Gaia Theory, Covid and Bioteams

Gaia Theory, developed by the amazing James Lovelock, contends that our planet is a self-regulating system. An example of this is the incredible ability of nature to keep key variables like temperature, water salinity and CO2 within narrow upper and lower boundaries – seemingly despite whatever else happens!

Most of this happens through continuous small adjustment mechanisms which are effectively invisible to us. However over time the stress on one or more of these variables may become too great for the normal regulation mechanisms to be able to maintain the necessary equilibrium. When this happens Gaia Theory suggests that exceptional adjustments may then occur!

Some believe Covid is an extreme Gaia reaction to our ever-increasing abuse of the planet. The argument runs like this:

“Humans have become an existential threat to the earth and all the creatures which depend on it. Therefore an exceptional self-regulating response was overdue to reduce (or eliminate) this threat and restore the balance.”

What does this all mean for those trying to create high performing teams?
Bioteams Rule 10 in the Bioteams Team Organization Zone is summarised in just one word – “autopoiesis”. This term refers to the well-established theory of self-organization at a biological level developed by two Chilean Biologists (Maturana and Varela).

The autopoiesis concept is explained and applied to teams in more detail here however in summary using this rule Bioteams focus on three key (but counter intuitive) core values:

  1. Making positive impacts (transformations) on key people, networks and enterprises is more important than hitting deadlines and producing artefacts and deliverables
  2. Holding relationships and collaboration as more important than processes and leadership hierarchies
  3. Constantly seeking to create virtuous cycles both inside and outside the team boundary with reinforcing feedback loops. Such a team focuses on continuous improvement and learning instead of just “getting this job done and moving on to the next job”.

A high performing team may be much more like a living creature than a well-oiled mechanism such as a beautifully engineered watch. At the bioteam’s heart is self-management. Thus bioteams learn, reinvent, repair and reproduce through a strong set of commitments, practices and values which create strong performance, resilience and agility.

Bioteams blog relaunches with free download of The Bioteaming Manifesto

This blog focusses on the bioteams concept – more effective teams based on nature’s proven models. If you would like a detailed overview of bioteams you can request a free copy of the 33-page Bioteaming Manifesto here.

The Bioteaming Manifesto has been downloaded 20,000 times over the last 15 years and is a very popular resource for anyone interested in the important discipline of developing and sustaining High Performing Teams.

Bioteams is structured around 4 levels of team maturity (“zones”) each of which operate around 3 guiding principles (“rules”) as shown in the diagram.

There is also a Tedx talk and a bioteams book, both by Ken Thompson.

Bioteams Part 1: The Team Leadership Zone

This article is the first in a four-part series which describes each of the 4 Bioteams Zones, starting with the  Leadership Zone.

This article was originally published in 2005 by Ken Thompson and Robin Good.


In The Bioteaming Manifesto  we argued that traditional teams have key weaknesses and limitations and are now being replaced in organizations by Virtually Networked Teams.
We described the problems these teams face and pointed to critical issues that can make technology both part of the solution and part of the problem.
What emerged as being critical is the realization of Virtually Networked Team’s strong character and dynamic nature, almost as it would be a separate entity from the members making it up.
We  also proposed that this new understanding could be further promoted and made useful to a greater number of people by working around the definition and establishment of a new discipline centred around the study of Bioteams.
Bioteaming is as such a new research area focused on the systematic study of natures’ historically most successful living teams while identifying best methods and approaches to transfer and integrate nature’s best solutions into the daily life of Virtually Networked Teams present handicaps and limitations.

Key overarching principle:
Bioteams treat all team members as Leaders

In an perfectly working bioteam there are no leaders. Everyone contributes to the well being of the team and to achieving the agreed goals.
In a bioteam there are no leaders issuing orders, as everyone is broadcasting relevant bits of information just-in-time to all other team members.
Leaders are not needed as there are no rigid permission structures and any team member can take timely action relative the information received. Direct, responsible individual action is supported and facilitated.
Transparency and clearly agreed policies are the foundations for all this to happen.

Rule 1 – Send out timely information

Nature’s teams don’t issue orders.
Nature’s teams broadcast information bits and expect receiving teammates to take appropriate action just-in-time.
In Nature there exist two types of key information bits: Opportunity and threat information bits.
An example of opportunity information bit is where a bee spots a good nectar source and dances the waggle dance to show the other bees where it is [1]. An example of threat information bit is when an ant spots a predator and quickly broadcast its presence to the other ants who will take the appropriate aggressive or defensive information [2].
One unique trait that characterizes opportunity and threat information bits is that they tend to be urgent. If bees don’t immediately exploit the honey source just found some other insect will. If ants don’t have a razor sharp response to the enemy scout they may face a potential lethal surprise attack.
In all cases nature teams have evolved a simple approach to communicate urgent information widely and instantly without doing nothing more than sending out just-in-time information bits and letting everyone take action in an independent fashion.

