The Team Brain: Beyond Email, Meetings, and Middle Management

Editor’s note: Justin Rosenstein is the co-founder of Asana. He’ll be speaking at Disrupt SF on the future of work. This article is a precursor to a larger vision which he has offered to share at SXSW; you can vote for his talk here.

When you watch a skilled guitarist play, it’s fascinating to see her left hand and right hand doing entirely different things, yet synchronized perfectly towards a common effort. The guitarist can perform complex tasks with many moving parts because she has a central nervous system with a sophisticated, unified brain. Her brain maintains a model of her external environment and goals within it and coordinates her hands to achieve them: One strums the strings to create the notes, the other presses the strings against the frets to set the pitch. The result is beautiful music.

Teams and companies are also able to perform complex projects, because they too have a shared understanding of their world and their objectives. These organizations are like higher-level organisms with disparate parts working together toward a common end, composed of people and departments instead of organs and limbs. But no one would confuse the coordination of the average company — or even the best companies — for the elegance of the guitarist.

But this can change.

Primitive Organisms

Some organizations have “central nervous systems” like those of jellyfish: able to react to stimuli (perhaps with a flurry of email and meetings), but incapable of coordinating a conscious plan. Others seem to suffer from schizophrenia or amnesia. In many cases, the left hand hardly knows what the right is doing — or actually works against it.

This happens because the flow of information in most organizations is notoriously poor. Over the last 100 years, companies have come to evolve organizational structures like middle management, processes like weekly meetings, and technological systems like email. But compared to the sophistication of a human brain, these corporate structures seem hopelessly primitive – the source of constant complaint, even parody. Knowledge of what’s been done, what’s going on, and what’s left to do remains scattered over message threads, grasped fleetingly during meetings, and lost in unstructured documents and folders.

The result is that these organizations and their people devote tremendous effort, energy, and time to keeping themselves in sync: A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that, in the companies with the most complex goals, managers spend an average of 40% of their time writing reports and 30-60% in coordination meetings.

What if these organizations could coordinate themselves as effortlessly and transparently as the guitarist coordinates her fingers and hands? How much more could they accomplish if they had a sophisticated “team brain”? And, emboldened by the confidence in their capacity to execute complex projects with clarity, purpose, and precision, what would they dare to pursue?

Excitingly, I don’t think we’ll have to wait long to find out.

The Survival Of The Organized

The human brain is a product of natural selection. In the face of scarcity, our hominid great-great-uncles were unable to compete against our sapient great-great-grandparents’ abilities to build more elaborate mental models and orchestrate their bodies’ movements in more sophisticated ways.

Natural selection applies just as strongly to organizations. Duryea Motor Wagon Company was America’s first car manufacturer, but you’ve probably never heard of it. Duryea withered against Ford in the 1910s and 20s – not because Ford had superior product design, but because Ford’s internal coordination systems (like the conveyor-driven assembly line) were more efficient. History is full of organizations that excelled at coordinating the collective action of their people, rendering less organized competitors extinct.

The Evolution Of The Team Brain

We’re on the brink of another phase of evolution, where some organizations will thrive and others will fail to survive.

In a knowledge economy, natural selection favors organizations that can most effectively harness and coordinate collective intellectual energy and creative capacity. The same evolutionary force that produced sophisticated individual brains for human beings will produce more sophisticated “team brains” for companies.

This is already happening. To achieve their ambitious missions, the world’s greatest companies have been investing in more evolved team brains for years. Apple has the legendary Radar, a closely-guarded internal tool that helps keep knowledge and tasks centralized, indexed, and accessible to teammates. Facebook has Tasks, a collaborative task tracker that Dustin and I had the privilege of designing and prototyping, and other home-grown internal systems that are considered a key part of Facebook’s secret sauce.

Those are internal tools, though; their power is accessible only to the companies that built them. But that’s changing. Asana and complementary services are bringing the evolved team brain to the entire world. In great companies like Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, Foursquare, and LinkedIn, people already add information to and extract insight from these systems much the same way our hands and brain exchange signals.

Advanced Organisms

Just as the mind emerges from the actions of individual neurons and their cooperation, the success of an organization emerges not only from its individual participants, but also from the interplay between them. Indeed, people’s individual creative capacities are multiplied in the context of their connection to a greater, well-functioning whole.

The next stage of organizational evolution will include not only leaps in communication technology, but also fundamental changes to companies’ processes and basic organizational principles. The rigid top-down corporate hierarchies left over from the manufacturing revolution are giving way to flatter, more flexible, more agile structures that more closely resemble the fluid, intricate relationships between neurons.

As evolution continues its unyielding march, we will approach a world where the most impressive organizations on Earth coordinate their collective actions perfectly, without effort, like a healthy brain. This is a future in which every knowledge worker has exactly the information they need in front of them at every moment, doing only the intrinsically-creative, flow-inducing work that cannot be automated, each contributing something completely unique, yet as in sync with the others as the hands of a guitarist.

The result will be beautiful music – at organizational scale.

Further out, we see a future in which not just isolated companies, but all of humanity operates seamlessly as a single harmonious symphony, setting shared goals and accomplishing dreams beyond what we can imagine today. But, if you’re interested, that’s a topic for another time.