The Dynamic Reteaming Ecocycle

This is an excerpt from my book in progress: Dynamic Reteaming — The Art and Wisdom of Changing Teams.

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Think of a team that you were a part of in the past. Can you remember when you joined or when you left that team? Many of us aren’t on the same teams forever — our team experiences have beginnings as well as endings. And other people might come and go from our teams in the middle of all that. An ecocycle is a useful metaphor for thinking about the evolution of a team and how it changes over time.

A Basic Ecocycle. Modified from a version by Keith McCandless, Henri Lipmanowicz and Fisher Qua, Liberating Structures and Lance H. Gunderson & C.S. Holling, Panarchy.

Here’s a short example from forestry which helps illustrate the general concept of an ecocycle that we will relate to dynamic reteaming afterwards. In the Los Padres National Forest near where I live in California, we can witness the ecocycle of oak trees firsthand. At a very high level it works like this. Acorns drop from the trees. They find their way underground and take root — like a “birth” phase. Next is the “adolescence” phase where the young oak trees grow and grow and grow. Then there is an accumulation taking place as the forest becomes denser. The trees that thrive get really thick and develop canopies. They are in the “maturity” phase. The trees that do not do well might never get to adolescence and will instead struggle and probably die off — “failure to thrive”.

After a while in a “mature” forest the trees might get brittle and their growth might be slowed. It’s like a “rigidity trap,” where the life appears stifled or not as expansive. It could even appear “stagnating”. All of this is the opposite of thriving. In times of drought it can be even more pronounced, incredibly fragile and even dangerous. Just a small spark can cause a catastrophic wildfire and burn the trees to the ground. This is the place in the ecocycle for some kind of disruption or destruction.

Researchers who apply this ecocycle concept beyond forestry sometimes call the phase after maturity “creative destruction,” a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1950. (Gunderson & Holling, 2002) It’s the death phase. But nature is clever. Through this grand disruption it finds new beginnings. Wildfires enable the release of new seeds and other matter that catalyzes incredible renewal. What takes root and survives will start this ecocycle again, regenerating the forest and the life around it in all kinds of interesting ways until the next time a large disturbance or even catastrophe happens.

So how does a forestry ecocycle relate to dynamic reteaming? I think it helps to provide an awesome context for it. Let me explain. But first a caveat — keep in mind that this dynamic reteaming ecocycle is only a metaphor. Like forestry ecocycles, it’s not meant to be a prescriptive path for all teams or organizations. (Gunderson & Holling, 2002) I view the dynamic reteaming ecocycle as a “sense making” tool. Inherent in this metaphor is an evolutionary approach to teams instead of a predictive one.

I joined AppFolio, the second startup I was a part of, in 2007, as the 10th employee. I was a part of the first engineering team. When I joined, that team was more or less in its “birth” phase.

After a while that “first team” I was on grew into “adolescence” and continued to grow and grow and grow. The hiring ramped up. Team members were added on gradually using the dynamic reteaming pattern I call “One by One”. After a while that first team gained more experience and got bigger. You could say that particular team was in its “maturation” phase.

Time passed, and that team felt too big for many of us. It became very difficult for us to make decisions together as one big team. Meetings started taking forever. It was as if we were “stagnating.” Something had to change.

A team growing so “big” its probably going to fall into a rigidity trap of stagnate.

After a while it got even more challenging and we realized that we needed to change our team composition. We needed to disrupt ourselves. At that point, we essentially dynamically reteamed into two separate “new” teams. Following that structural split, our people “renewed” and started again as two “brand new” teams and then the cycle continued. We focused on different areas of work. We reinvented our meetings. Things felt different and fresh.

A team that grew big and then split in half. Now it’s two “new” teams.

Not all teams are fortunate enough to even grow big and split, or get anywhere near a “maturation” phase. A team that begins that doesn’t succeed might be thought of as getting stuck in the “failure to thrive” trap (also called a Poverty trap in writings unrelated to teams by Westley et al 2006). Maybe the chemistry is off and the people together on the team don’t gel so the team dissolves or you disband it. It could also be that the product the team is working on doesn’t take off. The expertcity.com marketplace product I described in the introduction to this book was in a “failure to thrive trap” from my perspective. No one would buy it! So we quickly started a new team off to the side using the Isolation pattern described later in this book, and the team ecocycle started anew for the people in that team. You might view the “failure to thrive” trap as an early exit point out of the dynamic reteaming ecocycle.

Extending the ecocycle metaphor even further, let’s entertain it as being present simultaneously on multiple levels of context. In the English language, the word “team” itself is lexically ambiguous. When I say “team,” I might be referring to the immediate, cross-functional software development team that I’m on or I could be referring to my company as a whole as the “team.” I could even be referencing some contextual level in between — such as referring to my R&D organization as my “team.” “Team” is multi-level and multi-dimensional.

