Few discount the value of a team. Be it on a project, in a sport, or an organizational culture, we tend to treat the benefits as self-evident - and that may be precisely why teams go wrong. A team isn't some monolithic entity that arrives ready-made, and neither are its advantages. Always, unavoidably, teams are a collection of individuals. We forget that at our peril. No matter how much we line those individuals up behind mission statements, org charts, or incentive structures, the fundamental individuality of each and every team member never goes away. The question is how to turn this individuality into a group strength.

Why We Need The 'I' In Teams

Before we answer that question, we must address another: why does it matter? Here are the facts:

  1. The world around us is moving ever faster and ever more unpredictably.
  2. The greatest competitive advantage right now is adaptability - not in a one-time miracle kind of way, but adaptability as a mindset and as an expectation ongoing.
  3. No one person has all the skills, answers, or ideas to do this. It takes the collective, right down to the last person.

But this is tricky business, isn't it? How do we tap the value of the collective without going so far the other direction that, rather than a team, all we end up with is a collection of individuals, each pursuing their own path and agenda? We're talking humans here of course, but the insight we need comes from fish. Yup. Fish.

When Fish Get Schooled

Scientists estimate that more than half of all fish types group for at least part of their lives. In other words, fish team too. Yet they come at it in two very different ways. The way most of us are familiar with is called schooling. Schooling fish do everything they do in lock step, in other words, every individual fish is expected to be like all the rest all the time. The implicit benefit is strength in numbers (a default argument that humans make as well). But schooling has some downsides. One of the most obvious disadvantages is that those out of step with the group get sacrificed. Yet the greater risk is a school's deeply diminished ability to adapt as circumstances change. Schools stay schools no matter what, even if it means the whole institution goes down in one might gulp. It's shoaling fish who have the edge.

Learn to Shoal, Not to School

Shoaling fish also swim in groups. But unlike schoolers, shoalers not only allow but embrace the power of the individual players. In those times when they group, they get all the upsides schoolers get - they have greater potential to defend against predators, and they can more easily find resources like food or mates, to name the most obvious benefits. Some researchers even think they may swim faster than any one fish could alone. It's referred to as 'emergence' - the tapping of the benefits of the group that emerge only in the group.

But shoalers seem to instinctively know that the collective has limits and that sometimes they need make room for the power of the individual. That's why they are ready and willing to briefly separate when doing so is to their advantage, be it to feed, rest, travel, or avoid a threat. Wisely, they're just as ready and skilled at coming back together when the advantage lies with the collective.

Though we can't get inside the fish brain to know for sure, shoaling fish seem not to wage a battle in their minds or in their groups about the singular supremacy of either the group or the individual - something that many people organizations oddly drift into rather than seeking the balance. Strangely, and despite our bigger and in theory more adept brains, human leaders are often quick to dictate and defend their leader roles, or to put undo effort into enforcing the hierarchy, only to inadvertently kill the benefits they so greatly need that come from championing the power of the individual - creative thought, innovation, awareness, and adaptation. Contrastingly, there's no zero sum for shoalers. That leaves them plenty of time to practice at how to balance the benefits of the individual and the group. Hmmm. Perhaps we're due for a swim...