(Team Design) Holonic Performance Tuning (Fire, Leaf, and Water)

Kent Dahlgren
18 min readApr 29, 2019

I was in the military for 12 years, specializing in combat communications; a job which necessitates setting up communications in the middle of nowhere so boots on the ground can correspond their activities with eyes in the sky.

Our equipment was lightweight and our operations spartan, and on a regular basis our performance was evaluated by the Inspector General, which basically means people from elsewhere within the military who represent the best in class, with an eye for discerning details which might be missed by others, completing a performance evaluation on the unit.

I was a Staff Sergeant, which is probably the best job in the entire military. Just enough responsibility to get the job done, but still below the fold, evading the attentions of meddlesome senior management.

I got a lot of recognition and almost no promotions, because I’m an irreverent pain in the ass with a frequently rude bias towards a pure meritocracy.

During each exercise we would simulate setting up communications in somebody else’s country, and as soon as we turned on our equipment, we would entertain wave after wave of “aggressors,” trying to shut us down.

The Inspector General evaluators are actually pretty good at spotting concentrations of competency, so nine times out of 10 one of them would look at me and say, Take a break, Sergeant, because henceforth you’re dead.

So I would lay on the floor and watch in agony as my team would attempt to continue functioning while the AG continued killing the next competent person, over and over and over again.

Key performance indicators (KPI): we were expected to deliver upon control objectives in the context of 300% attrition.

This means losing everybody on the team three times over, while still doing our job.

That’s operational continuity, right there, and it is a high standard indeed.

I transitioned out of the military into the private sector, and found the bias towards operational competency consistent to that of the military within publicly traded companies.

Key performance indicators (KPIs): organic growth, fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter, with minimal variability, and consistent execution in the context of a high rate of attrition.

As I have shared elsewhere, concurrent to both of these activities I had been involved in grassroots political advocacy since I was a teenager, and had faced the same precise constraints: there is extremely high attrition in the context of grassroots volunteer activity.

I became fascinated by team dynamics, and in particular: personality archetypes which might be complementary to one another.

In 1990, my friend Bret was among the first to pour the concrete on the inaugural portions of the now famous Burnside Skateboard Park, and he had offhandedly observed that this effort might succeed where others had failed because we had properly calibrated three personality archetypes, which he described as the rebel, the icon, and the diplomat.

I began to ruminate on this concept considerably.

Visualize a three legged stool. All three of the legs could be of moderately inconsistent length, and still, the stool will not tip.

That got me thinking: What if three is the minimum required participants within a high functioning, highly resilient, high continuity team?

It made sense, and it certainly checked out, but what I found was most teams begin with two, not three participants, so I started to study the attributes of these nascent collaborations.

And of course I sought to codify and articulate the personality archetypes, utilizing mainstream psychology, if possible.

By that time, I had worked in the private sector long enough to realize that high functioning research and development environments utilize psychology to ignite and sustain high functioning collaborations.

It’s standard practice for these high functioning research and development companies to have their human resources departments subject employees and prospective employees to a battery of psychological tests, so they can calibrate the aggregate psychological composition of their team.

During the so-called Age of Discovery, maps were a closely guarded state secret.

Likewise, these staffing methodologies are closely held secrets within high functioning research and development entities, because they reflect the secret sauce behind their award-winning aggregate execution.

And fortunately, I had an opportunity to work within some of the world’s most highly regarded companies, and was therefore afforded rich opportunities to study the methodologies and results in the use of psychology as a force multiplier.

The problem with this methodology? None of the personality archetypes are sufficiently memorable to be of much utility to people who aren’t narcissists.

True, Briggs-Meyers or some of the other psychological assessments might boast a certain precision, but very few people understand or remember their own archetype, much less the 64 others that may or may not apply to the people around them.

I’m aware that there are not 64 archetypes, but that’s my point: very few people can remember all of them, and therefore cannot make much use of them.

In that regard, these more sophisticated frameworks make it nearly impossible for an ordinary person to rapidly understand the alternative perspectives of their coworkers, and therefore adapt their own communication styles to suit the needs of their teammates.

Another problem I found: most of the personality frameworks represent a state, not a state transition plus context.

