Whether you are a fan of the late Michael Crichton or not, indeed whether you even recognise his name or not, you have probably come across some of his work. He trained as a medical doctor, but became famous as a prolific author, film producer and, occasionally, film director. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps films such as Jurassic Park and Westworld will – and if they don’t perhaps the TV series “ER” will. Along with The Andromeda Strain, Disclosure and Coma, he created them all.
I’ve read a few of his books and watched most of the films. To be honest, many of them follow the same theme and, as a result, feel too similar. Technology gets out of hand and a small group of people have to deal with the consequences. Twenty years before Jurassic Park, Westworld is strikingly similar in many ways. Those I have read I have found to be entertaining diversions from reality. However one of his books, not (yet anyway) made into a film or TV show, has gone beyond that for me and given me a new interest. One that is different to my work in team building, yet has some relevance also.
Prey, published in 2002, follows his favourite formula. The technology that gets out of hand in Prey is of the nano kind. MichaelCrichton.com describes the plot thus: “In the Nevada desert, an experiment has gone horribly wrong. A cloud of nanoparticles — micro-robots — has escaped from the laboratory. This cloud is self-sustaining and self-reproducing. It is intelligent and learns from experience. For all practical purposes, it is alive.”
The scientific basis for the story is that of emergent behaviour. While I found the story itself not as enjoyable as other books of his that I have read, I quickly became fascinated with emergent behaviour. In a nutshell, emergent behaviour is unexpected, often sophisticated and very effective behaviour that results from a number of relatively simple elements sticking to relatively simple rules. For example, the fascinating and splendid variety of impressively large termite mounds comes from a simple rule followed by all termites in a colony: if you see a clay stick pick it up unless you are already carrying one in which case drop it. Add enough termites and enough sticks and you get termite mounds. There are plenty of other examples from nature as well, such as birds in flight. For some fun with a simulation of emergent behaviour based on birds, try boids for size! Fascinating. Or at least I think so, even seven years on.
So, time for the link to team building. Human society is based around complex individuals doing complex things to achieve a high degree of sophistication and, hopefully, effectiveness. But maybe we can learn a thing or two from some of those so called more primitive species that work together for effectiveness in a way team leaders can only dream about. The more complex the set of rules, the harder it is for people to follow them, the more likely mistakes are made, and the more reliant teams become on individual strengths bailing them out of tricky situations. Perhaps many teams could operate best with a mix of the two. A combination of a few simple and easy to follow guidelines that help people work together as a team and avoid mistakes with the freedom for individuals to add their own ability, commitment and experience.
Working with teams as we do, we often find really good people achieving things despite the way they do them, rather than because of. In such cases, it is their team methodology that lets them down and their ability, commitment and experience that digs them out of the resultant holes. We try to help them improve their team methodology so that their ability, commitment and experience are free to drive the team towards high performance. And yes, the steps are usually simple ones and surprisingly easy to implement.
Like I said. Fascinating.