetic, focused, short messages.

One-way is okay

When an ant or a bee broadcasts a message to another ant or bee it doesn't wait for a response.


Often times, in Nature, speed is the essence.

The main reason nature's teams communicate this way is that if they waited for a response they would probably get eaten before it arrived. These insects rely on razor sharp fast responses to survive.

Nature's teams subjugate everything to speed.

Speed enables living animals to move to more powerful positions further up their ecosystem.

Speed is the essential difference between the species at the top and bottom of the food chain.

That's the difference between a plant and an insect or animal.

As natures' teams are communicating information rather than orders it follows that their communications can be broadcast rather than conversational. Therefore these messages do not need responses - they are one-way.

This enables very fast team reactions.

However look at our organisational teams:

The current school of thought is that you should generally allow and wait for a response to electronic communications. However this style of working drastically hampers the team's speed, agility and responsiveness. Everything stops while somebody does not reply or somebody is away from his or her screen or someone's email gets bounced.

In today's organisational teams increasing speed and responsiveness is usually the number one challenge.
Adopting information for action and one-way messaging is an excellent strategy for addressing this challenge.

In aviation there are two critical communication terms universally used in all radio transmissions - 'Roger' and 'Wilco'. 'Wilco' means I have received your message and Will Comply with it. 'Roger' just means I have received your message but I may or may not act on it.

To be a bioteam you need to find a technological way to automatically achieve "Roger" and you need to minimise all communications requiring a "Wilco".

* setup and encourage your team to expect information and not orders.

* only use two-way messages where you absolutely need to have a clear-cut response, where there is unavoidable complexity or where you require a particular bit of info.

Rule 2 - Everyone must broadcast

Instead of issuing orders, nature's teams function by providing timely information to the team members and then expecting them to take appropriate action where needed.

Curiously, this information is not provided by the Queen but by the other members.

As you can see, Nature's teams don't issue orders.

In an ant colony the Queen's job is to reproduce - not to try to control what the other ants do.

And this is why some colonies can have up to a 300 million members while the Queen has no real idea of what each of colony members are doing at any given time.

It is not the Queen Bee who finds the good nectar source and dances the "waggle dance". Neither is it the Ant Queen who spots the ant from the rival colony out on a scouting mission.

Human bioteams need to imitate nature by becoming teams of peers and leaders where every member understands that it is central to their role as a bioteam member to be on the look-out for just-in-time, critical information which may be of value to the team as a whole.

Team Vital Signs

But how do make sure team members will know what info to send out?

How can we prevent them from constantly spamming other teammates with pet topics, irrelevancies and trivia?

Well, team members need to clearly know what is vital and what is not.

To support this need a bioteam needs to design a dashboard of team "vital signs" which always require immediate attention.

An analogy with medical emergencies is helpful here - think of the vital signs for a human being - breathing, alertness, heart, pulse, and blood pressure. We need to distinguish between what signs are important, which are urgent and which are both. For example, high cholesterol is important but not urgent in the same way as a heartbeat irregularity.

So what are your team's vital signs, what changes in them requires attention and how urgent are they?

The easiest way to do is have the team identify and agree upon the key external and internal situations which everybody needs to pay attention to.

In other words what are the key internal team state changes that need to be constantly monitored?

Rule 3 - Act don't ask (permission granted)

One way organisational teams protect themselves against the risk of an individual making a critical mistake that can significantly affect the rest of the team is using what I call "Permission Structures".

A permission structure is a structure regulating where action cannot take place without some higher approval.

Nature's teams act according to their genetically programmed rules. They do not seek permission from higher authorities before acting - they just act.

This is because they have little discretionary space in their individual behaviours. Also because of the large numbers of members involved in these teams (often thousands) individual mistakes have little impact on the end result.

In human teams the effect of an individual mistake can be much more severe. Just think of the impact of a poor salesman in an enterprise or a poor brain surgeon on a medical team.

Effective Bioteams should constantly challenge their existing "permission structures" - i.e. the parts of the team's operation where an action cannot happen without somebody else's permission.

