Belbin on bioteams

Dr R Meredith Belbin, regarded as the father of “team-role” theory and one of the worlds foremost experts on teams, predicts that our organizational teams will evolve into more biologically inspired forms.

Specifically Belbin suggests our organisations will evolve into teams “which combine the devolved but integrated strengths of the higher insects with the directive and strategic abilities of humans“.
In his book “The Coming Shape of Organisation” [1] he picks out five things human teams need to learn from “a diminutive masterclass” of social insects such as bees, ants and termites:

Five Lessons from natures teams

  • Division of Labour
    They have no overall single leader but rather a co-operating leadership caste.
  • Superior use of Intelligence
    Social insects are superior to humans in their ability to rapidly integrate new information from a wide range of senses and share it widely to ensure urgent action happens immediately rather than passing it up and down hierarchical chains of command.
  • Flexibility of Member Castes
    Social insect colonies consist of a number of distinct castes of insects playing specialised roles such as foragers, attackers and nest maintainers. However these castes are are flexible and grow and shrink as required and can even change their roles in a crisis.
  • Devolved decision making
    The system is geared up to concurrent (as opposed to sequential) decision making – there is no chain of command to slow decisions down.
  • Redundancy and Contingency
    Colonies are not dependent on a single individual or system. They are based on scale and interlocking systems – any one of which might fail without catastrophic consequences for the colony.

Two Immediate priorities for Teams

He goes on to identify two guidelines which he suggests seem worth transferring immediately to human affairs:

  • transferring major decision making away from a single boss (Mr Big) to a co-operating leadership group

  • replacing monolothic organisational processes with concurrent interlinked systems

A call to humility!

In a statement which seems to lay down a challenge to humility in our thinking about teams Belbin concludes that “evolution will almost inevitably take us in the direction of species that have arrived at superior forms of organisation before us“.
No prizes for guessing which species he is referring to!


1. Belbin, R., 1996. The Coming Shape of Organisation, Butterworth Heinemann, pp. 23-32
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