But why don’t nature’s teams issue orders?
The reason for this is that scientific research shows that orders have a higher ‘information complexity’ than situational information and are more difficult to assemble and broadcast quickly to teammates.
Orders are also more likely to contain errors and to be misunderstood.
You can check this out by experimenting with work colleagues by giving out alternatively information bits and “order” information. You will discover that when you give order information you inevitably have to supply considerable more situational information to ensure that the order is properly understood.
What is evident is that Nature has evolved an approach of simple message transmission coupled with enough distributed self-intelligence within each of the receivers for being able to know what to do with it.
Team members have huge amount of local distributed intelligence (i.e. their brains) for working out the required action for them given their situation
Learning from nature means that teammates must be trained to expect information rather than orders and must be able to quickly work out appropriate responses without having to be told.
If we start providing just-in-time information bits to a virtual networked team which has been exposed only to receiving “orders” and “instructions” there will only be one response – team paralysis. The team members will digest the information but will not take action.

Today’s organisational teams face exactly the same problems as nature’s teams:

  • Information needs to be communicated to all teammates quickly
  • Members of a team are generally very busy and they don’t have the time to read and understand complex instructions. They brief, synthetic, focused, short messages.

One-way is okay
When an ant or a bee broadcasts a message to another ant or bee it doesn’t wait for a response.
Often times, in Nature, speed is the essence.
The main reason nature’s teams communicate this way is that if they waited for a response they would probably get eaten before it arrived. These insects rely on razor sharp fast responses to survive.
Nature’s teams subjugate everything to speed.
Speed enables living animals to move to more powerful positions further up their ecosystem.
Speed is the essential difference between the species at the top and bottom of the food chain.
That’s the difference between a plant and an insect or animal.
As natures’ teams are communicating information rather than orders it follows that their communications can be broadcast rather than conversational. Therefore these messages do not need responses – they are one-way.
This enables very fast team reactions.

However look at our organisational teams:
The current school of thought is that you should generally allow and wait for a response to electronic communications. However this style of working drastically hampers the team’s speed, agility and responsiveness. Everything stops while somebody does not reply or somebody is away from his or her screen or someone’s email gets bounced.
In today’s organisational teams increasing speed and responsiveness is usually the number one challenge.
Adopting information for action and one-way messaging is an excellent strategy for addressing this challenge.
In aviation there are two critical communication terms universally used in all radio transmissions – ‘Roger’ and ‘Wilco’. ‘Wilco’ means I have received your message and Will Comply with it. ‘Roger’ just means I have received your message but I may or may not act on it.
To be a bioteam you need to find a technological way to automatically achieve “Roger” and you need to minimise all communications requiring a “Wilco”.
* setup and encourage your team to expect information and not orders.
* only use two-way messages where you absolutely need to have a clear-cut response, where there is unavoidable complexity or where you require a particular bit of info.

Rule 2 – Everyone must broadcast

Instead of issuing orders, nature’s teams function by providing timely information to the team members and then expecting them to take appropriate action where needed.
Curiously, this information is not provided by the Queen but by the other members.
As you can see, Nature’s teams don’t issue orders.
In an ant colony the Queen’s job is to reproduce – not to try to control what the other ants do.
And this is why some colonies can have up to a 300 million members while the Queen has no real idea of what each of colony members are doing at any given time.
It is not the Queen Bee who finds the good nectar source and dances the “waggle dance”. Neither is it the Ant Queen who spots the ant from the rival colony out on a scouting mission.
Human bioteams need to imitate nature by becoming teams of peers and leaders where every member understands that it is central to their role as a bioteam member to be on the look-out for just-in-time, critical information which may be of value to the team as a whole.

Team Vital Signs
But how do make sure team members will know what info to send out?
How can we prevent them from constantly spamming other teammates with pet topics, irrelevancies and trivia?
Well, team members need to clearly know what is vital and what is not.
To support this need a bioteam needs to design a dashboard of team “vital signs” which always require immediate attention.
An analogy with medical emergencies is helpful here – think of the vital signs for a human being – breathing, alertness, heart, pulse, and blood pressure. We need to distinguish between what signs are important, which are urgent and which are both. For example, high cholesterol is important but not urgent in the same way as a heartbeat irregularity.
So what are your team’s vital signs, what changes in them requires attention and how urgent are they?
The easiest way to do is have the team identify and agree upon the key external and internal situations which everybody needs to pay attention to.
In other words what are the key internal team state changes that need to be constantly monitored?

