Emergence in Development Teams

When trying to translate the concept of emergence to teams, we can recognize a host of interesting phenomena. The first is the possibility of collective decision making without central planning. Swarm raids of army ants are reported to be among the largest organized operations carried out by any animal. But not a single ant has a picture of the entire operation in its mind. Likewise, no team member has a complete picture of the whole project. And yet it is common for good plans to emerge from the interaction of team members, where each can only work with incomplete information.

From research into human consciousness we can learn that multiple conflicting views can result in a (seemingly) singular view of the entire system. Daniel Dennett and Marvin Minsky both explained that “one stream of consciousness” is an illusion. According to Dennett there are actually “multiple drafts” of consciousness, which Minksy called the “society of mind”. Our brain resolves these multiple competing interpretations of the world into something that we call one identify, or a “self”. For an illusion it works remarkably well. Similarly, the multiple views of the world in a team can resolve into a singular team view. The team identity is an illusion, and yet it works by having a real impact on their projects. Paradoxically, human consciousness works because of the underlying multiple drafts. And the team identity works because of the underlying disparate views. I am sure some people will be glad to know that their diverging opinions may turn out to be crucial for a team identity to emerge. (Just don't blame me next time you get into a fight.)

It is also known that a system can be more than the sum of the parts. Our brains have a stable alpha wave of between 8-12 Hz. It is an accurate clock, though it is constructed from manny sloppy ones, because all the individual neurons have their own rates of discharging, varying between 8 to 12 times per second. And yet the emergent alpha rhythm is more reliable than that of any of the neurons. Similarly, it is not uncommon for a whole team to perform better than the best performance of any of the individual team members. DeMarco and Lister call this a “jelled team”. It is “a group of people so strongly knit that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The production of such a team is greater than that of the same people in unjelled form.

Finally, the nature of emergent properties is often unpredictable. Water, consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom per molecule, is subject to state changes like freezing and cooking. There is nothing in the properties of hydrogen and oxygen atoms predicting these properties of water. It is the same with teams. You cannot predict the behavior of a team by analyzing individual team members separately. The emergent behavior of the team is a result of the interactions between the team members.

The only thing you can predict is that they will always try to undermine your profitability by asking for more time, better education, expensive tools, food, or conferences in luxurious resorts.

(image by feserc)

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