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Teamwork is critically important in business, and becoming more so as the world becomes increasingly dense, complex and fast-paced. And yet, few companies invest any money training new employees on how to collaborate within their corporate culture or hire consultants to identify ways to increase teamwork. The goal is always to increase productivity, efficiency, quality or profitability. And yet, by increasing teamwork, all of those increase. Or do they?
Has the value of teamwork actually been proven? Do we have evidence that a group does better when working as a team than not? Sure, just look around. There is evidence everywhere. Start with nature. As Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” And when it comes to teamwork, this is a trait that is illustrated and understood better in nature. Birds. Insects. Mammals. Fish. There are countless examples in the animal kingdom of how incredible cooperation, collaboration and synergy toward a common goal enables otherwise tiny, seemingly insignificant creatures to do amazing things.
Teamwork Transforms the Mundane into the Marvelous
Case in point. Starlings are a type of blackbird that are short and thick, with dark feathers and long, pointy bills. They are fairly common, with over 200 million of them in North America alone, even though they hail originally from Europe. They sing chirpy little songs, and they are something of a pest to farmers. In most respects, they are pretty ordinary and, individually, there is nothing fundamentally impressive about them. But, collectively, they are spectacular. In flight, a flock of starlings — that can number in the hundreds of thousands — is a breathtaking wonder. When they fly together, Starlings become a synchronized, harmonized, swooshing, soaring whole… like an aerial moving tapestry or an airborne ballet. This mid-air phenomena is called a murmuration and it is testament to the incredible power of teamwork. It is mesmerizing to watch the spatial scale of so many winged creatures moving very rapidly in tight sync and the visual patterning that occurs when so many individual birds are doing the same thing in perfect orchestration. (If you haven’t seen it, here’s a 2 min. clip that is pure poetry in motion. https://binged.it/2OQx2pD).
The question is why do starlings fly this way? Why the teamwork? Scientists have postulated three possible reasons for what is known as “swarm synchronicity”. Some scientists believe they fly and nest together for warmth at night during the winter. The birds will gather at warmer sites and roost in close proximity just to stay alive. Starlings can pack themselves into reed beds, dense hedges and human structures like scaffolds — roosting sites – at more than 500 birds per cubic yard in flocks of up to several million birds. Other scientists believe they flock together for the sake of safety. No bird wants to be the one that a predator picks off, so there is safety in numbers, and moving as a swirling mass creates confusion which prevents a single individual being targeted. Still other scientists believe that flocks may form so that individuals can share information about foraging. Based on the “information center hypothesis,” it is thought that — when food is patchy and hard to find — the best long-term solution requires mutual sharing of information among large numbers of individuals. Just as honeybees share the location of flower patches, birds that find food one day and share information overnight will benefit from similar information another day. Whatever the reason(s), starlings regularly fly and nest together which helps them survive and thrive. They demonstrate that the power and impact of the collective is far greater than the sum of their individual parts.
In a Team, Every Member has a Role and Value
Starlings, however, are not the only winged-creatures that regularly cooperate. Bees definitely understand the need for teamwork and live in communities that require cooperation. A colony of honey bees can consist of up to 60,000 bees. Each bee has a specific job that contributes to the overall success of the hive. Indeed, bees have mastered the art of teamwork. Each bee has a specific job that contributes to the overall success of the hive. The bigger the colony, the more efficient it becomes. (In this regard, bee colonies are the complete opposite of companies, where the bigger a business gets, the higher the risk of inefficient processes and communication.)
So why do bigger bee colonies get more efficient? Because they are experts at self-organization. Bee hive teams have a clear organizational structure, and every bee knows and understands its role. The queen bee is fertile, lays eggs and nurtures community. Drones are the males who help the queen breed and make sure the hive keeps growing. Workers build the hive, work around the nest and defend the colony with their ability to sting. Worker bees do every job during the course of their lives. This allows worker bees to switch jobs depending on the needs of the colony.
Every bee knows exactly what they have to do and where they have to be at each moment. The jobs complement each other perfectly, and each job plays a vital part in strengthening and growing the hive. As team players, they are willing to sacrifice in order to help the team reach the common goal. And, they are also flexible enough to switch roles and pitch in whenever and wherever they are needed. Ultimately, as a whole, they have a clear common goal they all work toward.
It might seem like everything is centered on the queen bee and that the team is just doing her bidding. But actually the queen bee does not give orders or make decisions. She functions more as the center or nucleus that holds everything together and creates the right environment for the colony to thrive. She does this by exuding pheromones… think of it like community juice. In that way, the queen bee is more like a servant leader. She gives the team enough freedom to organize themselves and work independently, but provides the team with a positive environment that encourages teamwork and collaboration. It is a community of interdependence where they are all for one and one for all.
