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  • Richard Bartlett

What Makes a “Humming Team”?

A humming team is a living organism with a pulse. Your heartbeat keeps a rhythm of filling & pumping, filling & pumping. Your lungs have their phases too: inhaling & exhaling, inhaling & exhaling.


A humming team has its own rhythm too: weaving & learning, weaving & learning. That sounds a bit poetic but what we’re talking about is absolutely concrete.


Phase one is weaving: we’re weaving social fabric.


Studies at MIT, Harvard, and Google, have repeatedly made the same conclusion: what makes a great team is the quality of its relationships. Teams outperform when everyone feels safe to take risks, to be vulnerable, to share contradictory points of view. The science is solid: the best ideas will only emerge when people feel psychologically safe with each other.


Collective intelligence requires social fabric.


How can you weave social fabric? With peer support groups. Feedback practices. Emotional intelligence training. Practice spaces. Conviviality.


Trust grows naturally when you make relationships your priority. When you put human needs in the centre of your organisation. When you model the essential skills of empathetic listening, self-awareness & social sensitivity.


Phase two is learning. How does a team learn?


Once you have trust, the learning comes easy. All you need is a rigorous practice of experimentation and iteration. Set a regular dependable rhythm, and stick to it. Talk together about your ways of working: what’s going well and what could be improved? Get a shared view of reality. Prioritise the tensions that most urgently need to be resolved. Design a quick experiment; just a step in the right direction. At the next pulse, look back and see what you’ve learned. Should you double down? Or start again in a new direction?


If you iterate with consistency, the team will develop the ways of working that are right for your context, and you’ll adapt as circumstances change.


But be warned: if you don’t have a solid foundation of trust, if people don’t feel safe to speak their mind, they’ll withhold key information and you’ll be iterating on bullshit.


So the weaving & learning phases feed each other. This interactive cycle of weaving & learning creates a kind of living organism, an evolving process that can metabolise whatever challenges come your way.



relational excellence + iterative experiments = continuous participatory improvement


 

What can possibly go wrong?


We’ve been on a research project, working with self-organising teams in more than 20 countries to understand the patterns of decentralised organising. We wanted to know:

  • What are the common challenges that people face when they try to organise with decentralised authority?

  • And what are the tools, practices, and mental models that make the most difference?


We’ve found some concrete, reliable answers. The self-organising teams that are really thriving have some common properties:


  1. They’re guided by a more meaningful purpose than simply maximising profit.

  2. They have the heartbeat of a living organism, with a regular practice of reflecting and learning from experiments.

  3. They can switch between decision-making methods depending on context, sometimes building consensus, sometimes acting autonomously.

  4. They know how to create psychological safety. They treat work as a place to learn about themselves and to grow.

  5. They prioritise transparency and use dependable planning & communication rhythms to prevent information overload.

  6. They have clear ways to distribute tasks and roles, and keep them fluid and adaptable, not set in stone.

  7. They create accountability through peer-to-peer agreements instead of the threat of punishment.

  8. They can break the taboos that make it hard to talk about power, privilege, or money.

  9. They prioritise relationships, and recognise that building a healthy culture requires real work.

  10. They have a culture of feedback, with reliable processes to transform conflict into a source of growth.


If you think about your team and compare it against that list of 10 patterns, how do you measure up? Which one of these points needs the most urgent attention? What’s your next step?


If you want our support to learn more in depth about any of these issues, check out our online course. We'll show you how to create self-organising teams that are highly effective, collaborative and nourishing to work in. You can at your own pace, join one of our guided programs, or learn with your team.