On the other hand, for each of these structures bioteams should ask - is the cost of the control greater than the cost of the potential losses if someone acts without permission?

"Act don't Ask" also raises issues of Trust in teams.

It is OK to use permission structures where you don't trust a team members skills. It is not OK to use permission structures where you don't trust a team members motives or commitment.

In these situations you need to challenge motives issues and if necessary find replacements for such team members.

In technology terms you should therefore let team members act with as much freedom as possible but ensure your technology logs all actions and who took them.

This recorded information should be available to all team members (transparency).

A bioteam then needs a review process where all team member actions are regularly reviewed by the whole team in the spirit of openness and learning.


Organisational teams are Virtually Networked Teams which need a radically different approach to technology and operations than the traditional teams.

Virtually Networked Teams can benefit hugely from an approach I have called "bioteaming" where they model their operation on natures most successful teams.

You can immediately start to create a basic bioteam technology environment for your virtual teams by using the three action rules

Rule 1 - Send out timely information
- Communicate Information not Orders
- Use 1-way messages
- Develop member autonomy and self-management

Rule 2 - Everyone must broadcast
- Enable "every member broadcasting" to and from any device
- Define Teams "Vital Signs"
- Establish Team Etiquette and "Bio Behaviors"

Rule 3 - Act don't Ask (Permission Granted)
- Permit but log and track actions
- Challenge "Permission Structures"
- Regular team review sessions

You can start to achieve the overarching bioteam principle "Treat all members as leaders" if you adopt these three action rules. As direct result you will significantly increase the productivity, effectiveness and member satisfaction of your organisational teams - in most cases without having to acquire any new technology whatsoever.

Once your teams embody the principle "Treat every team member like a leader" you will have be ready to explore and experiment with the more advanced bioteaming concepts.

A shorter version of this article is published on Collaboration Loop


1. Moffett, M. 1990. "The Dance of the Electronic Bee", National Geographic Volume 77 No. 1

2. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B., 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press

3. Dawkins, R., 1989. The Selfish Gene, Oxford Press

4. Handy, C., 1989. The Age of Unreason, HBS Press

About the authors

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London, as well as the previous Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors.

Ken Thompson is recognized as a leading expert in the emerging area of Virtual Enterprise Networks and has successfully incubated a number of these networks in the UK and Ireland.

Ken Thompson helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and workflow. His strategy includes the use of key sets of team dynamics, multiple coaching interventions and the effective integration of a small toolkit of virtual collaboration technologies

Robin Good (www.kolabora.com) is an online publisher (www.masternewmedia.org) , researcher, and writer on the smart and intelligent use of new media technologies for effective communication. Robin Good, an expert in interface, information and identity design is also recognized on the Internet as a reputable independent analyst, trend spotter, and opinin-maker in the field of online collaboration, web conferencing and live presentation tools.

Mr. Good has carried out in-depth tests for over 100 different real-time conferencing and collaboration tools, while providing competitive intelligence and product development ideas to both key enterprise vendors and ambitious startups. He is the author of the Official Guide To Best Web Conferencing and Live Presentation Tools, an online guide that provides very detailed reviews of the most interesting real-time collaboration and conferencing solutions.

Robin Good is chief editor of MasterNewMedia.org, MasterViews.com, TheweblogProject.com and Kolabora.com, the first online news resource dedicated to support and facilitate a rich conversation and exchange between conferencing vendors and users of these technologies.

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Many companies across the business spectrum are discovering how to make virtual teams work. What’s more, they’re learning that the key to success lies beyond a reliance on the latest & greatest technology platforms and tools. In fact, research on high-performing companies makes a strong case for the link between collaboration excellence and business results.

Good article. One of the key benefits of a virtual team is that organizations can select the best talent from anywhere in the world. Virtual teams also save organizations money by reducing office space requirements, as team members can work from home, client sites, or shared workspaces.

Excellent tips. In an increasingly virtual workplace, these physical locations are tougher to come by, and remote workers can feel more disconnected from their peers.


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