(Team Design) Holon Magic
Something magical occurs when a small number of participants — of diverse personality distribution — assemble themselves into a sustained collaboration of a certain quality, united by a singleness of purpose, and properly calibrated to a particular domain.
Something magical happens.
This might not be your cup of tea, and that’s OK. If team dynamics aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other blogs to read. Move along.
The magic of technology.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
So. Let’s decompose the recipe behind this magic a little bit.
Small number of participants: three to five.
Diverse personality distribution: different perspectives, with none being consistently dominant.
Assembled into a sustained collaboration: the group regularly and consistently works on a shared problem, and the results are shared equitably among the team.
Having a certain quality: a spirit of shared attribution, a pure meritocracy within a spirit of esprit de corps, and a sense of humor.
A singleness of purpose: the ultimate tiebreaker. Any internal divisions addressed by commitment to this single goal.
Properly calibrated to the domain space: the size of the problem is about the same size as the capacity of the team, no smaller, and not much larger.
What kind of magic? Well, I like to refer to the team as having a holonic quality.
To keep things simple, let’s consider a holon as a small circle — say, three people. A tight knit team.
Maybe consider three musicians who have really settled into something musically transcendent.
Or three grassroots political advocates, having established an ability of persistence to deliver against extraordinary circumstances, on a continuous basis.
A holon. Just a few people working as one on a shared problem.
Ok, think about these small teams, and imagine for a moment that there’s this thing — like a slippery ball — which hovers about 30 feet over their head, and each of them take turns keeping the ball from hitting the ground.
The ball itself (the holonic entity) contains aggregate, shared perspectives; i.e., insights which might have only been gained by contributions of two or more people, inside jokes, made up words, silly little things, shared memory, etc.
If one were to print out the entire contents of this holonic ball, it’s possible that all of the words would be in English (or any other language as far as that goes), but it’s frequently true that the context of these words would be significantly nuanced to reflect proprietary experience.
It’s more likely that this holonic ball contains weirdly proprietary image memes, strange inside jokes, and untold numbers of other completely absurd things which only makes sense to the members of the inner circle, aka the holon.
The high functioning holon (three or so people aligned to a singleness of purpose) eventually creates discernible byproducts, which actually enable it to thrive, eventually becoming persistent enough to maintain continuity as individual contributors cycle in and out.
Think about a time when you might have been introduced to a fairly tight-knit clique of people.
On the surface, they might be speaking English or Spanish or whatever, but you recognize that there is significant nuance to their use of the language, to the extent that most of their inside jokes are not anything that you can easily comprehend.
This is essentially what I’m talking about, although I would go a little bit further.
Of course, it’s possible to create a clique. That doesn’t take very much effort at all, but with a little bit of work one might create a holon, which can easily incorporate the contributions of new participants and continue to sustain deterministic execution in the wake of high attrition.
And even that’s not necessarily magic.
What I just described is not many steps removed from what is referred to as the franchise prototype, frequently known as a gold standard of operations within businesses small and large.
As I shared in a previous blog, I was Staff Sergeant in a combat communications squadron, and we were expected to deliver upon control objectives in the context of 300% attrition.
That means doing our job while losing everybody three times. That, by itself, is simply operational continuity in the wake of high attrition. A high standard performance indicator, but not necessarily magical all by itself.
When somebody “buys” a franchise, such as McDonald’s, they’re really just buying a handbook that tells them how to run a profitable business.
Following this handbook will enable them to achieve and sustain some measure of operational continuity, even in the wake of attrition, but there’s nothing transcendent about this particular phenomenon.
Given the right leadership and associated alchemy, any team which has been assembled within the context of this franchise prototype will coalesce into something entirely magical.
Alchemy is a great word. It implies quantitative measures and deterministic results, but also suggests a wizard conjuring magic.
Hopefully, most of us have experienced the joy of working for a truly skilled leader, capable of introducing an alchemical quality to a team, because it inspires the creation of a transcendent experience.
When these teams are ignited, they frequently transcend beyond the organization, and can easily take root and thrive elsewhere.
In case you have missed it, I just described two completely different things there.
One is the ability for the organization to continue execution in the wake of high attrition. That’s operational resiliency.