They represent a point in time, and not the contextual basis of evolving or variant personality states.

For example: imagine you’re trying to get a job, and the HR person is asking you questions about how you would handle a stressful situation.

I’ll bet you dimes to donuts you’re going to sound a lot more diplomatic then you will when you are in the trenches, when your team is suffering staffing reductions month after month, while the executive expectations of your team are steadily increasing.

In summary: the whole goddamn thing needs to be simplified for normal people, but also needs to add the nuance of intention.

And although I had access to actual high functioning research and development teams, by virtue of my role as a product manager within the private sector, I didn’t have enough control of the kitchen, so to speak. It was like being a prep worker in a high functioning kitchen, with somebody else serving as the chef.

Super fucking annoying.

So I started experimenting with hackers, beginning in the mid-1990's.

Experimenting with these frameworks in the context of hackers represents some of the worst case and best case constraints, if you think about it.

First off, at an initial glance, it appears that none of these people entertain any intention to work with one another.

I mean, they’re my people, but we are irreverent, insubordinate pains in the ass.

Secondly, with extremely few exceptions, everybody who participates within this environment uses fake or stolen identities.

It takes a little bit of work, but eventually one begins to discern a consistent puppet master behind a kaleidoscopic array of fake or stolen identities.

Once you figure out how to navigate that, it becomes a little bit of a game trying to orchestrate and curate and tune high functioning collaborations within teams of volunteer contributors.

We eventually settled on a recipe that works really well, which is what I’m basically sharing with you now.

First, as I stated earlier: the personality archetypes need to be simplified.

In the hacker world and in the professional world, only the most supreme nerd remembers all of the 64 state-based personality frameworks. That shit never works in practice.

People spend a lot of time defending their personality type but are so caught up in their own personality brand that they spend very little time thinking about how to adapt their styles to suit the needs of others.

In that regard, it’s not any different than somebody arguing that they’re a Gemini and having only a fuzzy understanding of what it means to be a Cancer. Again, super annoying.

So I created one archetype: Wapenshaw.

It’s just a name. It’s actually an extinct Scottish term which pertains to the assembling of troops to evaluate their readiness for battle.

But people loved it. It’s got great branding among hackers, and they understand it.

And it’s pretty easy to explain in just a few words what the Wapenshaw personality is like: it’s the guy who grabs a stick and courageously charges the castle, without any consideration that they will likely be killed about 20 seconds later.

The world is filthy with these people, and they tend to die without making any progress of note. The drama is intense, and it captures people’s imaginations. It’s the making of legends.

But ultimately, that archetype isn’t terribly effective all by itself.

I began to discern a specific, different class of collaborators, and this group had an additional personality archetype that I came to call Selvage.

Selvage comes from the domain of sewing, and I like the metaphor a lot. The word has three meanings:

1.) It’s a part of the fabric which keeps the material from fraying. Think about the hem at the base of your jeans and you get the idea.

2.) Within the domain of geology, it’s the intersection between hot and cold, which frequently creates obsidian; a form of volcanic glass which is sharper and more durable than surgical steel, which is why the indigenous people have used it as a tool and a weapon for millennia.

3.) It’s the edge of a beloved blanket that a child might gingerly touch as they seek comfort.

I found these high functioning collaborations reflected a fascinating complementary alchemy between the archetypes of Wapenshaw and Selvage.

It made me think about sharks, actually.

Sharks never stop swimming, and they are notoriously aggressive as it pertains to staying alive. In this metaphor, they represent the Wapenshaw archetypes.

But a lot of species of shark entertain a small ecosystem of remoras. They actually clean the shark and keep it free of infectious diseases, and they get the benefit of the food scraps after a feeding.

What’s really interesting is that the shark species which entertain a group of remora will actually modify their behavior to do less risky things which might bring peril to the aggregate ecosystem.

I recognize that the metaphor is clumsy, but I kind of liked it. It’s simple.

I studied and experimented with this dynamic for a very long time, in the hacker/troll world and in professional environments, and found that I could actually find the Wapenshaw by looking for concentrations of Selvage — like finding sharks by looking for remora.

In the context of social media, our participation upon that shared tapestry leaves footprints, in the form of texts, videos, and image content.

