The Root Wide Web. What trees teach us about teambuilding.

It is enchanting to stroll through a forest full of towering trees. Thoughts turn to permanence and longevity, especially in the presence of centuries-old trees like the giant sequoias of Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove. How do trees thrive in ever-changing environments? What are their secrets to survival?

Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard gave a fascinating TED Talk describing her research into how trees communicate within the forest system. Her insights got us thinking about ways human teams can be optimized for success.

Trees are active communicators

From above ground, trees appear to exist in independent isolation. They would seem to be competing with one another for sun, shade, and food. But a look underground reveals that trees are social. A single tree can be in communication with 47 nearby ones. They create a network where multiple species communicate, share resources, and protect each other in ways that contribute to the health of the surrounding environment.

Teambuilding lesson: Design communication into the structure of the team and encourage team members to maintain direct links with each member of the team, not just a central figure like a team leader or manager. Research from Harvard Business School shows that effective teams are characterized by multiple overlapping communication channels.

Elder trees lead the community and help their offspring grow  

The survival of the grove is dependent on communication between trees. As in many human social circles, older trees are generally more connected and act as hubs within the network. They are the community orchestrators. This has a nutritional role within the forest system, as elder trees direct the transfer of nutrients through roots and fungi, prioritizing saplings to help them better survive environmental changes.

Teambuilding lesson: Leaders and more-experienced team members who prioritize knowledge transfer and mentoring are making direct contributions to the long-term capabilities of the team.

Trees plan for the future of the forest 

Trees are adept at managing present challenges using an awareness of the needs of the whole forest. To support photosynthesis, trees are able to alter the growth of individual branches to provide neighboring trees better access to sunlight. Upon a beetle attack, trees send warnings through the network to warn other trees. Elder trees can even reduce the size of their root systems to create space for younger trees’ root systems to grow into.

Teambuilding lesson: Teams should simultaneously focus on present challenges and longer-term goals. Effective teams use systems thinking to understand how current challenges are linked to longer-term goals.

For trees as for people, collaboration wins. Who knew that the whisper you hear when the wind blows through the forest was teambuilding advice?