Leadership Insight from Biological Systems

Savvy leaders should apply two peculiar attributes of healthy biological systems to managing organizations and project work:

  1. There is a very high level of communication and feedback loops.
  2. No part of the system operates at more than 80% of maximum throughput.

Let’s explore these in more detail, and then review how to factor these into your leadership work.

Communication and Feedback Loops

About 20% of bacterial and yeast genomes encode proteins involved in signaling and sensing.  We’ve learned that there are small molecules secreted by bacteria which signal other bacteria (same and different species) about their numbers and growth state.  Plants signal other plants when they are attacked by insects or funguses.  Signaling between organs and different systems in your body is constant and finely-tuned.  The hormonal interactions in your body are subtle but important; even small fluctuations are used as feedback loops to restore balancing conditions.  We’re learning more about how complex ecosystems interact and individual parts signal one another.

Organisms and ecosystems work because of these high levels of communication and feedback loops.

Process Rate Control

Another attribute of healthy organisms and ecosystems is that enzyme pathways, cell growth, metabolic flux in an organ, and energy transfer in an ecosystem are all lower than 100% of a measurable maximum in a lab setting or computer simulation.  All these operate within a parameter margin.  It’s another example of the ubiquity of 80/20 – in many cases the healthy dynamic rate is between 70 and 80% of maximum.

Bad things happen when signaling and feedback loops fail, and when process flow rates exceed 80%.  Cancer.  Algae blooms.  Predator-Prey relationships go off-balance, creating an un-counterbalanced impact on the rest of the ecosystem.

Applying This to Your Organization

First, emphasize frequent communication and lots of feedback signals (positive, and negative).

Almost everything useful in human organizations is created by small numbers of people, working closely together, with lots of interconnection and communication.  Small committees, small work teams, highly structured scrum teams, construction crews, etc.  Larger teams trying to work the same way fail because the communication and feedback cycles don’t scale.  You can organize 300 people into many effective small teams, but you can’t have a 300-person group operate with scrum team effectiveness.

Second, constrain the portfolio of project work to fewer, strategically important centers of attention.

Anyone can add to the portfolio of project work so that every individual is assigned 120% of his reasonable capacity, but this is ineffective.  (You’ve done this experiment, right?)  The majority of the deliverables fall behind schedule, quality suffers, and the grumbling in the workforce increases.

Smart leaders intentionally limit the amount of project work to 80% of an individual’s capacity after admin, vacation, and training time.  That leaves healthy margin that creates space for quality and creativity.  People are much less likely to burn out.  The quality and timeliness of results will greatly improve.