Back to the Basics of Nature to Manage Teams


Do you struggle to lead your team? To help your team to create value? Learn what you can learn from nature! This blog post is based on the inspiring TEDx Talk done by Ralph van Roosmalen.

33. Do you know what this number means? Probably not without any context.

On average, it is the number of people to get a book published. 33 people. Plus one, of course, the author. For example, Harry Mulish wrote The Discovery of Heaven alone in his office. However, the number of people involved was more than 33. You need a team to get books published—the same for songs. Justin Bieber can write a beautiful song but also requires a team to publish it.

The world is getting increasingly complex nowadays, information flows faster and faster around the globe, and globalization is increasing. The problems in our world are getting too complex to deal with alone. Working with teams is the solution to these challenges.

I work in the tech industry and have worked for over 25 years with software development companies. Let me share two stories. Both stories are about a project where a project team was assigned to build a new version of an existing product.

Project One.

The company had already invested millions of euros into the project, having already run for two years. I remember it as the day of yesterday, although it is already more than 15 years ago. On a Thursday afternoon, the board was visiting the software development department. High expectations of the demo, the new version of their flagship product! The demo started and was done in 30 minutes. The team was able to show 5% of the work that needed to be done. As you can imagine, the board was furious! How was this possible? After all those years, only 5% was done! The board wondered if the team did not realize this project’s importance. The board’s message at the end of the meeting was: We don’t care how you fix this, but you fix it fast! They did not decide to maximize their authority, but they decided to minimize their authority.

Project two.

The same kind of project; an existing product with old technology, and a team was assigned to build a new version of the product using the latest technologies. Also, this project was delayed and not processing as, in this case, the CTO was expecting. The CTO was almost daily involved in decision-making as it was a very important project. He took every option to share his opinion on how to build the product. When the team was showing a feature, the CTO was there to express his opinion strongly. At one point, the project again had some delays. They tried different approaches to get the project going. At one moment, they isolated the team for half a year. The team was allowed to work from another location, and all strings were cut. To give the team the option to work undisturbed. It did not provide the expected results. One day, a team member suggested using a completely new approach for the project. This was totally unappreciated; this person even got feedback on this suggestion during his yearly performance review. Not many team members dared to disagree with him anymore. When I talked to team members, they told me there was no trust in a good outcome or belief that the CTO trusted the team.

Which project was successful in the end? The first project, where the board said: “We don’t care how, but fix this project.” The project where management maximized trust in the team and minimized their involvement in the team. A good example of how to lead a team.

I love to hike, be outdoors, and be one with nature. During those long hikes, I learned to respect nature. On one of my hikes, while trying to catch some sleep in my too-small tent while the wind was trying to blow away my tent, I realized there are many similarities between nature and managing a team. We can learn so much from nature when we just give ourselves time to look at nature.

I believe a team is a living organism. A team is not a machine. A team does not always produce the same value as a machine. It does not behave as you would expect, like a machine. A team adapts to its environment. A team has a structure built up out of individuals who are together more than just the sum of the individuals; they react to stimuli, adapt to their environment, and try to find a balance. And even depending on the people on the team, they reproduce. 😀

A team is a living organism. Therefore, we should look at nature and learn from nature. Why reinvent the wheel when nature has known how to deal with living organisms for millions of years? Let’s see how we can help a team to become successful when we realize a team is a living organism. What can we learn from nature how to lead a team?

Learning #1: Connect

The first learning is that no organism is acting alone. All organisms, and therefore also your team, are part of a bigger system. Many coastal birds depend on tides for their survival. Forest fires are terrible but also necessary for some forests. It cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. Some animals depend on other animals to survive and help each other—for example, ostriches and zebras. Zebras have excellent eyesight but lack a good sense of smell. Where ostriches have a good sense of smell but lack good eyesight, they can see and smell predators together—the same for your team. Your team depends on the outcome of the yearly budget discussions. Will the team get more or less funding to do their work? The team needs to be connected to the budget discussions and the outcome of the discussions. A recession can have a terrible impact on a team, but it can force the team to develop creative solutions needed to survive the recession. It is hard for the team to have all the knowledge. Therefore, they need to work together with other teams to solve the complex and complicated problems of nowadays. Your team needs to be connected to its environment. You should support the team in connecting with its stakeholders and other teams. Make sure they understand what is going on around them. Lead your team in making connections.

Learning #2: Clear Purpose

The second learning is about purpose. Every living organism has a clear purpose. Survive to reproduce. That is it. The purpose of every living organism: plants and animals. Nothing more and nothing less. But everything they do contributes to this purpose. Many teams have a challenge related to purpose. The purpose of Greenpeace, for example, is: To ensure the ability of Earth to nurture life in all its diversity. That is cool and inspiring, but if you work in a finance team within Greenpeace, it is maybe a bit difficult to use this purpose to connect to your daily work. Every team should have a clear purpose that is close to them and connects to their daily work. Lead your team in discovering the purpose.

Learning #3: Embrace Conflicts

The third learning is conflicts. Living organisms have conflicts regularly! Animals of the same species have conflicts for their well-being, food, survival, eat or be eaten, social status, and the best mating partner. Even plants have conflicts to increase the chance of reproducing. If living organisms have so many conflicts, why are so many teams avoiding or having challenges with conflicts? Every team should have conflicts about the best approach to execute a task or a conflict about the best strategy for the next year to realize the team’s purpose. Different teams can have conflicts to get certain scarce resources and come up with innovative solutions to deal with the scarcity. A team should embrace conflicts and understand when conflicts happen often, innovation and progress occur. Lead your team in embracing conflicts.

Learning #4: Trust

The last learning is trust. We are destroying nature. We are destroying the world with our current way of living. Sad but true. April 26, 1986. The Chernobyl disaster happened—a nuclear explosion. Thirty years after this disaster, overall wildlife is flourishing around Chernobyl. Who would ever have predicted this would happen? But this happens everywhere where humans step back, animals reclaim their territory, and recover. We can have and should have trust in nature. Nature is strong and will recover if we allow it—the same for teams. You should have trust in your team. I don’t believe that any team comes to work and tries to come up with a master plan to destroy the organization or themselves. Give the team time and trust. Step back as manager, and see how the team will grow and flourish. Lead your team in growing trust.

In nature, this happens naturally, but with teams, not so much. Take a garden, for example. Someone needs to take care of the garden. Someone needs to give the plants water and protect them from the cold. Someone needs to plant seeds. Sometimes they need to remove plants or cut some branches. Some plants need love, and someone needs to enjoy the beautiful flowers. Having a beautiful garden is hard work. However, one thing that doesn’t help is talking to the plants to help them grow faster!

You are the gardener of your team! Make sure the team integrates and connects with its environment, have the team discover its purpose, support the team in having conflicts, and trust your team. You are the gardener of your team! Lead your team

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