On the nature of teamwork and transformation

Oyster houses on South Street and Pike Slip, Manhattan, image by Berenice Abbott

Oysters. You either love them or hate them. Saying that, personally I don’t mind them but I’m not one of those people who start emitting deep, guttural sounds of appreciation before they’re even brought to the table. Anyway, for those of you that fall into the ‘meh’ group, turns out the bivalves can serve much more function to us humans than simply that of the aphrodisiac foodstuff variety. This week I listened to a podcast, courtesy of the ever-excellent 99% Invisible, about how back in the day, oysters were vital to the flood defences of New York City. There used to be vast oyster beds, a veritable ‘oyster paradise’, comprising trillions — yes trillions — of the molluscs, in the fertile estuary at the mouth of the Hudson River. When storms hit, the oyster beds would act as a natural breakwater, absorbing the water’s energy, similar to the way a coral reef or beach would. Now they’re all gone, Manhattan is vastly more prone to flooding, as shown during recent Hurricane Sandy, when a good portion of the island was inundated by the storm surge. A very clever lady, Kate Orff, landscape architect and founder of the firm Scape, has recently won the MacArthur Genius award, for her work to re-introduce the oysters. Using awesomely-named ‘Oyster-tecture’ — an artificial oyster reef breakwater — NYC will work with the firm to start to redress the natural balance between people, land and water. There’s something deeply cathartic about this approach — working with nature, rather than dismissing it. As we know, man-made flood defences can often have unforeseen negative knock-ons to the complex systems within which they are located.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I’m no tree hugger. But Thoreau was onto something when he spoke about resigning yourself to the influence of the earth, to nature. Where this includes our own natures — the way our brains have evolved to work over millions of years, and the way we have evolved to work together in societies and groups. In the world of business, there has been a big shift towards more natural or ‘humanistic’ ways of getting stuff done, with this movement reaching crescendo pitch over recent years. It includes methodologies including SCRUM, design thinking, service design, DevOps, lean startup, and holacracy. They’re very much a counter to those outmoded scientific management -derived approaches — legacy organisational heuristics holding us back from realising the true potential of our businesses — and by extension, our careers, individual lives, and societies. I’ve been enthusiastically introducing these newer, more naturalistic ways of working to the organisations that bring me in to help with their transformation initiatives.

I’m fascinated with the power these ideas hold for working better together. I recently read ‘One Mission’, in which ex-Navy Seal Chris Fussell talks about his experience during the Iraq war, where he served as Aide-de-camp to General Stanley McChrystal, best known for his command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the mid-2000s. The book is largely about their learnings on how to get large teams to work together. A variety of measures were successfully introduced, with “an emphasis on shared consciousness and empowered execution”, which eventually lead to turning the tide in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq. In brief: we need to all be working towards the same goals, communicate effectively to ensure alignment, continually learn from each other, form interpersonal connections with those we are dependent on for success, and be empowered to make progress within agreed parameters. These are natural behaviours for us humans, if we want to work optimally in large groups, and I think it’s brilliant that we are going through this re-discovery. In the military’s case, it breaks some widely-held preconceptions. In fact, it was only recently that a senior HR person at an organisation I was working with, during a company-wide session to kick off a transformation initiative, cited the military as being a highly command-and-control -type organisation. There are, however, still so many industries that have yet to benefit from this type of thinking. I also believe we’ll find these ideas permeating and positively impacting our lives outside of work, over the coming years.

Wetland birds on the Argentinian pampas, image by Pablo Petracci

On my nightstand recently has been ‘Far Away and Long Ago — A Childhood in Argentina’ by WH Hudson, a recommendation from my sister (thanks sis!). It’s the author’s autobiographical account of growing up on Argentina’s pampas, in the late 19th century. Much of the book is about Hudson’s love for the wildlife of the pampas, full of stories about snakes, giant artichoke thistles, armadillos, and a myriad of bird species. His days were governed by his “perpetual rapturous delight in nature and my own existence…a purely physical delight.” He also recounts some great human stories, including the romantic, at-times scary gauchos, marauding armies on their way to besiege pestilential Buenos Aires, miserable slaves, quirky British landholders, and a retinue of other oddball characters. It’s a subtle, gentle book, and it reminded me that as children, we have such a primal affinity with nature, and then sadly, we lose it — or at least it becomes dulled. As a child, I often found nature powerfully, spiritually, all-engrossing. Whether I was hunting for insects in my back garden in Lancashire, drawing pictures in my diary of the wildlife I spotted while camping in rainy South Wales, or spending hours snorkelling and fish-stalking during family holidays in the Mediterranean. Why do we lose this feeling — and how would our lives be different, if we didn’t?

Finally, to end this very much nature-themed post, I’ll leave you with a passage I wrote almost fifteen years ago, about a favourite place of mine as a child.

My parents and grandparents would occasionally take my sister and me to a place called Woodwell, near Silverdale in the Lake District of Cumbria, England. There, in a woodland clearing amongst the dappled sunlight piercing the tree canopy, I would become immersed in the world beneath me: a large man-made shallow well. Long abandoned from whatever purpose it had once served, it was now overridden by pondweed. Above, within, and underneath that pondweed hid, grazed, and skittered all sorts of fascinating creatures: tadpoles, minnows, sticklebacks, pond skaters, ram’s horn snails, water boatmen. Dragonflies and damselflies, metamorphosed into their air-bound adult versions, buzzed around like brilliantly agitated miniature helicopters. In an adjacent field, cattle calmly grazed in the spring sunlight. And occasionally a woodpecker could be heard rattattatting in its search for bark-burrowed grubs. All the while, a little way up the hillside where the clearing met rock face, there arose a glugging and a tinkling of spring water into a smaller rock-carved, bath-shaped pool, perhaps once quenching the thirsts of shepherds and their flocks. Yellow-net-on-a-bamboo-cane in hand, and muddy water-filled bucket at the ready, such was the setting of my hunt for watery creepy crawly bounty.

I hope you enjoyed the read. Please add your thoughts in the comments section — it would be great to hear what you think. Do share with your friends and colleagues, if you think they might enjoy. And don’t forget to follow me on Medium, so you’ll know when my next post is up. Hasta luego amigos.

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