Have you ever watched a flock of birds that glide and turn at the same time? Even though there’s no leader, the birds move as a single unit. Each individual bird is watching the birds nearest to it, keeping a set distance from them, and so they are all traveling together and reacting together. They are operating in synchronization

Biologists call this coherence. Every individual is equally responsible for keeping the group together — and as a result, the group stays together.

The same is true of ants building an ant colony. Ant hills can be surprisingly large and tremendously complex, but they’re not built to some specification handed down from the queen. They’re built from the bottom up, by ants who are working toward the same goal. Instead of working from a fixed plan, each ant acts instinctively, responds to the changing environment, and adjusts continually to the actions of the other ants around them. Together, they create a complex structure that serves its purpose.

Our goals for (human) team collaboration are similar: we are trying to create a group that can anticipate what is needed and move together, aligned in a shared purpose.

In last week’s blog post, I talked about the importance of building agile, responsive teams that can adapt quickly to a changing environment. 

And coherence is a prerequisite for agility. Coherent teams deliver faster results with fewer mistakes. Team members are aligned with the overall goals of the project and organization, and they’re attentive to what everyone else on the team is doing. As a result, coherent teams work more efficiently, collaborate more effectively, avoid many problems before they arise, and swiftly resolve the issues that do come up.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, we spend so much time reacting to disruption and chaos that operating at this level of coherence might seem very far from reach.

A Group ≠ A Team

Many multi-functional project teams are operating as a group of individuals rather than a cohesive team.

Teams consist of people committed to common goals, who depend on one another to do their jobs. They’re tightly knit, highly communicative, and constantly adjust their own behavior in order to support the bigger goal.

In contrast, group members work individually to accomplish their assigned portion of a common task. They may do their part precisely as instructed, but they’re unlikely to be sufficiently responsive to their colleagues or the changing situation. And that causes problems down the line.

For example, a developer operating as a member of a group may deliver a piece of code to the precise specifications she received — but she won’t have taken time to check in with those who are working on other areas of the project. As a result, she’s likely to produce something that doesn’t *quite* work for the intended purpose. Perhaps she lacked details about how the final code would be used. Or perhaps the project needs shifted and she was not sufficiently tuned in to realize that she would need to adjust her work. These disconnects may be small, but they add up. When an entire project unfolds in this manner, the end stages are often fraught with problems, and substantial rework or modifications may become necessary.

In contrast, developers who are operating as a true team are in constant communication with one another. They’ll check in consistently, flag potential issues, and confirm that what they’re doing serves their colleagues’ needs (and vice versa). The result is a project that unfolds with coherence, subject to hundreds of tiny adjustments and modifications that make the final deliverable stronger and more aligned to its original intention.

Work Like a Team (Not Like a Group)

To function as a coherent team, you need a clear and shared vision that everyone can get behind. You will need guiding principles that bring everyone together, so they can work effectively. And you will need processes and procedures that encourage consistent communication and collaboration. 

Remember that stakeholders and end-users are part of your team. You will need to prepare them to adopt new ways of working as a result of the project, so that the project’s purpose can be fully realized.

More than anything, team coherence is a function of culture. Everyone on the team must take full responsibility for the success of the project, and they should all feel empowered to act in ways that will improve outcome. To do so, the team will need to operate with a high degree of trust, respect, and communication. Errors, missteps, challenges, and unexpected changes should be regarded as opportunities for improvement and innovation, rather than cause for arguments and blame.

Building and nurturing team coherence is an ongoing project. But to begin, you need to understand where you are now. 

So take a few moments to evaluate how your team is currently operating. Consider:

  • Are you a team or a group? Are you moving in synchronization?
  • If not, what barriers are preventing this?
  • And what can you, as a leader, do to eliminate those barriers?

Given the right environment, human beings operate with the same kind of coherence and synchronization as birds, ants, and other communal animals. Create the right culture and environment for your own team, and you’ll be astounded by how fluidly and effectively they can operate. 


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