This reminds me of a concept related to the ecocycle — an idea called Panarchy — which is depicted visually by multiple ecosystems at different scales. Authors Gunderson & Holling coined the term Panarchy which describes the “linkages between systems dynamics and scale” and is described in a cross-disciplinary fashion in their 2002 book called Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. The intent of their work is to develop cross-scale, integrative theory to help people understand global transformational, adaptive systems in nature, economics and organizations. (p. 5) The name “panarchy” pays homage to the Greek god Pan, who they say “captures an image of unpredictable change and …notions of hierarchies across scales to represent structures that sustain experiments, test results, and allow adaptive evolution.” (p. 5)

Applying panarchy to dynamic reteaming brings the idea that we are essentially going through multiple, relatively unpredictable dynamic reteaming“ecocycles” concurrently, at different levels and at different speeds or dynamics. When thinking of dynamic reteaming, I apply this concept by imagining three panarchic levels: the individual level, the team level, and the company level. I’m sure you can imagine other levels in between and beyond. But for sake of simplicity, I illustrate this concept using only three levels as depicted here:

Dynamic reteaming happens on multiple levels reminiscent to the concept Panarchy (Gunderson & Holling, 2002)

At any time we as individuals are going through our own dynamic reteaming ecocycles. It’s like when you join a company — you’re in the birth phase of your individual experience there and will continue on through your ecocycle of experience until some type of event occurs and you are disrupted. Maybe others join and that renews your experience. Maybe you change teams. Maybe the work changes. Maybe you change roles in your company. You might even leave the company. Sometimes the changes happen to you. Other times you catalyze the creative disruption. There are lots of possibilities.

In this space with coaching we might ponder questions like, How are you doing in your team? What is it like to work with the others on your team? How is your learning and mastery of new ideas? These questions are important to consider for your own fulfillment at work. And, they are strikingly absent when you view teams through metaphors like Tuckman’s model of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. That metaphor implies that success means that you must stay in one team forever. That could be sheer torture of you’re annoyed by your team mates. Who’d want that? Missing from that metaphor is this entire concept of scale as well as the concept of rigidity or stagnation. That’s not to say that model is useless, I also find value in it when talking about team gel or connectedness. Using the panarchy and ecocycle metaphors feels more apropos; however, when talking about dynamic reteaming because it includes multiple dimensions, as well as the natural concepts of change and renewal.

Getting back to panarchy, we also go through the ecocycle at a team level as described earlier in this chapter. When a team is created it’s in the birth phase. As time passes on it might grow and change in adolescence. Whether the team gets the addition of new people or not, with time it might feel as if it is becoming mature. And then at some point the team might go through it’s own transformation and dynamically reteam in a myriad of patterns. In essence, teams have their beginnings, and as time passes, these teams might die, thrive, grow, change, and so on.

Getting more macro with our application of panarchy to dynamic reteaming are company entities themselves. They too can be viewed as going through an ecocycle. I was at my first startup, Expertcity.com, for 8 years. I was there from 15 to about 700 employees. I was there around birth, and left at some point of maturity. The company was disrupted when acquired by Citrix in 2004, and the whole org changed and reassembled with a newly stated identity and leadership and we were called CitrixOnline — a separate and for a while independent division of that company. So it started over theoretically in the ecocycle. In 2017 this “team” was acquired again, by another company, LogMeIn — and now assumes that identity.

According to Gunderston & Holling, the speed at which changes occur in ecocycles differs based on scale. The authors write that when large, the ecocycle goes slower, and it goes more rapidly at smaller scale like at the team level. It makes you think that if you can keep things stable at the company level, then you can endure more dynamic reteaming at the team level due to that contextual anchor. The authors note, “In essence, larger and slower components of the hierarchy provide the memory of the past and of the distant to allow recovery of smaller and adaptive cycles. (p. 20). The role of story and connectedness to shared experience and purpose at the company level might just be the glue that keeps organizations with dynamic teams together. I can see that as true from my experiences at AppFolio. We had strong traditions such as representing company milestones on whitewater rafting oars that we’d all sign — which relates back to two whitewater rafting trips taken by team members early in the company. We would have repeated events at the company level that provided a rhythm — such as the Avocado Takedown annual event which you can read about later in this book. The traditions, culture, and symbols of the larger entity give continuity to the smaller team entities.

Besides this company level, I’m sure you can apply both the ecocycle and the panarchy ideas to industries, economies and the like — and many people do (read the book Panarchy to learn more). But I’ll stop here. We will return to the concept of Panarchy in the practices section of this book as its a useful lens that we can use to think about our current work situations.

I’m looking for feedback on this chapter as well as the others in my book in progress. Please comment or reach out if this topic resonates with you.

References:

Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling. Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, 2002.

McCandless, Keith and Henri Lipmanowicz. The surprising power of liberating structures: simple rules to unleash a culture of innovation. Liberating structures pres: 2014.

Westley, Frances, Zimmerman, Branda and Michael Quinn Patton. Getting to Maybe. Random House Canada, 2006.