Core Design Principles for Teams

09 Apr 2020 · 3 min read

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The word Team
image credit: iStock/miakievy

In a recent post on “Understanding Human History,” I asserted that our story can be seen as a progressive spiral made up of four intertwining strands, with the third consisting of communication mechanisms, organizational structures and other means for enhancing human cooperation.

In a following post I defined some of what I see in this third strand as basic “Patterns of Human Cooperation” that have evolved over the centuries.

Now I’d like to dive a little deeper and talk about the fundamental organizational principles that make for effective cooperation within groups of humans.

Luckily a lot of the heavy lifting here has already been done for us. I’m drawing today on the Nobel prize-winning work done by the political economist Elinor Ostrom, as interpreted and updated by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and his pals at Prosocial World, with some paraphrasing from me.

In order to understand the importance of these principles, we need to first appreciate the importance of teaming within the development of humanity.

Wilson speaks to this in his book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.

Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion that small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.

What this means is that, as human beings, we are hard-wired, not to compete and survive as individuals, but to work together cooperatively as members of small teams.

And what makes this sort of teaming work? Wilson and his colleagues, following the path forged by Ostrom, define what they call the eight Core Design Principles (CDPs) for human teaming.

  1. Strong Group Identity with Clearly Defined Boundaries. This includes a shared understanding of the team’s goals, the boundaries of their resources, and the rights and obligations of being a team member.

  2. Proportional Equivalence Between Benefits and Costs. Team members must be fairly rewarded based on their contributions.

  3. Fair and Inclusive Decision-Making. Everyone gets a chance to participate in decision-making, and decisions are made in a way recognized by all to be fair. Also, decisions are made at the lowest possible level, both to confer a sense of empowerment, but also to allow decisions to be made based on local circumstances best known and appreciated by the team itself.

  4. Monitoring Agreed-Upon Behaviors. The team must have a way of monitoring members and detecting deviations from accepted norms.

  5. Graduated Sanctions. This may start as friendly pressure from peers, but then may proceed to more serious consequences if negative behavior persists.

  6. Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution. When conflicts arise, teams must have a way to resolve them quickly and in a manner seen as fair.

  7. Local Autonomy. Teams must have the freedom to conduct their own affairs, without undue external interference.

  8. Polycentric Governance. In large organizations that consist of multiple teams, relationships among teams must embody the same principles as the relationships among individuals within each team. This means that the core design principles above are scale-independent.

It’s interesting to note that Ostrom’s research was based on observations of the actual success and failure of many small teams, rather than on the invention of increasingly complex formulas and models often favored by traditional economists.

These Core Design Principles provide a valuable framework that can be used to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of teams, organizations and societies.

And while these principles may seem obvious or intuitive to many, that does not mean that they are uniformly applied: even well-informed and well-intentioned teams can unconsciously stray from these principles over time, and so this list may well be a valuable reference that teams, coaches and team leaders can use to evaluate and favorably adjust the operations of their groups from time to time.

I’ve excerpted some of Wilson’s work in this short piece, but in doing so I certainly haven’t cherry-picked all the good stuff. I can enthusiastically recommend his book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution to everyone reading this, not just for its insights into the workings of teams, but perhaps even more importantly for insights into what it means to be human in the 21st century.

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