And teamwork can even be found in bees’ approach to decision-making. Bees have a complex but highly effective way of making decisions using pheromones and ‘dances’. Bees will send out scouts to look for a potential location for a new hive and the scouts will assess the quality of those spots. Then scouts return to the hive and perform a ‘dance’ to describe the sites and its advantages. Then the whole swarm visits the sites that the scouts recommend until they reach a consensus of the one they choose which is communicated when every bee performs the same dance. They don’t just take a chance when searching for a new site for the hive, and also don’t just blindly follow the opinion of the scouts. No groupthink. They prefer a collective, informed decision-making process in which every buzz counts.
Bees have also developed a sophisticated system to mitigate risk. They easily adapt to changes in the weather and other unforeseeable events. They also function effectively within constraints, working tirelessly in the Spring and Summer to produce enough food for the winter months when productivity grinds to a halt. In the event of losing their queen, worker bees take over the task of producing eggs until there is a new queen. As a team, they stay nimble and flexible to deal with challenges and unforeseen circumstances. The teamwork that bees employ aren’t just essential for life, but also are a great example for businesses to emulate.
Teamwork Does Make the Dream Work
To see yet another example of the results that teamwork can produce, one need look no further than ants. The incredible colonies that ants build, their system of cooperation for gathering food and ability to overcome challenges amplifies the strength, speed and savvy of such tiny creatures.
Let’s start with their housing. An ant colony is a complex network of chambers in which ants live. Some are small and some are incredibly large (relative to the size of the inhabitants). Depending on the species, ant colonies can range anywhere in size of less than two square inches hosting 100 ants to more than 500 square feet housing up to seven million ants. To organize what would otherwise be chaos within these colonies, each ant is responsible for specific tasks, such as food gathering, building nests, guarding the colony, or reproduction. These team rules help ensure the colony’s survival.
But an ant colony is not just a bunch of crude tunnels. Ant colonies are actually fairly sophisticated and built to regulate climate and temperature. Some ants love heat and go to great lengths to achieve higher temperatures. But there are also species that work towards lowering it, often situated in very warm environments. In northern Florida, for example, the species Prenolepis imparis sets up their colonies in a mix of dirt and sand. They dig one long tunnel deep into the ground, and builds the nest at the end of it. No chamber is built higher up than two feet from the surface, and most are situated in the lower half of the tunnel. This way, colonies are guaranteed a stable temperature year round, since the climate and temperature of the soil don’t vary much this far below the surface. Species of desert ants often use the same technique to get away from the heat, since a few seconds of the Sahara sun can kill an ant.
On the other hand, ants in temperate climate zones are, by comparison, focused on preserving heat. They need it to survive, and especially during the start of the ant year. Some species prefers to center their nest around stones. The stones generate a lot of heat – a flat and thin stone near the surface is therefore optimal for black garden ants. When placed under one of these stones, the colony can quickly get its egg-laying and brood-development going when the first rays of spring start to shine. With a well-planned nest the workers can move the brood around, depending on season and weather, to achieve optimal environments.
Clearly, teamwork is how ants overcome obstacles. They regularly work as a group for a common goal. They use their jaws and claws to link together to form bridges. They also arrange their bodies into a waterproof raft to survive a flood. In this way, ants demonstrate an uncanny ability to quickly identify a problem and organize themselves to solve it.
In order for this teamwork to happen, ants employ a form of chemical communication. Ants release roughly 10 to 20 different pheromones from glands found all over their bodies. These pheromones are a means of communication within the colony. This chemical language summons ants to defend the colony, find a food source, and warn of potential danger. These pheromones are critical to the colony’s survival. If ants can do all that, imagine what teamwork can do for an organization.
There are many more examples of how teamwork in the animal kingdom ensures that they survive and thrive. Bats. Dolphins. Cattle egrets. Canadian geese. Wolves. Orcas. Hyenas. Water buffalo. Ostriches. Fish. Meerkats. Killer whales. Chimpanzees. The list goes on and on. There is no question that teamwork is the rule, not the exception, for animal life. But how does this prove that teamwork is good for business and that individuals doing work is less effective than people working as a team? Stay tuned next week as we look at what teamwork does for individuals, organizations and the greater good. Don’t miss it.
Quote of the Week
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” U.S. President John F. Kennedy
© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.