Rule 3 – Act don’t ask (permission granted)

One way organisational teams protect themselves against the risk of an individual making a critical mistake that can significantly affect the rest of the team is using what I call “Permission Structures”.
A permission structure is a structure regulating where action cannot take place without some higher approval.
Nature’s teams act according to their genetically programmed rules. They do not seek permission from higher authorities before acting – they just act.
This is because they have little discretionary space in their individual behaviours. Also because of the large numbers of members involved in these teams (often thousands) individual mistakes have little impact on the end result.
In human teams the effect of an individual mistake can be much more severe. Just think of the impact of a poor salesman in an enterprise or a poor brain surgeon on a medical team.
Effective Bioteams should constantly challenge their existing “permission structures” – i.e. the parts of the team’s operation where an action cannot happen without somebody else’s permission.
On the other hand, for each of these structures bioteams should ask – is the cost of the control greater than the cost of the potential losses if someone acts without permission?

“Act don’t Ask” also raises issues of Trust in teams.
It is OK to use permission structures where you don’t trust a team members skills. It is not OK to use permission structures where you don’t trust a team members motives or commitment.
In these situations you need to challenge motives issues and if necessary find replacements for such team members.
In technology terms you should therefore let team members act with as much freedom as possible but ensure your technology logs all actions and who took them.
This recorded information should be available to all team members (transparency).
A bioteam then needs a review process where all team member actions are regularly reviewed by the whole team in the spirit of openness and learning.


Organisational teams are Virtually Networked Teams which need a radically different approach to technology and operations than the traditional teams.
Virtually Networked Teams can benefit hugely from an approach we have called “bioteaming” where they model their operation on natures most successful teams.
You can immediately start to create a basic bioteams environment for your virtual teams by using the three action rules
Rule 1 – Send out timely information
– Communicate Information not Orders
– Use 1-way messages
– Develop member autonomy and self-management
Rule 2 – Everyone must broadcast
– Enable “every member broadcasting” to and from any device
– Define Teams “Vital Signs”
– Establish Team Etiquette and “Bio Behaviours”
Rule 3 – Act don’t Ask (Permission Granted)
– Permit but log and track actions
– Challenge “Permission Structures”
– Regular team review sessions
You can start to achieve the overarching bioteams principle “Treat all members as leaders” if you adopt these three action rules. As direct result you will significantly increase the productivity, effectiveness and member satisfaction of your organisational teams – in most cases without having to acquire any new technology whatsoever.
Once your teams embody the principle “Treat every team member like a leader” you will have be ready to explore and experiment with the more advanced bioteaming concepts.


1. Moffett, M. 1990. “The Dance of the Electronic Bee”, National Geographic Volume 77 No. 1
2. Wilson, E., Holldobbler, B., 1994. Journey to the Ants, Harvard University Press
3. Dawkins, R., 1989. The Selfish Gene, Oxford Press
4. Handy, C., 1989. The Age of Unreason, HBS Press

The seven beliefs of high performing teams

Beliefs are the fuel which can really energise bioteams
There is one, often neglected area, which a team needs to address as part of a bioteaming strategy if it wants to be exceptionally successful team member beliefs.

Continue reading “The seven beliefs of high performing teams”

The Huffington Post: Biohacking the Organization

An excellent article on Bioteams by Doug Kirkpatrick, US Partner at NuFocus Strategic Group concludes: “The power and elegance of bioteaming is indisputable. Whether organizational leaders will detach themselves from the perceived security blanket of traditional, artificial hierarchy in order to fully experience that power is another question entirely?”

Continue reading “The Huffington Post: Biohacking the Organization”

NASA, Bioteams and The Networked Enterprise

I recently had the privilege of being invited to speak to a NASA audience at their Research Centre in Langley (Virginia) on the topics of Bioteams and The Networked Enterprise. My talk was very nicely reported for NASA News by Jim Hodges.

Continue reading “NASA, Bioteams and The Networked Enterprise”

Wired Magazine features Bioteams

Are you smarter than a goose? Sure you are — one on one. But when it comes to working efficiently, you and your colleagues can’t touch the gaggle. According to author Ken Thompson, geese and other animals that naturally form groups have a lot to teach us about business. In a theory he calls organizational biomimetics, Thompson lays out the principles underlying nature’s management strategies. So what can you learn from a bird or an ant? Take a gander. Katharine Gammon at Wired Magazine reports.

Continue reading “Wired Magazine features Bioteams”

Virtual team agility: The power of Stigmergy

What do Ants, Termites, Graffiti Artists, Cavemen, Teenagers and Town Planners all have in common? They understand the power of Stigmergy to leave marks in their environment as important sign-posts to friends (or foes). Even more importantly they all know the difference between sign-posting and dialogue.

Continue reading “Virtual team agility: The power of Stigmergy”

What teams can learn from spiders

Our old friend the spider gets a lot of bad press. For example he/she has been used as an example of the weakness of centralised leadership models versus so-called “leaderless organisations” in The Starfish and The Spider. However spiders can teach teams, enterprises and networks two very important lessons: Strategic Readiness and Appropriate Response.

Continue reading “What teams can learn from spiders”