What can we learn from flocks of birds

Flocking birds is a great example of natural self-organisation.  Large groups of birds fly together in stunning patterns.  The computer modelling of this behaviour is based around three simple rules.

  • Separation – members of the flock keep within a certain distance of their neighbours
  • Alignment – members of the flock steer towards the average heading of its neighbours
  • Cohesion – members of the flock steer towards the average position of its neighbours

Seeding the flock with a small number of individuals that fly with some purpose would create flocks that follow these patterns with no direct communication between the individuals and the rest of the flock.

Are there lessons from this model that can be applied to the self-organisation of human teams?  I think so.

The first lesson is the simplicity of the system.  Three simple rules can create the flocking patterns of birds in flight.  A complex system of many rules is not needed to create this self-organisation.  The simplicity of the three rules of flocking have a resonance with the simplicity of [Asimov’s three rules or robotics|http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/robotics.html].  (Although later works have added at least one more, which is still a simple system.)

The next lesson is that there is no direct control between the seeded birds and the rest of the flock.  They seeded bird ‘leads’ by example and the rest of the birds follow.

The third lesson is the details of the laws.  They are straightforward rules about interaction within a group.

So how could this be applied to a team.

  • Simplicity – a small number of ‘rules’ or ‘conventions’ are all that are needed
  • Team leaders should lead by example – show don’t tell
  • Align the rules around simple social interaction
    • Treat individuals within the team with care
    • Individuals work towards common goals
    • Individuals work close to other members of the team

Bird Flocking

Anything else are support of the rules.  For instance, the goal needs to be clear and measurable such that individuals can tell whether they are aligned or not.  There may need to be some team conventions that help clarify what ‘treating individuals with care’ means.  In basic flocking it is simpler – don’t get too close 🙂

Three simple rules can be used to model the beautiful complexity of the self-organisation of a flock of birds flying in the sky.  It is the same simplicity that can create the environment that allow for the beauty of self-organisation within a team.