How To Optimise Team Size In Uncertain Environments

wolfpack terrain.pngImage Source: Wolf Pack Explains ‘Alpha’ Behavior

The law of requisite variety (a term originally rooted as the first law of cybernetics) states that “If a system is to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled” . In enterprise contexts, this means that that teams and organisations need to nurture their ability to handle dynamic and complex changes stemming from the external environment and have enough structured capacity to react with collective resources in the face of these stimuli so as to not fail and become a ‘un-viable system’.


This requires teams and organisations to find the balance between excessive and inadequate variety, with the former alluding to settings where there is too much structure, approval processes and bureaucracy which inherently prevents an agile approach to rapid changes in the external environment.
As a point of reference into organisational and team biomimicry, the Bioteams school of thought and supporting handbook attributes that the levers for achieving requisite variety in Nature’s team is boiled down to four key elements:
1. Mass: Enough members to cover the territory
2. Engagement: Members interact deeply in their local external environments
3. Randomness: Produces variety you might find unexpected “food”
4. Supporting Team Roles: The team needs enough “foragers”
A good example to dive into this in Natures teams is looking at wolf packs wherein the omega and alpha play complementary yet diametrically contrasting roles. It has been proven through documentaries that wolves are family oriented and co-operative with the attribution of the alpha, beta, gamma, delta and the omega. This supporting structure enables wolves to conduct their pack with deep engagement; with alphas finding new hunting or resting grounds and the omegas often looking after the younger cubs. The packs natural environment is full of unexpected weather changes, predators and competing wolf-packs and therefore one of the fundamental elements of the pack is the successful production of offspring. All members of the pack contribute to the development like it’s a collaborative venture. As extremely intelligent beings, wolves have great curiosity and the ability to adopt a steep learning curve whilst conveying the full gamut of emotions. It is documented that Wolves have a physical brain size from one-sixth to one-third larger than domestic canines. The beta wolf takes the role of the enforcer of the pack and are often second in command (in the case of alpha pair breeding or alpha being away scouting new territory for the pack). This resonates with the tenet of randomness where serendipitous discoveries abound for example new hunting, breeding or camping grounds for the pack.
In the organisational setting, we can learn a lot from wolves as its important to be able to nurture ‘boundary scanners’ internally whom are individuals with a varied role scope that constantly looking out for strategic threats and opportunities in the multivariate external environment. Information can then be amplified internally to the management team and key strategic and operational teams that can quickly iterate and either respond to the opportunity or fortify against the threat.
Within the Bioteams context, we can appropriate and transplant the cybernetics concept of amplification. This occurs where the team sets up cooperation with other agents in its external environment, to amplify its ability to respond to stimuli. For example, an on-site IT support person is a way for the central IT Support Team to amplify its responses to a given customer in its most fundamental sense. In the current digital, integrated and knowledge economy – this is achieved by using smart and intelligence notification management; sticking to one way broadcasts where required. This nurtures adaptation, thereby ‘allowing the team to remain viable over time in co-evolution with the key players in its external environment”. This can manifest through initiatives that get all business streams involved to drive a sense of team cohesion thereby allowing the members of a team to produce meaning beyond their personal needs. On the flip side, biological teams employ the cybernetics concept of attenuation in order to reduce noise and excessive signals which can often be or distraction or result in information overload. The objective of attenuation is, through sampling, to reduce the number of signals the system has to listen to. Examples of this include exception reporting and “managing by walking around”.
In wolf packs, requisite variety is achieved when conditions are harsh and at times up to 30 wolves can be traversing terrains in a single line form; supported by the various roles we described earlier. In the organisational setting; Human teams can use the powerful concept of “Requisite Variety” to ensure they have the optimum structure for their environments. Too much structure or too little structure for the team environment will result in sub-optimal performance!
So when you are evaluating your own team or looking at improving how you collaborate, its crucial that you not only nurture team intelligence but also understand the importance of agile group co-ordination and identify the right team size (this article is a good reference point for that).

References:

  • Ashby W.R. (1958) Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems, Cybernetica 1:2, p. 83-99. (available at http://pcp.vub.ac.be/Books/AshbyReqVar.pdf, republished on the web by F. Heylighen—Principia Cybernetica Project)
  • Thompson, K. (2008). Bioteams. 1st ed. Tampa, Fla.: Meghan-Kiffer Press, p.Section 21.
  • Runningwiththewolves.org. (2019). Wolf Behavior, Lupine Behavior Running With The Wolves,Wolf Information & Awareness Center. [online] Available at: http://www.runningwiththewolves.org/behavior1.htm [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019].
  • Garden, H. and Animals, W. (2019). What is a wolf pack mentality?. [online] HowStuffWorks. Available at: https://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/wolf-pack-mentality.htm [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019].
  • Living with Wolves. (2019). The Social Wolf – Living with Wolves. [online] Available at: https://www.livingwithwolves.org/about-wolves/social-wolf/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019].