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Tech#14: Autonomous Responsible Team Member Behavior

Creating controlled self-management in teams

Almost all team leaders want their teams to take more ownership and initiative.

However team leaders may shy away from “self-managed” teams because of a perception that this would be an abdication of their leadership or the fear of it leading to anarchy and chaos.

This technique identifies 7-generic behaviours of “responsible autonomous team members” which can be discussed and refined to suit the specific team, members, environment and objectives.

Natures Way

Craig Reynolds [1] a computer graphics researcher studied how bird flocks fly in formation to see whether there were simple rules, which could be simulated in computer software.

As a group activity ‘flocking’ is extremely complex however it turns out that the underlying member behaviours which produce it are very simple.

This must be the case if you think about it otherwise the individual birds, with their 'bird brains', would not be able to follow the rules to the necessary consistency whilst performing high speed flight manoeuvres in close formation.


Reynolds came up with a virtual programmable bird called a "birdoid" which quickly and appropriately got shortened to "boid".

These computerised boids could be made to fly successfully in complex formation in 3-dimensional space provided the individual birds were programmed to consistently follow just 3 very simple rules:

1. Separation: steer to avoid crowding other local flock-mates

2. Alignment: steer towards the average heading of the local flock-mates

3. Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flock-mates.

Similar research [2] has also established that the complex behaviour of nature’s other groups such as ants, turtles, geese and termites can also be explained in the same way through sets of very simple individual member rules.

So in nature very simple individual member actions, so simple they can be easily followed without error, produce very sophisticated group behaviour (without the members even being aware of the complex capabilities they are enabling).

Benefits of Rule to Nature

Nature’s bioteam members don’t have big brains or long memories. However their survival and positioning in the food chain depends on their ability to produce more sophisticated and more intelligent responses as a collective than they could manage as individuals.

Their simple rule-based approach allows them to react exceptionally quickly to situations because the skills they need at an individual level are totally present and ready without any thinking or preparation being required.

In human terms they are able to exhibit what educators would describe as “unconscious competence” - the basis of true expert behaviour - you don’t think about what you do - you just do it.

Application of Rule to Organisational Teams

Today’s common wisdom on creating high-performance teams is that you need to create a team environment where the individual members can fully exercise their creativity and innovation.

This is very true but I believe that nature’s team show us that it is only half of the story of high performing teams.

When we use the normal approach to high performing teams we are actually jumping to the higher team capability level of “complex individual behaviour” but skipping out the lower team capability level of “simple but highly consistent individual behaviour”.

In so doing we sacrifice a number of important benefits by not putting this foundation platform in place first because natures examples prove that :

“coordinated individual simple behaviour can produce more intelligent collective responses than un-coordinated individual complex behaviour”

Now obviously human teams are not going to gain much benefit from the kind of rules which ants or geese use.

Human team members have the gift of human intelligence so we need to construct rules which are more abstract and allow space for team members to apply their own judgements.

O-R-G-A-N-I-C team member behaviours

I would suggest the following seven behaviour rules as a discussion starter for beginning to develop consistent autonomous member behaviour in your teams:

  1. Outgoing - get to know all your team colleagues
  2. Recruit - look out for new external partners to strengthen the team’s network
  3. Go! - network widely outside the team
  4. Ask - constantly ask for and offer help to other team members
  5. Note - keep aware/abreast of issues of ‘team intelligence’
  6. Investigate - when you see something interesting investigate it for the team
  7. Collaborate - join at least one team workgroup as an active member - don’t just be a "reviewer"

3-Dimensional Team Members

These seven behaviors are designed to ensure that team members are '3-dimensional' in their operation, just like natures teams, with the ability to concurrently listen, communicate and act in the following 3 dimensions:

1. Member-Member

2. Member-External (i.e. Customers, Partners and Competitors)

3. Member-Colony (i.e. Host Organisations and Teams)

Benefits of Rule to Organisational Teams

Nurturing consistent autonomous team member behaviour provides distributed intelligence in our teams which will result in

  • reduced coordination overheads
  • better fault tolerance - ability to continue even when a particular part of the team is out of order
  • increased speed of spotting problems and opportunities


1. Reynolds, C., 1987. "Flocks, Herds and Schools - a distributed behaviour model", Computer Graphics, pp. 25-34

2. Resnick, M., 1997. "Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams - Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds", MIT Press, pp. 49-68


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