The lone wolf Wapenshaw is characterized by voids upon the tapestry, because their content is frequently so inflammatory it is removed.

But this does not render them invisible. They are easily located by simply looking for the ecosystem of Selvages which make their survival possible.

In tactile terms, your stereotypical Wapenshaw might be a 25 year old male hacker with anger management issues, surrounded by a bevy of young women who derive entertainment from their internet bad boy micro-celebrity while they seek distraction from the tedium of single parenting.

Once you know how to look for it, you end up seeing their tracks everywhere, online and off-line.

I was able to pivot and recognize the same essential patterns within grassroots advocacy, gangs in the inner-city, even in work environments.

Once you know how to spot it, and see it, you can’t unsee it.

I began experimenting with igniting, curating, and helping the team maintain the operational continuity of these collaborations, and found they worked really well.

Alchemy: the word implies quantitative ingredients and deterministic outcomes, but also magic.

The orchestration of these personality types is an alchemic exercise, with quantitative measures and aspirations for deterministic outcomes, but always the element of surprise and “magic,“ which is basically any technology that we do not yet understand.

In general, none of these people (hackers, trolls, normal people) are interested in accumulating an organizational competency which sounds a whole lot like human resources, but once you figure out how to package it, it simply appeals to knowledge they were already using.

I started experimenting with those in the professional sector, taking a person with strong convictions, an absence of fear, and a significant bias towards action (Wapenshaw) and coupling them with somebody who served as their natural compliment (Selvage).

Obviously, this necessitates contributors who possess the wisdom to recognize when they might need to tap the brakes and yield their execution to the other member of the team (alchemy within the team).

I read a book written by a guy named Jerry Hirshberg, who started Nissan Design International, and he talked about the phenomena of creative abrasion.

That is an extremely diplomatic phrase, but that’s a byproduct of what I’m talking about.

It’s not always free of conflict and it’s not always fun, but it fucking works if both members of the team possess sufficient professional maturity and a proper dose of humility and wisdom.

Separate aside. My youngest daughter almost died when she was five weeks old (I talk about this in a previous blog). When I watched her reunited with her identical twin and their mother, I witnessed a phenomenon that was transcendent.

It gave me insight on why we think twins are so fascinating, because what really blew my mind was the recognition that the same dynamic which exists between twins and between a mother and her children actually exists everywhere.

I began to think of it as the countless acts of kindness and charity which occur between perfect strangers, and this quality is of particularly intense potency within the poor, the infirm, and the elderly. The truly vulnerable.

I began to call this a Weft quality. It’s intensely concentrated in homeless camps, refugee camps, and old folks homes.

Weft is a term from the domain of weaving, and again: I really like the metaphor because it enabled me to bring together a few concepts.

Did you know (in English) that the collective noun for a group of grandmothers is a tapestry?

If one weaves Selvages together, the aggregate fabric can move as one: becoming a flexible and inter-dependent tapestry.

United as one, divided by zero.

See where I’m going with this?

So I began experimenting with augmenting these teams by adding this third Weft quality.

The Wefts seem to possess a judicious and wise mix of personalities, which spans the extremes between the Wapenshaw and the Selvage.

And they are predisposed to using humor to diffuse conflict and keep egos in check.

A tangible byproduct of their tactics can be seen in the creation of Memes which are proprietary to this specific holon. More on that particular point in a moment, because it’s pretty important.

The Wefts appear to be predisposed towards reaching out to others like themselves in adjacent circles, and in this regard they actually facilitate the creation of what might be considered a multi-dimensional chain mail.

United as one, divided by zero.

So…back to the stool we started with.

Even if the legs are of uneven lengths, (or personalities of variable representation), the stool (or holon) is still pretty stable, provided that the discontinuity among the legs is not too pronounced.

In a previous blog, I introduced the metaphor of a really slippery balloon that a team works to keep from touching the ground.

This is the collective fovea: the epicenter of the collective consciousness which is unique to this team (holon), hovering tenuously about 30 feet above their heads, and is not overly dependent upon any single member.

The holon (Wapenshaw, Selvage, Weft) learns to trust one another in keeping the ball aloft, but when the ball gets too big or things become out of control, the Weft will reach to other holons seeking assistance.

