Monday, September 6, 2010

Spontaneous Teams

Recently, my parents were visiting me from out of town. At one point in the conversation I made a quip about how I thought employment was on its way out as the dominant conduit for producing value in the economy. They were interested and a little skeptical, so they asked me to explain further. I quickly realized I had to find a way of communicating these ideas without citing things like Wikipedia and open source since they really aren't that tech savvy.

Then, I remembered I had recently been at a wedding reception where, in a lull between a small intimate brunch and roaring evening party, folks were asked to help set up tables and chairs. A group quickly assembled and sorted out which tables went where, and got chairs around them for the numerous guests who were to arrive later in the day. What's interesting about this vignette is that a team spontaneously assembled to perform a task without a clear "person in charge." Also, once the work was complete the team disbanded just as quickly as it was assembled.

Think how different the above is from our usual employment scenario. At the wedding, the team was self-defined; i.e. no one had to apply to be admitted as part of it. The team was self-organizing; i.e. people were free to lead or to follow as they chose. No one was trying to protect their spot on the team, i.e. no one was afraid of being laid off. Once the work was done, the team disbanded; i.e. we weren't trying to ensure ongoing employment.

I went on to explain that these kinds of spontaneous self-assembling teams have been the mainstay of human culture for as long as there have been humans, but until recently they were only possible on a very small scale. New communications have enabled the same kind of pattern on a much larger scale. What if the dominant means of producing value in the economy was in the context of teams like these? Wouldn't that be a lot less stressful? We could simply trust that there were always projects to work on, and ways our contributions could be valued.

To my delight, this meme seemed to resonate a bit. :)


  1. Wonderful vignette. I'll add it to the one I use, which is a typical bittorrent experience. It's amazing watching people from all over the world (as evidenced by little flags that appear next to their IP addresses) jump in and share the task of distributing a large file to anyone who wants it. People come and go as they please. No one is in charge, no one agrees to anything, and no money is exchanged. The job gets done with maximum efficiency even in spite of occasional leechers.

    The more things that can be done this way, the better! Clearly, humans are already "programmed" to naturally function this way. Only the opportunity to do so, or appropriate infrastructure, needs to be created. And the obstacles, such as artificially created scarcity in the essentials of survival, removed.

  2. Speaking of infrastructure in support of "spontaneous teams", you might want to check into

  3. Wow, great post, Alan. It's interesting - I think a lot of that type of practice happened where we went to school at Marlboro. This type of thing has always been possible with smaller groups, but with the almost infinitely larger instant communications options we have now the possibilities are pretty staggering.