Aping the Bonobos

Dr. Linda Rising (author of Fearless Change) explores links between human teamwork and that of other primates in this InfoQ interview by Deborah Hartmann. Her observations shed light on why teams larger than 10 are less productive than smaller teams (we are hard wired this way), how the subconscious mind contributes to problem solving, and other cultural issues that impact management practices.

Some of what she discusses in her interview might make you uncomfortable: politically incorrect generalities about how women contribute to Agile teams (confirmed by my own observations), “fuzzy” approaches to problem solving, and intimate behavior between bonobo apes that humans would be more inclined to keep private, if you catch my drift. You’ve been warned.

http://www.infoq.com/interviews/linda-rising-agile-bonobos (WARNING: POTENTIALLY OFFENSIVE)

I couldn’t help laughing about the different conflict resolution styles between chimpanzees and bonobos. Rising notes that throwing a bunch of bananas to a community of chimps will cause them to fight or intimidate each other until the dominant male and his sycophants have all of them. Bonobos, in contrast, respond to the same crisis by launching into a frenzy of, um, affection, and then later sharing the bananas.

We humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, and blessed with the ability to choose when to use which model. In some situations we use force (or the threat of force) through our position in the hierarchy to get our way, without regard to the long-term consequences for the larger organization. This clearly works for many situations, or else chimps wouldn’t have evolved this way.

In other situations we can emphasize the relationship and work things out for our collective benefit, as the bonobos tend to do. A friend of mine decided to let 40 or so developers (five or six Scrum teams) figure out their own seating chart. It had been a source of stress because some spots were more coveted than others. So he gave them an hour to resolve it themselves, and left the building. He returned after 45 minutes to discover they’d already worked it out. One interesting thing is that the higher status people did not wind up with the more coveted spots. This is counterintuitive if we use chimps as our role models, but makes perfect sense when we take a broader view of self interest.

Dr. Rising’s findings suggest we can resolve conflicts for longer term gain by starting with a mutually enjoyable experience, such as the Fearless Change “Do Food” pattern. So let’s have lunch.

–mj
Michael James
Software Process Mentor
Danube Technologies, Inc.

Michael James

Michael James is a software process mentor, team coach, and Scrum Trainer with a focus on the engineering practices (TDD, refactoring, continuous integration, pair programming) that allow Agile project management practices. He is also a software developer (a recovering "software architect" who still loves good design).

Posted in Agile
3 comments on “Aping the Bonobos
  1. Michael James says:

    Neuroscientists find animals are hardwired for teamwork, at least in some circumstances on a small, local scale:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701056.html

    “One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.”

    –mj
    Michael James
    Software Process Mentor
    http://www.danube.com

  2. Tobias Mayer says:

    I didn’t hear the interview, so I am commenting solely on this blog entry. While this animal study stuff is fascinating _for it’s own sake_, I think it is rather absurd to make a big deal out of applying it to team behavior. Just observe people, real people in real environments. Observe them and talk with them — work with them. You don’t need to be an animal behaviorist or a psychologist to help create a collaborative ensemble of people.

    Jumping headfirst into judgmental mode here… but honestly, it exasperates me sometimes the lengths people go to in order to become a name in the Agile community. We don’t need names. We need anonymity. We need people quietly getting on with stuff.

    And all those DoFood or MeetAroundWaterCooler “patterns” seem equally ridiculous. I mean really, patterns? Stop making it all so complicated! Do we honestly need someone to tell us that eating a meal, or having a beer with a group of people you work with is a “positive experience”. Do we really need a pattern to do that. Help! If people cannot figure that one out for themselves, then we are a lost race.

  3. Michael James says:

    Hey Tobias, good to hear from you as always.

    While these things should be obvious to more of us, I’m finding that normal social skills and teamwork are hard to come by in this field. Does this make us a lost race? If so, I’m counting on you (and Dr. Rising, and others) to help us get unlost.

    –mj

    Michael James
    Software Process Mentor
    http://www.danube.com

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