As science learns more about how neurons behave in the brain, shocking similarities are being uncovered that reveal insights into how animals and people cooperate together in organizations.
The Power of Groups
A few neurons right next to each other don’t seem to be working together. Everyone is doing their own thing.
“It’s brilliant because there’s a lot going on,” said Dr. Elad Schneidman of the Weizmann Institute for Science during a presentation on the design principles of neurons, thoughts and brains. “It’s very efficient.”
Even when some neurons seem to be working on their own, a much larger group of them works in pair. They are each doing a part of the general work.
Is it very reasonable to apply the behavior of individual neurons to complex organisms like mice, fish or even people?
Dr. Schneidman demonstrated his examination, using a wide range of sensors, glow-in-the-dark paint and predictive analytics, to model behavior in groups of organisms so we could see how they behave together and make decisions. To do this, he would make a single fish invisible and look at the fish around it. Fish do calculations to figure out how to behave. His expectations for the behavior of an individual invisible fish matched the reality almost precisely.
“This is the math of neurons and social conduct,” he said. Turns out, organisms are very predictable, once you understand the rules of how they behave.
This could be seen as a discouraging piece of information. If organisms are so predictable, what does that say about us? Most likely people are too complex to behave so predictably, right? Wrong. But it doesn’t mean we’re doomed to continue repeating the similar patterns.
All in all, what happens when a change is presented?
The group changes as a result. The new examples become predictable over time, yet they are new, and they can be changed over and over again.
Good People in Poorly Designed Organizations
Two things oversee the way groups work together: the level of capacity of every individual, and the way they interact.
“Indeed,even smart people in a bad organization can lose the value of their abilities,” said Dr. Schneidman.
The design of the network needs to be matched to the abilities of the individuals. This means that you need to have a pragmatic commonsense to the abilities of the individuals and the way the group works together in a balanced way. If a change is presented, the challenge will be more effectively met by individuals who have sharpened their abilities in a well-designed organization.
Communicate Even the Most Complex Ideas Simply
When Dr. Scheidman was a child, his biology teacher kicked him out of class. He became a physicist. Biology is about thick books, he said, while physics is about finding the simplest ways to explain even the most complicated things.
“Four laws is too many,” Schneidman said. “Physicists want one. That’s the level of reductionism we want.”
At Science House we love to learn about science from every angle to discover approaches to apply it to business processes and people. Most of the work we do is with leadership teams at global companies that are in the midst of massive changes.
At the heart of this shift is the need for business and technology to speak the same language, or they can’t move fast enough to compete. I often hear software architects, for example, expressing their belief that it’s not possible to communicate the complexity of what they do simply. If physicists are able to do that, you can do it too.
“You can take out neurons and replace what we know about them with pixels or people,” Dr. Schneidman said. “It’s all similar. It’s about large groups working together.”
Cut the unnecessarily complicated words, jargon and slides with three point font filled with charts and mind-numbing details that only a handful of people need. Rather, concentrate on showing the art of the possible in a clear and direct way. This requires an understanding of the business your company is in, not just the technology that empowers it.
Focus on Small Pieces, Not On Everything At Once
Keeping in mind the end goal to make sense of a complex world full of sensory data, our brains look for examples. We do not take everything in at once, he said. Rather, we deal with “small pieces of time.”
This immediately made me think about the shift waterfall to agile. Many organizations think of this as a change in the way software is created, but that’s only one small part of the change. If you work for a company that is making the shift from end-to-end projects (often with poorly estimated budgets and timelines) to continuous, iterative development, you’ll know how painful it can be for a massive enterprise to deal with time in smaller pieces.
The important idea here is how time is handled differently in every structure.
When you switch to working in smaller pieces of time, people need to understand how their work associates to the strategic mission of the company.
Leadership teams are often so focused on crushing market pressure, shifting customer demands, nimble competition and the need to clear out the spaghetti code and outdated systems.They are so focused on that they overlook the significance of modernizing every function of the organization, from HR and legal to finance. Everybody should be iterating all the time, dedicated to continuous improvement. Focusing on smaller pieces of time can empower that, if the mission is clearly and vividly communicated along the way.
No Such Thing as Too Much Collaboration
Like our brains, groups are faced with the need to solve progressively complex problems. It’s hard to do this in a silo. At the core of the culture of the Weizmann Institute for Science is an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving that is lacking in many large companies.
To do his research, Dr. Schneidman “stole language” from physics, engineering, computer science and biology.
“That’s where the frontier really is,” he said. “Especially when you’re looking at the collective, not just the individual. Science has given us so much, including new understanding of the fundamental rules of the collective.”
Rather than designing a responsive organization, which we work with our clients to do, a lot of companies invest intensely in programs to train individuals to take responsibility for issues that are really fundamental to the way the organization itself is designed. Group behavior changes come from incentives and disincentives. If you want something, you work for it. If you want to abstain from something, you work to dodge it.
Science gives us another approach to understand the fundamental rules of the collective to enable the creation of robust, resilient networks. People try to solve problems when they see other people trying. Change can be introduced to a group, and the group will, predictably, change.