In this regard, they demonstrate a Wapenshaw-bias towards action, while concurrently demonstrating the Selvage quality to maintain seamless continuity.

United as one, divided by zero.

I’ve done a lot of work mapping these three archetypes to various mainstream frameworks, but I find the exercise redundant and a little bit annoying.

Fact: all of us possess certain quantities of each of these three archetypes, with a bias towards one in particular in a state of rest and under duress.

For example, you could be a super chill Selvage until your partner leaves you, empties the bank account, and forces you and your child into a state of extreme vulnerability.

Then you get real Wapenshaw, or you die.

OK. Oh that’s great, but nobody remembers those three words, even though we (214 Alpha) use them as components of our aggregate reputation engine.

I won’t go into too much detail, but we use crypto-economic primitives to create a multi -dimensional reputation engine, one which generates revenue as a quantification of aggregate performance.

Which sounds like magic, but what I basically just described are statistical process controls, not many steps removed from mainstream manufacturing frameworks such as Lean Six Sigma.

The Selvage sub-token of the 214 Alpha reputation engine rewards those who can innovate ways to effect a statistical reduction in the rates of conflict and arbitration, relative to the baseline state.

To use a simple example, lawyers are financially incentivized to perpetuate conflict, because they’re paid by the hour.

This doesn’t really help people who are divorcing and would like to minimize trauma to their children.

We are aware that a very skilled mediator might actually help effect a far more feasible and mutually satisfactory outcome, with minimum disruption to the children, but given the current economic system, there’s no financial incentive for this to become a competitive offering.

However, if you add a performance dimension which rewards people for effecting every deduction in the statistical rates of conflict, this enables skilled mediators to level the competitive playing field, thus stimulating free market innovations and introducing competition to the traditional approach.

And the Weft sub-token of the reputation engine rewards people for innovating ways to effect an increase in the qualitative and quantitative reputation of others.

In this context, it becomes more competitive for a skilled occupational therapist or integrative medicine practitioner to help people re-enter the work world, by helping them treat systemic issues.

I’ll write more on this topic later, but for now, you get the point. Back to the names. Nobody remembers that shit, so I needed to simplify it.

One day I was watching my daughters play. I have a nine-year-old and two five-year-old girls, and I watch them play on this horrifically dangerous contraption I built in our backyard.

Visualize a really poorly built treehouse but not on the tree, just on the ground, constructed of materials which were foraged from the city.

My oldest daughter was setting the tone, and they were using the contraption I had built as a rescue boat.

There’s floods coming! my eldest daughter shouts to the twins. You’re leaf! she shouts to one twin. We need supplies and blankets.

You’re water! she shouts to the other. Go seek help!

I’m fire, my eldest daughter shouts, redundantly.

(By the way, that’s why we use those icons in our logo).

Fire = Wapenshaw

Leaf = Selvage

Water = Weft

The basis of a high functioning holon, United as one, divided by zero.

A characteristic of this high functioning holon would be operational continuity in the context of high attrition rates.

Recall that I talked about the epicenter and center of gravity for the holon hovering tenuously about 30 feet above the heads of the contributors.

Each member possesses the wisdom and personal authenticity to know when to yield to another member in support of the holon’s singleness of purpose.

Singleness of purpose: that’s literally what defines a tiebreaker within the team, and will solve all issues of conflict that happen to arise.

Singleness of purpose is a basic characteristic of a high functioning holon.

Conflict will arise. There will be disagreements.

If there are no disagreements, you likely do not have a high functioning holon.

If there are no conflicts, you likely have an echo chamber dominated by a single personality, which sucks.

So imagine three participants within a high functioning holon, each one taking turns as they keep the slippery ball aloft.

In order to do that, each person must learn the wisdom to flex to meet the needs of the holon, and most frequently this resembles tuning the team to keep the Wapenshaw/fire in check, else they will burn everything to the ground.

Periodically, there is the need to reach into other holons for assistance (Weft), and sometimes this precipitates attrition, or worse: it expands the holon’s size.

My CTO Florian asked me, Is there such a thing as a universal law pertaining to the maximum size of any organization, and I would emphatically say yes. There is.

