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Patterns of Human Cooperation

Group of people working together to scale a mountain peak
image credit: iStock/LoveTheWind

In a previous post I talked about human history being best understood as a progressive spiral made up of four intertwining strands, with the third of those strands consisting of our increasing ability to cooperate with each other. This post is the first of several in which I’ll elaborate on my understanding of this element of our human history.

As humans it can be fairly said that our superpower is the ability to work cooperatively with others of our species.

As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow:

To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability – rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness – explains our mastery of planet Earth.

And evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson points out something similar in his recent book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution:

Our ancestors found ways to suppress disruptive competition among individuals within groups, so that between-group selection became the primary evolutionary force. This favored group-level coordination in all its forms, including the transmission of learned information across generations.

But these seemingly simple ideas of cooperation and coordination turn out to be devilishly complex in practice, especially in large undertakings.

Functional Patterns of Cooperation

In an organization/society of any appreciable size, all of the following patterns of cooperation can be found.

  1. Direct apprehension of the immediate environment, combined with application of internalized knowledge, motivated by personally felt goals.

    (While you may initially protest that this seems to involve no cooperation at all, it must be mentioned, for it is the fundamental building block on which all of the following depend.)

  2. Direct communication with peers. In other words, exchange of information and ideas with people you work with on a daily basis.

  3. Group understanding and acceptance of Shared Goals, constraints, norms, contributions and benefits: in other words, team formation.

  4. Intergenerational Learning: the transfer of knowledge, skills, competencies, norms and values from an older, more experienced generation to a younger, less experienced one. More broadly, we could simply think of this as learning and guidance from experienced colleagues.

  5. Division of Labor and Specialization: an arrangement in which certain individuals/organizations focus on specific pools of knowledge and expertise.

  6. Standardization: as applied to units of measurement, product/service designs, and work definitions.

  7. Experimentation: competition between alternative approaches to solving a particular problem.

  8. Independent Verification: an arrangement that permits the validity of the results obtained by one worker/team to be confirmed by another, operating independently.

  9. Management Hierarchies: an arrangement in which small (3 - 15 members) teams of peers are each represented at higher levels by individuals from those teams, with those representative individuals then forming similarly small management teams, and with this same representative structure continuing upwards until reaching the top of the organization. Knowledge of current conditions should be accurately communicated, with appropriate summarization, as information flows upwards through the hierarchy; goals and resources should be supplied, with appropriate decomposition, as these flow downward through the hierarchy.

  10. Multi-team membership: An arrangement in which an individual is part of two or more different teams, each with complementary, but different, goals.

    Within a single large organization, multi-team membership is often associated with matrix management. A frequent example is that of an individual or other organizational component with dual responsibilities, one as part of a multi-function integrated product team, and another as part of a consolidated functional unit, or unit of specialization. As part of the first team, the worker is responsible for delivering a successful product, on schedule and on budget; as part of the second team, the same worker may be responsible for maintaining and enhancing organizational expertise in a particular area of specialization.

    Within a broader context, though, all of us participate in multiple teams: we are members of families, of civic organizations, of professional societies, of cities, states and nations, as well as working at our jobs within organizations of one sort or another.

  11. Informal Trust Networks: connections between individuals who have come to know and trust each other, either through prior work experience, or through special assignments taking individuals outside of their normal, daily working teams. Note that trust may be qualified: an individual may be trusted to be able to perform certain tasks, in certain situations, but without similar levels of confidence in other areas.

    Note that trust networks may also involve pockets of distrust, as in agreement that a certain colleague should generally be avoided, at least for certain responsibilities.

    In a healthy organization, these trust networks should be widely dispersed and only partially overlapping, so that someone I trust may know someone else whom they trust, but who is unknown to me.

  12. Identification and Exploration of, and Adaptation to Novelty. Things change. New opportunities and threats emerge more or less continuously. Relevant developments must be identified, explored and understood, and perhaps integrated into an organization’s other patterns of cooperation, as identified above.

  13. System tuning: monitoring, consultation and/or intervention to preserve and enhance the patterns of cooperation throughout an organization.

So there you have it. A list of thirteen patterns of human cooperation, defined in fewer than six hundred words. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Well, the main problem, of course, is that all these things must somehow be kept in balance and maintained simultaneously: not an easy undertaking.

Common Examples of Dysfunction

Here are just a few examples of how things can go terribly wrong.

  • An organization may be too focused on specialization and intergenerational learning, with too little attention to the identification and exploration of new opportunities and threats.

  • Organizational hierarchies may be too focused on pushing direction down from above, while paying too little attention to direct apprehension of the immediate work environment coming up from below.

  • Organizations may place too much emphasis on standardization, to the detriment of patterns 1 - 5. (There, I’ve just given you a capsule summary of why, in the field of software development, the Agile Manifesto eventually upended the rule of the various Capability Maturity Models.)

  • Formal units of specialization may not agree with informal trust networks: that is, those who are anointed by the organization to be the experts in their fields may not be the same people whom workers in the organization actually know and trust.

  • Due to Retirements/Relocations/Redundancies, intergenerational learning may be irretrievably lost.

  • Understanding of goals, constraints, norms, contributions and benefits may not be shared within a team, or between a team and its management.

  • Specialists may be too narrowly focused on their areas of expertise, and insufficiently focused on the creation of an actual product; conversely, team members may be too focused on deliverables due tomorrow, with too little attention to broader trends in their professions.

  • Independent verification of results may fall by the wayside in order to help meet budget and schedule goals.

  • Notice that the word “competition” is used only once above, in the sense of evaluating competing approaches to solving a problem. Yet many organizations fall back on using competition between employees as some sort of silver bullet for performance management. This sort of competition usually works against all the necessary forms of cooperation listed above.

The Bottom Line

Of course getting all of this right is easier said than done, and in practice it is easy to get too much of one thing, and not enough of another, and so organizational cooperation done right involves a constant recalibration of forces to try to optimize the levels of healthy participation in all of the patterns listed above.

But hopefully having a fairly complete list of patterns of cooperation to keep an eye on will prove helpful, since by far the most common organizational/societal failing is to narrowly focus on only one or two of these at a time, while ignoring the others.

March 27, 2020