Smart swarms: The power of self-organization
When army ants charge across the floor of a rain forest, there's no commander telling them where to go, no squad leaders rallying the troops.
When termites build a soaring mound on the savanna--complete with a network of ducts to regulate air and moisture inside--there's no project manager lining up subcontractors, no architect consulting blueprints.
Honeybees don't need a CEO to make the call when they select a new home from a dozen possible sites, even though the fate of every individual in the hive is riding on the decision.
Which raises a provocative question: If groups in nature can do it, why can't we? Why do human organizations require great leadership when colonies of ants, flocks of birds, and schools of fish get by just fine without any at all?
Is it because the problems they face are simpler than ours? Are their environments less complex and unpredictable?
Perhaps. But imagine that your organization of 10,000 individuals had to cope with constant changes in the weather, an uncertain supply of resources, a labor force with limited computational skills, and lethal threats from competitors. How well would you manage?
Groups in nature deal with daunting challenges every day. The fact that they're so successful may seem surprising, since we approach work so differently. While we strive for consistency and efficiency in our organizations, groups in nature appear to favor randomness and redundancy. While we instill a sense of discipline and purpose in every member of our teams, groups in nature are made up of individuals that never see the big picture, never understand how they fit in or even why they're doing what they're doing from moment to moment. Yet these colonies, flocks, and schools not only get by, they thrive and prosper.
What's their secret?
The answer has to do a phenomenon called self-organization. First described by chemists and physicists, as I relate in my book The Smart Swarm, the term refers to the almost magical way that meaningful patterns of behavior can emerge when large numbers of individuals interact with one another.
Picture a crowd at the beach. Without anyone being told to, sunbathers are likely to distribute themselves across the sand in a self-organized way, clustering their blankets and umbrellas in a zone close enough to the surf to feel the ocean breeze, but far enough away to avoid getting soaked by a rogue wave. If someone happens to stand and point at the water, other people will stand and look too, until it seems like everybody's standing and looking. Is there a shark out there? Is someone drowning? A wave of alarm races down the beach as fast as it would through a school of fish if a hungry barracuda had suddenly appeared.
That's how things get done in an ant colony. One ant bumps into something and reacts, which causes other ants to react, and the change ripples through the whole colony. Repeated over and over again, the group adjusts quickly and effectively to changing circumstances in a decentralized way. Individual ants don't have to be smart, because the colony as a whole is smart.
Chances are, many managers would welcome an easy way to tap into such collective intelligence in their own organizations, given the speed with which self-organized groups adapt to new challenges. The problem is, few executives are eager to trust a leaderless crowd to move in the right direction at the right moment. To them it feels like giving up control.
But it might happen anyway. As social media and technologies continue to disseminate and evolve, making it easier for everyone to connect with everyone else, to communicate and collaborate in ways we've only started to anticipate, swarm intelligence may become the norm rather than the exception. As that happens, the best leader may find themselves turning for advice to the true experts in self-organization--not the ones in the boardroom, but those in the grass, in the air, in the lakes, and in the woods.
August 6, 2010; 12:26 PM ET |
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