The other is the ability for the organization to continue execution in the wake of high attrition, even after it has been removed from the original organizational structure.
The latter example is one which is likely magical in quality.
Imagine a company:
Imagine that this company employs a small number of workers (three to five), and let’s assume that the owners possess a certain alchemic skill at team building.
After some period of time, the team and the company become entangled in this shared experience that’s truly transcendent from the organization that assembled it.
Suddenly, one of the owners dies, and the company closes its doors.
So the employees pick up, reassemble themselves elsewhere as if there has been no interruption, and they are able to add new members to the team without changing the essential alchemy of the original collaboration.
That’s what I’m talking about — this is the magical, alchemical quality of a high functioning holon.
I find it productive to pretend that this magical, transcendent quality is something like its own consciousness, hovering continuously over the heads of the team’s diverse contributors.
So I sit and think, What constitutes an ideal diet for the stewardship, care, and feeding of this magical object?
If the holonic ball is a fish, there are some pretty important questions as it relates to its survival: What do you feed it? What does its ideal environment look like? How do you ensure it thrives?
One thing I’ve found helps: the team’s maturity and wisdom, capable of diffusing conflict with humor, and with egos in check.
An interesting byproduct of humor: it creates proprietary dialects and expressions which take the form of Memes.
An interesting byproduct of humorous Memes: they accelerate education and orientation of new participants.
If you can imagine a new employee training handbook that’s not boring, you get the idea of what is necessary for holons.
Another thing I’ve thought a lot about pertaining to thriving holons: the difference between communication and conversations.
I actually had not considered this until recently, but there is a Swedish researcher named John Kellden who has spent a lot of years experimenting with how to elevate communication into a transcendent form of collaborative communication which he calls Conversations, and this, too, appears to be deeply beneficial to the imaginary entity which floats above the heads of high functioning teams.
In a previous blog, I talked about my grandparents’ rock tumbler. They would place ordinary stones into its chamber, add fluid and an aggregate, and would let the stones tumble for a period of time. What emerged were polished, beautiful works of art.
That’s probably the best metaphor I can think of to describe what John refers to as the difference between communication and a conversation. Ideas are encouraged for inclusion into the chamber, and the team settles upon a properly calibrated aggregate in the polishing of these ideas into linguistic works of art.
Another thing which really helps the health of these holonic blobs: a spirit of shared attribution, within the context of a pure meritocracy.
Of course, a meritocracy is one which places value upon the merit of each contributor, and a spirit of shared attribution is one which acknowledges that the team’s output would not be possible without the contributions of all members of the team.
Indeed, this is one of the most important reasons why I demand my software teams release functionality on a consistent basis (beyond the fact that it also mitigates software engineers’ biases towards perfectionism).
A regular release cadence from a high functioning team creates a stream of updates which tells the team that they would have not been able to do any of those things by themselves.
This inspires a spirit of esprit de corps — the sense that the team is more valuable than the contributions of one individual.
An internal, intrinsic value towards meritocracy.
A singleness of purpose, calibrated to a domain space of proper size.
A steady and consistent cadence of updates, reiterating to the team that the group is able to do things that the individual could never do alone.
The team ignites, and once it gets going, it’s extraordinarily difficult to shut down.
Sometimes, you will see these teams leave a company and take up route elsewhere within a new company, or maybe they remain friends for years after the company shuts down, continuing to collaborate on volunteer projects, even decades after their original meeting.
Sometimes the individual members themselves will cycle in and out, without substantial changes to the team’s composition.
But why does it matter?
In my professional experience, a properly calibrated, high functioning holon creates a persistent and reliable stream of high value output.
Put another way:
My resume is filthy with examples of successful products I’ve worked on, but the products themselves are merely the byproduct of a number of high-quality teams with whom I’ve had the honor to be a contributor.
If you focus on curating and igniting and sustaining a high functioning holon, the byproduct is a stream of high-quality output.
If you focus on high-quality output, what you get is a collection of people, which might ignite into a high-quality collaboration, if you’re lucky.
But I doubt it.
Here’s the really cool thing: if you do it right, the team (the holon) will transcend the organization, and you would not be able to shut it down if you wanted to.
It would reassemble itself outside your organization, and would be able to add new members as others departed.
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