Starlings vs. Lemmings

One of the most bizarre – and beguiling – things you’ll ever see in nature is a murmuration of starlings.

This is when hundreds (sometimes thousands) of starlings swarm together and, in almost perfect synchronisation, swoop and twist and expand, as if they were a single creature with a single mind.

That description doesn’t really do the phenomenon justice, of course. So, if you’ve never seen a starling murmuration, have a look at this:

Extraordinary, right?

What’s even more interesting is how and why they do it.

Ornithologists and animal behaviourists have studied starling murmurations for centuries. And the conclusion they’ve come to is that the birds are not taking their lead from a pace-setter at the front (as migrating geese do). 

They’re not following a choreographed plan.

Instead, they achieve their amazing synchronisation by focusing on the six or seven birds closest to them and reacting instantly whenever any one of them switches their flight pattern.

Why? Because they know they’re safer and more successful when they stick together. But they also know they’ve got a better chance of evading predators, or finding the best feeding spots, if they trust and respond to the instincts of the companions around them.

In other words, they become far more effective than the sum of their parts. 

Which is why a starling murmuration is such a good analogy for how an empowered organisation should work. Everybody moving in the same direction – but able to react quickly to threats and opportunities, because they trust the colleagues around them to make good decisions.

Unfortunately, it’s not the model that most organisations actually follow. Which is to have a shared plan and make sure everybody sticks to it.

That’s a good way of getting everyone moving in the same direction. But it won’t help you react flexibly to emerging threats and opportunities.

Instead, like gazelles on the Serengeti, your people will end up focusing all their energy on getting close to the inside of the herd, so they’ll be less likely to get picked off by predators.

Or like lemmings in the Arctic, they’ll focus rigidly on the plan. 

Even when it means they fall off a cliff.

Sometimes, you just have to let go

Wikipedia was set up 17 years ago as an experiment in collaborative knowledge-building. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website – and the first place most people turn for information about anything.

What’s interesting about Wikipedia is that it subverts the previous norm. Instead of being curated by experts, it depends entirely on volunteers to submit and update its content.

Detractors have claimed that this makes Wikipedia unreliable. How can you trust the accuracy of information, they argue, if you don’t know the authority of the source?

They’ve got a point: there have been well-documented examples of howling errors, as well as allegations of entries being manipulated by interested parties (including the CIA and political lobbyists).

On the other hand, Wikipedia includes over 48 million separate detailed entries, written in 293 languages. In almost every case, those entries were written – and moderated – by people with a far greater knowledge of their subject than could ever be possible with traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or Larousse.

No matter how good your paid researchers might be, it’s simply not economically viable to have enough of them, with diverse enough backgrounds, to be able to know that much about that much.

Wikipedia is a trade-off: you lose a bit of certainty, but you gain a massive increase in depth, variety and richness of content.

It’s the same trade-off most big businesses struggle with every day.

On the one hand, they want to ‘empower’ their employees. They know that, in many cases, those employees have a much more direct connection with customers than the people at the top of the business. They want them to use their initiative to be more agile – and their personality to inject warmth and humanity into their daily work.

They know that, if they can do that, their customers will have a much better experience and their business will be more successful.

But, on the other hand, most businesses are terrified of giving up control. They’re scared that, given too much real autonomy, their employees will make bad decisions that damage their reputation or lose them money.

And they’re right. If you give your employees a genuinely free hand, in some cases they will make bad decisions.

But, if you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll never be able to harness the incredible creative and human benefits that real empowerment can bring to your business.

Your call.