Measuring Buzz: Hunting Dynamics in the 21st Century

Bees in the Hive

Every manager knows that the “buzz” on a team is an important indicator of their likely success. You can poke your head into a meeting room and, without hearing a word of what is being said, get an instant impression of the energy and engagement on the team. It was the energy and engagement of the top management team during a time of crisis at Hugh Russel Inc. that really got my attention. As related in The New Ecology of Leadershipduring four years of continual crises we became a “band of brothers”, with high levels of energy and trust that contributed hugely to the successful extraction of the business from an apparently hopeless financial mess.

Once we were out of the mess I started to think about what had happened to us and what we could learn about management and leadership from the experience. In April 1990 I read an article in Scientific American, entitled “The Transformation of the Kalahari !Kung”. It detailed the conversion of the hunters and foragers of the Kalahari wilderness to herders and farmers over a period of a few decades. This transformation was accompanied by a severe deterioration in their health and well-being, both as individuals and as a society. As I read the article, I realized that the transformation being described was the same as that from an entrepreneurial firm to a large-scale bureaucracy. The experience of organizational renewal, that we had just been through at Hugh Russel, was all about the reintroduction of “hunting dynamics” into a herder hierarchy.

I subsequently wrote an article about the !Kung and their story became the opening chapter of Crisis & Renewal. Now Professor Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have come up with hard evidence that supports the whole hunting thesis.

Measuring Buzz

In the April 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review, in an article entitled “The New Science of Building Great Teams”, Pentland reports on his research. He and his team have created wearable sensors that pick up nothing but body language on a team. They measured tone of voice, who people talked to, for how long and so on. Their sample covered a wide range of organizations from call centers to innovation teams. They can predict team performance from just these measures and without looking at the content of what is said at all!

Their conclusion was that successful teams shared several defining characteristics:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure
  2. Members face each other and their conversations and gestures are energetic
  3. They connect directly with each other, not just the team leader
  4. They carry on back-channel and side conversations within the team
  5. They periodically break and go exploring outside the team for new perspectives and information

The most effective communication was face-to-face, followed by phone and video conferencing, although effectiveness declined as more people were added to the calls. The least effective medium was e-mail and texting.

Pentland summarizes the three measure of team effectiveness – energy, engagement and exploration – and presents them as graphics. These are used to give teams feedback on how they are doing and team members seem capable of learning and adjusting their behavior from this information.  Some of the findings confirm long-held management beliefs, for example that socialization can be an important aid to performance, but the technology allows much greater precision. One organization, for example, held regular “beer busts”, but the data showed that they didn’t increase team effectiveness. The most helpful action was to make tables and benches in the canteen a little longer, so that more strangers could socialize over meals!

Hunting Dynamics

Pentland hasn’t studied hunter-gatherer societies but if he did, there is no doubt that they would score high on all three measures – energy, engagement and exploration. Here is anthropologist Lorna Marshall’s description of the exchanges round a !Kung campfire:

“The(y)…are the most loquacious people I know. Conversation in a(n) encampment is a constant sound like the sound of a brook, and as low and as lapping, except for shrieks of laughter….While a person speaks the listeners are in a state of vibrant response, repeating the phrases and interposing a contrapuntal ‘eh’…(T)he ‘ehs’ overlap and coincide with the phrase, and people so often talk at once that one wonders how anyone knows what the speaker has said.”

South African rock painting of hunters

Exploration is in some ways in tension with engagement – time spent away from the group is time not spent in it, and both activities consume energy. In the case of the Kalahari !Kung the scattered resources (water, fruit, vegetables) in the vast space in which they live and the mobility of the opportunities (game) creates a pulsing fission-fusion dynamic. Round the camp fires they “fuse” via energetic engagement with each other and then they break up to go hunting in small nomadic bands. At the end of the hunt they re-engage with each other to share their discoveries as well as the proceeds of the hunt. Undoubtedly they would score high on both engagement and exploration. Add to all of this the compelling narrative that they share. This reaffirms their identity and gives a place and purpose for everything in their universe. Now you have a model for the original learning organization.

It is just as T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding:

“And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

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