Swarm theory – does it apply to humans?

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Swarm theory – does it apply to humans?

“If you’re looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.”

This is the end quote from an engaging National Geographic article on Swarm Theory. As the quote suggests, there’s much to learn from the swarming habits of insects in terms of finding novel, effective and efficient solutions to complex problems. The technical term for this process is “self-organisation” and the encouragement is for managers to, in the face of complex problems, implement a self-organising management approach.

In our experience of speaking to leaders and managers about the complex problems they face, and in promoting the concepts of Thrive! Effective Adaption, the last thing managers want to hear about is implementing a laissez-faire management style. Their argument is this: how can I trust my people and organisation to self-organise in the most effective way? They then aslo add in this sentence, barely pausing for a breath, “It’s like managing by not-managing!“.

In many ways I would agree.

While promoting self-organisation in itself is not helpful nor digestible for managers in today’s global economic context, there are components of self-organisation thatWILL provide a way to thrive in tomorrow’s world (which is probably already here!). There is a caveat we would add though …

The caveat we would add is that a managers role in implementing self-organisation is not that you must simply take your hands off the problem and let it run it’s course. Rather, the managers role is to create the parameters, boundaries andstarting conditions in which self-organisation can flourish.

It is for this reason that we believe the metaphor by which managers should manage in today’s world is that of a gardener: creating ecologies of influence. To embrace self-organisation, a manager needs a very deft approach to problems that encourages emergence and variety. In much the same way, a talented gardener will not manage the ecology by force, but rather will work with the natural forces at play, always establishing the boundaries and conditions by which the garden can thrive.

An example is how a gardener knows when to prune and when not to prune certain plants. Again, today’s manager needs to know how to implement variant strategies and when to either amplify the results, or dampen them.

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