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Book. Ken Thompson. Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Best Designs


"In his book, Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Best Designs, Thompson goes beyond the theory and provides proven method and techniques for creating and managing high performance bioteams. The conclusions in his book, and its companion book, The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the Future Through Virtual Enterprise Networks, reveal how business enterprises, supply chains, high-tech ventures, public sector organizations and nonprofits are turning to nature’s best designs to create agile, high performing teams.

Thompson’s work is bolstered with examples from various countries, including Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland, America, Holland, and Germany. They include high performing banks, manufacturers, sports teams, engineering firms, aerospace companies, hospitals, nonprofits and more." (


Bioteam Characteristics

Peter Fingar (in chapter 2 of Dot Cloud:

"According to Thompson, nature’s teams have characteristics that are not usually present in organizational teams:

Collective Leadership:

= Any group member can take the lead.

Nature’s groups are never led exclusively by one member; different group members lead as needed. When geese migrate it is well known that the goose leading the V formation rotates. However, this is not just because they get tired and need to fly in another goose’s slipstream for a while. The real reason is that no one goose knows the whole migration route. Collectively, between them, they know the migration route but no one individual knows. So a goose leads the part of the journey where it knows the way and when it recognizes “I don’t know where to go next” it flies back into the V and waits for another goose to take over.

This is “Collective Leadership,” the right leader for the right task at the right time. The human species seems to be the only species that trusts in a single leader (or small management team) to know the whole path, on behalf of the community. Multi-Leader groups possess much greater agility, initiative and resilience than groups that are only led by a single exclusive leader.

Instant Messaging:

= Instant whole-group broadcast communications.

Nature’s groups use short instant messages that are instantly broadcast and received “in situ” wherever the receivers are.

These messages are very short and very simple – essentially just two types:

  • Opportunity Messages. Food, nesting materials, Prey
  • Threat Messages. Predators, Rival colonies

Ants achieve such messaging by using a range of chemical pheromones that they emit and lay in trails, and that are instantly picked up by the other ants. Bees use dances, for example, the waggle dance that is danced by a hive member who has found a food supply. The hive mates watch the dance and the angle of the axis of the dance points them to the food supply.

It is important to note that:

  • These messages are group broadcasts and are not replied to.
  • They are received and acted upon immediately; there is no concept of a 2-stage

communication that is received at point A and acted on later at point B.

A critical point is that these instant messages are so simple they really act just as “alerts.” The recipient has to “decide” what to do. Such instant messages do not convey orders or instructions.


= Small is Beautiful…but Big is Powerful.

"In nature, the size of the group is always right for the job and small groups link into bigger groups, that in turn link into still bigger groups. Where you a have a very large group or a crowd, it is only possible to achieve coordinated action if each member does the same thing at the same time.

Thus a crowd can move a stone or excavate a hole, but large scale innovation is another thing altogether, requiring “Mass collaboration.” Could a virtual team have a million members? Recent developments in mass collaboration, distributed computing and the wisdom of crowds suggest, the answer might be yes. Biological teams such as Ant or Bee societies, can contain up to a million members in a single mature colony or hive—all of whom can act as a unit.

So large groups enable scale, mass, reach and range. However, in a small group each member can meaningfully do different things at the same time—in other words, “Division of labor” and complex coordination. So a small group may not be able to lift a large weight but it could design a clever tool to make lifting that weight much easier. Nature shows us the importance of having the right group size for the job at hand. It also shows us that “one size does not fit all,” in terms of groups, by its ability to have all sizes of interconnected groups. For example, in the ant world there are castes within colonies, within food webs, within ecosystems. A critical point for human teams is that they need to allow members to enjoy both the small group dynamic for innovation, and the large group dynamic for scale [a perfect case for Virtual Networked Enterprises.


= Engaging the many through the few

Nature’s networks are clustered. The technical term for this is “scale-free networks.” In simple terms, what this means is that in most naturally occurring networks some of the nodes have many more connections than the average. This makes sense instinctively. For example, some of our friends seem to know everybody. If we need to reach someone we don’t directly know, we might try them first. This structure also describes the neurons in the brain and other emerging social structures such as the “hub” sites that are the best connected on the Internet. What this means for teams is that if you are lucky some of your team members will have extreme connectivity in terms of relationships. The team needs to take advantage of these existing connections rather than try and have the team leader(s) create and manage new connections from scratch.

These highly connected people are described elsewhere in various terms, including “alpha users,” “connectors” and “influentials.” But no matter what they are called, if they are well managed and motivated they can provide the most efficient and effective channels for the team to engage with its wider community." (

More Information

  1. See: Bioteaming
  2. Other book by Ken Thompson: The Networked Enterprise; Competing for the Future Through Virtual Enterprise Networks”
  3. Other book on Social Business Design by Peter Fingar: Dot Cloud