Aping the Bonobos

May 22, 2007

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.

Michael James
Software Process Mentor
Danube Technologies, Inc.


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