Smart group or stupid mass?
We humans love to structure our organisations in such a way that they fulfil the requirements to function as a well-oiled machine: everyone is aware of the goals that have been set, and they know what’s expected of them; processes and procedures have been defined, and the products delivered. And then… the client starts making demands, the competition suddenly becomes a threat, egos clash with the corporate culture, etc. That’s when we find it difficult to respond with agility and to adapt the organisation quickly to the new situation. Are we smart groups or stupid masses?
An ant on its own is pretty insignificant. It won’t achieve much. But take a group of half a million ants and that’s quite a different story altogether. Ants are able to work together so that they can defend their territory and locate the shortest path to food (in straight lines). And if you place an obstacle on that path, it won’t be very long before a new shortest path is found. These half a million ants attune all the tasks with each other via a ‘simple’ method of communication – through their sense of touch and smell. Their way of working is so effective that it has been analysed by experts, and the ‘rules’ derived for this system are now used in the field of logistics and in how people use the internet. It is referred to as the intelligence of the swarm. Stupid masses or smart groups?
How does a group of people in a public space respond when smoke is suddenly detected? There’s a chance that they will wonder where the smoke is coming from, and look around, but as long as everyone else stays calm, nobody will take any action. Despite the fact that danger is lurking! And if we’re out looking for a restaurant, we will usually avoid the ones that are empty. But if we see a restaurant with a full car park and where people are seated at the tables, we will walk in. It has to be good is our conclusion! But how did those people get there in the first place? Smart groups or stupid masses?
A honey bee needs a lot of energy to be able to fly. So it needs to deal with its energy buffers as efficiently as possible. Once the worker bees return to the hive, they perform a special dance to tell the other bees where the food is located, and the bees decide which of them will go and fetch the food, depending on the quality and the distance. And when it comes to extracting the pollen and nectar from the flowers, they take the optimal route so that the shortest possible distance is travelled. Determining such an optimal route between many objects is commonly referred to as the ‘travelling salesman’s’ problem. This problem is so difficult to solve mathematically that it took a long time before computers possessed enough power to carry out the calculation. And to make it even more extraordinary, the workers don’t take the lead in flight, they take up position somewhere in the middle. Stupid masses or smart groups?
And while we’re with the animal kingdom, have you ever wondered how it’s possible that large groups of locusts, sparrows or fish are able to travel at high speeds without crashing into one another? There’s no time to discuss things extensively, to determine the course together, make agreements, etc. And yet they succeed in travelling in the same direction, and then suddenly, in one movement, they switch to another direction. All at exactly the same time. It’s all done by sticking to just a few basic rules that every animal knows. And this produces breathtaking scenes like the ones in the video below.
I’ve just mentioned a couple of examples of what we can learn from the animal kingdom with respect to swarm intelligence and group communication. Within this system, everyone in the group is aware of their role and is able to perform at an extremely high level without being managed from one central point. A key factor here is that there aren’t too many rules regarding how you have to collaborate, and that everyone then sticks to these rules. Without any exceptions! So even when you’re not feeling particularly well, you’re still expected to put in 100% and to keep to the rules.
Just imagine what we could achieve if we were to structure our organisations more in line with this model and if all the managers (which we don’t actually need, in theory) and employees have the right mentality to work in such a way? Start by trying to understand the basic principles and being open to the lessons we can learn from the animal kingdom. The book ‘The Perfect Swarm’ by Len Fisher can help you. In addition to the inspiration you will get for your organisation, you will also get many tips you can immediately start putting into practice in your daily life.
Are you creating stupid masses or smart groups?