But I’m not going to cover that right now (stay tuned). I’m going to say that the high functioning holon scales well up to five study participants, but begins to achieve diminishing returns at about seven, and any more than that is when things start going seriously pear-shaped.

That doesn’t mean that the maximum size of any organization should be limited to seven, I’m just saying: the domains of responsibility and singleness of purpose don’t scale very well beyond that

By the way, for those of you in the software business, this is easily recognizable as best practices pertaining to the maximum size of a scrum team.

In the realm of software, a scrum team works on a single domain of functionality (domain driven design), and you don’t really get any more velocity or improvements or quality if you end up adding like 13 more members to the scrum team. It just shits everything up

So. The team (holon) collaborates on a collective goal, united under a singleness of purpose, and possesses the wisdom to keep that slippery ball from touching the ground.

But attrition happens. People come and go.

So we return to our benchmark standard (KPI): the ability to deliver upon control objectives in the context of 300% attrition.

Of course, what you want to do is staff a replacement and have them able to hit the ground running as quickly as possible, which additionally necessitates concurrent socialization within the team’s dynamics.

Memes.

Previously, I had talked about how the Weft/water will be predisposed toward using humor to defuse conflict, with a particular bias towards keeping egos in check.

And again, the Weft/water personality archetype would be interested within all contributors, to varying degrees.

This means that another characteristic of a high functioning holon are the number and proprietary nature of inside jokes and Memes unique to the group.

Let’s talk a little bit about cognitive psychology, which is actually applicable here.

The human brain can only process so it much information at once. In the 1950’s, a researcher from AT&T quantified a limitation called Miller’s Law of Seven, give or take two chunks of information.

In general, the human brain can only retain seven chunks of information in working memory, which many people erroneously refer to as short term memory.

What do we consider a chunk? It’s a single object which expands into a great many other objects to those who are not aware of the chunk.

Here’s an example:

HZW vs. IBM

The first example (HZW) is, for most people, just three letters. If all we have available are seven chunks of memory, those letters represent three chunks, leaving just four chunks available in working memory.

This is why most of us can remember a seven digit phone number, but less often a 10 digit phone number, unless you learn how to utilize the area code as a chunk.

For example: area code 214 is from Dallas. A chunk.

IBM is a single chunk to anybody who recognizes the acronym and associates those letters as representative of the Internet business machines corporation, which means six chunks are still available in working memory.

The more you use chunks, the more information can be processed in memory, which dramatically accelerates aggregate execution.

Humor. Chunks. Memes.

A high functioning holon tends to create Memes which are proprietary to their circle, but possess dramatic concentrations of meta-data for those who can decompose the chunk.

When a new member joins a holon, they are subjected to the nuances of proprietary language which has developed within the circle.

Humor is a fantastic way to learn the context and nuance of this proprietary language.

Chunks become concentrations of information which have been assigned to short cuts, if you will, to maximize aggregate throughput of the collective consciousness.

I stated in a previous blog that the solution is not technology. People provide the solution, and sometimes technology can help.

Truly valuable Memes are ones which transcend technology, but sometimes technology can help.

There are examples of high functioning holons among the homeless communities who trade in highly proprietary, highly concentrated Memes, without dependency upon technology.

You walk down the street in a city with a high concentration of homeless, and all you may initially see is trash.

But to the discerning eye, placement of some of this trash upon the tapestry of our shared experience (urban infrastructure, in this case) has been made with great intentions, and many of these environments serve as a high fidelity message board to these holons.

My grandfather rode freight trains as a hobo looking for work during the Great Depression, prior to World War II.

Memes would be placed upon the tapestry of their shared experience, indicating information which might serve as a guide to others.

For the most highly effective, highest functioning holons, there exists a seamless traversal of the electronica and real-world tapestry, with Memes which are encoded in trash, graffiti, and on the Internet, in the form of highly proprietary inside jokes.

A language, whose style is distinctive and unique to high functioning holons, represents a judicious and wise orchestration of three basic personality archetypes:

Wapenshaw / fire

Selvage / leaf

Weft / water

If you would like to learn more about how to performance tune your holons, please feel free to reach out to us at www.214alpha.com

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”