A Primary Directive

Michael Pollan’s brilliant TED talk asks that we consider that human consciousness might not the crowning glory of Darwinism — a humbling notion, particularly to those who insist on clinging to the slippery pedestal of human exceptionalism.

Other species have developed refined systems for foraging, attracting, defending, and, in short, optimally surviving with the least expenditure of energy. We ignore these wonders of cut-throat evolutionary optimization to our detriment.

Seeing an organic and undulating cloud of starlings dancing in the sky, I can’t help but wonder about how people work together.

Observing schools of fish, flocks of birds, or a stalking wolf pack, I wonder what we can learn from other species.

In the Harvard Business Review post The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives, Biology professor Thomas Seeley draws from his study of honey bees to suggest ways teams might build consensus and make better decisions. Seeley suggests:

  1. Remind the group’s members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively. The scout bees know instinctually that their interests are aligned toward choosing the optimal home site, so they work together as a team. There are no clashing curmudgeons in a bee swarm.
  2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option. The scout bees search far and wide to discover a broad assortment of possible living quarters.
  3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate. Use the power of a fair and open competition to distinguish good options from bad ones. The scout bees rely on a turbulent debate among groups supporting different options to identify a winner. Whichever group first attracts sufficient supporters wins the debate.
  4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. By functioning as an impartial moderator rather than a proselytizing boss, a leader enables his group to use its combined knowledge and brainpower. The scout bees have no dominating leader and so can take a broad and deep look at their options.
  5. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group’s members. Only if ideas are shared publicly but evaluated privately will the group be good at exploring its options and making good choices. Scout bees share freely the news of their finds, but each one makes her own, independent decision of whether or not to support a site.

When we have a common interest, people can be efficient collaborators. Scout bees have an evolutionary advantage in community collaboration. That is, bees know instinctively to search for a new hive location that is

10 meters off the ground and has 40 liters capacity. 

Eons of optimization baked into their DNA, scout bees know instinctively what their primary directive is (i.e., what’s most beneficial to the survival of the community).

A Primary Directive

Honey bees have a clear understanding of the criteria for success. Not always so for people meant to collaborate on teams. On software teams, we rarely have a concise expression of the purpose or the desired end state (cf. Team Decisions & Commander’s Intent).

At a recent Practical Agility gathering orchestrated by David Hussman, Mary Poppendieck scoffed at the mention of self-organizing teams. It struck me as gratuitously dismissive. Drilling down I was able to determine her derision was based in that observation that, unlike other species, people working on software teams don’t intuitively know what their most immediate directive is. That is, we rarely know what to do next. An important point.

Having 10 meters off the ground and 40 liters capacity baked into your DNA is quite different from a software team, with varying levels of commitment, discovering what it is they are to build. Still, I’m taken by the prospect of observing and learning from the collaborative successes of other species.

Self-Organization: Flocks, Schools & Colonies

One of the Twelve Principles of Agile Software expressed in the Agile Manifesto, calls for self-organizing teams:

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Self-organization was recognized in 1955 by Farley and Clark as:

a system that changes its basic structure as a function of its experience and environment

Self-organizing systems are widely observed and recognized in physics, chemistry, mathematics, cybernetics, economics, and biology. The prospect of collective intelligence certainly is intriguing.

What are the characteristics of flock of startlings (above right), schools of fish (left) or a colony bees (below right), that might be relevant to how we form, feed and sustain self-organizing teams?

Birds and Fish
Schools of fish move like a single organism. Schooling reduces the risk of being eaten by a predator because the odds of individual detection are less. Fish, unlike migrating geese who form an aerodynamic vee, do not flock in a regular geometric shape.

Flocks of birds group into a geometric shape for the aerodynamic advantage, but otherwise birds group together obeying similar heuristics as fish. Both organisms perform complex tasks with simple individual behavior. Both groups react instantaneously to external events by spawning different invididual tasks to accomodate external stimuli. Further, small differences in individual behavior might influence the collective behavior of community.

Simulations to mimic flocks of birds use three simple rules:

  1. Collision avoidance – don’t crash into a flock-mate;
  2. Velocity matching – move at the same speed as flock-mates;
  3. Centering – strive to stay close to flock-mates.

These simple rules, inate behavior in birds and fish, might spawn a fruitful discussion during your next Retrospective.

Bees, Ants, and Wasps
Colonies of bees and ants perform community tasks by a distributed function that doesn’t seem to require a central organizer. The two observed characteristics of interaction are:

  • Hierarchical – one insect asssumes a dominant role and the other submissive
  • Thropic – a community “decision” is made (e.g., ants produce more foragers when food is scarce)

Agile teams need to make community decisions. To be a good Agile teammate, it is important to develop an instinct for the signals of when to exercise dominance and and when to be submissive. You must be capable of both behaviors as events dictate.

A defining property of living systems is that they self-assemble against nature’s tendency toward disorder, or entropy ~ Erwin Schrödinger

Many organisms have evolved sophisticated community behaviors. It is instructive to examine other self-organizing communities as we form, feed and sustain our Agile teams.

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