Wolves and Teams

Today's software vending and services companies have it wrong.

Many of today's companies, in the interest of competition, pit one employee against another with the goal of gleaning the best and brightest, or sharpening one with another. Sounds good if we're discussing evolutionary principles of natural selection, adaptation, or survival of the fittest. Even sounds idyllically like gladiator battles of yore. Oh, the ego boost to be characterized as a gladiator fit for war by peers and upline leadership. However, if our goal is to create a team which creates a company, we're failing with this mentality and model. Teams are not composed of a collection of self-preservationist rogues. What individual trusts a collection of people measured independently from one another? Who willingly turns their back to someone, who in the interest of self-preservation and advancement, may later be subversive? We already know the answer: no one.

Sometimes we hear individuals characterized as a 'lone wolf' or people are sent out in teams and characterized as 'wolf packs' as if these are good characteristics to be emulated by people and teams. Ironically, these are gross mis-characterizations and insults to, of all things, the wolf.

We know that:

  • wolves usually live and hunt in packs;
  • that packs are literally 'everything' to a wolf, in fact their identity;
  • packs are ordinarily led by the alpha-pair (male and female);
  • packs have distinct hierarchies; and
  • packs are in constant variable form communication such as howling, growling, and so on contextual to the situation and need (IWC)(PBS).

And most interestingly for the purposes of this writing, wolves communicate with each other during a hunt. Wolves go out and scout for food independently on behalf of and for the pack, but one wolf never benefits at a loss to the others unless he/she is seeking expulsion, damage or death (IWC)(PBS).

Quite frankly, if you are characterized as a lone wolf, it suggests you have a history of putting yourself before your team. This isn't a compliment. And if your team is characterized as a wolf pack, this is only a compliment in as much as you communicate and work together for the mutual benefit of the team. If you're team is just a collection of rogue dogs circling the kill where there will soon be a clear dominant winner, it is a mis-characterization of the idea.

What's interesting and implied here is the presence of trust. Each wolf knows his or her role within the pack, will do their job or be expelled, maimed or killed, and trusts all of the other pack members to fulfill their roles as well. Independent, yet one. No trust, no pack or pack benefits.

In 2002, Patrick M. Lencioni wrote a book titled, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, discussing the pertinent characteristics of successful teams, with special focus paid to exemplifying the anti-pattern. In this book, illustrated by a "completely fictitious narrative", Lencioni discussed five critical components (dysfunctions) which preclude building teams:

  • First and foremost, there is an absence of trust
  • Second to this, there exists a fear of conflict
  • Thirdly, there is a lack of commitment
  • Fourth, there is an avoidance of accountability
  • And finally, there is thereafter an inattention to results (Lencioni, 2002).

The book is a short read packed full of nuggets from which to learn. Please note that 'team' is really a metaphor for any group of people allegedly working 'together' for a common goal - thereby making this apply to executive teams, management, delivery teams, etc. The book transcends social hierarchy and is equally valuable to a President/CEO/Chairman as it is an entry-level developer, sales person or customer support team member. No trust, no team.

Interestingly, wolf packs seem to already know the content of this book. No trust, no pack.

So in your company, who is the pack? Is it the sales group only? Is it testing? Development? Interestingly, as per the wolf metaphor, if each individual group in the company is its own pack, then the ordinary behavior of one pack to another is to hunt them down and kill them (PBS). My assertion to you is that the pack ... is your company, not some sub-group within the collective. Dividing companies into multiple packs sets the company up for self-destruction by design. There can be no grand references to intelligent design here.

For example, sales groups. Visualize a sales group responsible for selling a product and/or service. Each sales person is individually measured based upon the gross revenue booked per quarter, and paid a small base with a variable percentage profit per sale contingent upon booked value. The bigger the deal right now, the bigger the cut right now. Demo made, sale locked, contract signed, up front fees paid by customer, and profit slice delivered to sales person. Game over and move on to the next kill. Seems like a very tight, clean process loop less the minor problem... this is lone wolf syndrome.

Sales groups are often measured based upon revenue, not profitability. Rewards are given to individuals. Individual sales people get the privilege of keeping their jobs or even earning a bigger cut of sales in the future based upon past performance history at the individual level. There is no incentive to benefit the team or the company since the sales person is rewarded by the company for thinking like a loner. Where this shows itself as a problem is during delivery and support thereafter.

During delivery we often discover the estimated cost of doing things measured against the actual cost doing things. In the event the estimates which stimulated a contract do not match the actualities of delivering, it eats into margins and impacts customer perception and satisfaction. The lone wolf that created the arrangement is not addressed, remember they are rewarded for bringing in the sale. It is the group unable to deliver according to contracted time, definition and cost that is deemed as the issue or bottleneck. Interesting isn't it? In the wild, the loner would be reprimanded or expelled. In business, we call it business. So later, when someone is trying to determine why their operational costs eat so far into their margins, it is assumed the operations group is incompetent and inefficient without consideration as to whether the contract was in the best interest of the corporate pack.


  1. Packs are built upon trust.
  2. Packs take care of their own, putting the needs of the pack before the needs of the one.
  3. Packs hunt members of other packs and kill them when they can.
  4. Members of differing packs do not work together.
Should corporations be created as a collection of packs? Or one pack with many members?

I wonder ... if I have a team of self-preservationist, independently assessed, rogue players in my house who I pay to do whatever it takes to get a signed contract, will their actions and decisions always be in the best interest of the company? We already know the answer.

The model is broken.


Lencioni, Patrick M. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass. 1st Edition. March 19, 2002.

(IWC) International Wolf Center. http://www.wolf.org/wolves/index.asp

PBS. Nova Online. "Wild Wolves"


  1. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how this team theory relates to social networking products. I believe the goal for those products is to get a large, sustainable user population. That may be difficult if our natural tendency is to compete with each other as mini packs. Would it behoove the managers of the social networking sites to monitor and discourage splinter packs perhaps by developing a “bad guy” persona of a competitive site for the community to rally against? Is there an alternative?

  2. Mara... good questions. And I typed up a soliloquy in reaction to your thought process which I trashed for something more simple.

    When I wrote this, I was really thinking about creating and managing companies and the associative teams within. I believe that competition is healthy, but splintering organizations against each other is an anti-pattern of health.

    As it relates to social-networking sites I guess it depends on what problem these managers of social networking sites are trying to solve:

    a) If they truly want to evolve something useful, my argument is to treat it as a growing "free will" society and let it evolve - only putting in place guidelines, fences or inhibitors when unhealthy, growth-prohibitive behaviors/groups reveal themselves along the way;

    b) However, if their goals are to get "a large, sustainable user population" in order get a return on investment at some point down the road, the motivations are quite obviously different. If ROI is the goal, demand must be created on purpose and one way to do it is to find or create a common enemy upon which the community will not only reactively grow, but evolve.

    I'd filter against: "What problem are we really trying to solve?"

    In order to create a team within a company, I argue splintering is counter-productive. However, in order to create marketplace demand for my new product and increase my financial ROI, I need to find or create a public splinter that other marketplace teams attack on purpose.

    Your question is pretty cool.