Information Theory and Uncertainty in Collaborative Teams

Information theory says that new information reduces uncertainty. That something additional reduces the set of possible actions or outcomes. That as more information is gathered, collected, captured, understood and refined, uncertainty is reduced to such an extent that certainty rules the day. New information is not needed because there is no uncertainty remaining – everything applicable or beneficial has been gained.

In the early time slices of a new team or group – which could range from minutes to weeks depending on the velocity of interaction and information sharing – team members develop a shared base of information. There is a lot that is unknown initially, but through discussion, conversation and argument (and good old fashioned working together), what people know is shared and a new shared sense of what is develops. At some point, everything that is known is shared and either embraced or rejected by the team. I think of this as the team being saturated with information; nothing else can get in, because the absorption capability has gone. In information theory terms, there’s no uncertainty left to resolve.

A team or group in this state can be identified through the following patterns:

  • A default position of “But we’ve always done it this way.” Reduced information uncertainty has lead to certainty, or rigamortis.
  • Reduced communication and interaction between team members, because everything is already known.
  • Lack of creativity and innovation, or of being stuck in a rut. That’s because all the idea fuel has been used up, and it’s just the fumes that remain.
  • A greater passion for the past than the future.
  • A sense of resignation, of going around in circles. And hence reduced communication attempts – “What’s the point?”
  • “Doesn’t everyone do it this way?”
  • A blindness to changes in the environment that affect the team or group. A rigid adherence to the status quo.

Hence the question becomes, when working with a team or group to re-imagine effective work, is how to break through this barrier of information certainty. The one core principle is to re-introduce uncertainty into the social system, thus forcing a re-calibration. For example:

  • Send the team or group to within-industry or beyond-industry conferences.
  • Introduce one or two new people into the team or group. These new additions should have strongly held views, however, or they will likely become acculturated quickly (engulfed in the established order).
  • Appoint an external advisor or coach to work with the team, to help the team identify recurring patterns of thought and action. It’s better if the team leader invites the contribution of such an individual though, as it adds strength to the new information entering the system.
  • Refactor the entire team, by replacing more than half of its members.

The degree of forced re-calibration depends on how non-performant the team or group has become, and how important it is to get back to effectiveness. In severe cases, appointing a new leader and replacing at least half of the group with new people (and thus massively overloading the social system with uncertainty) is the fastest and most effective pathway. That’s why, for example, a business under duress will often appoint a new CEO and do an almost clean sweep of the senior management team (and board of directors) – with GE in 2017-2018 as the poster child of this.

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