Stewart: 'I'm going to work from home tomorrow, unless anyone has any objections.'
Joanna: 'We'll miss you.'

On the way home from hearing Javier talking about people's need to flock from time to time, which he related to the tensions that can build in the course of one family Christmas dinner, never mind over six months in a cockpit, I was reading Arie de Geus's The Living Company. I've already quoted him talking about flocking as a prerequisite of organisational learning. In the same chapter he quotes Allan Wilson's suggestion that accelerated evolution takes place intragenerationally in certain species when three characteristics are present:

  • Innovation - the capacity to invent new behaviour

  • Social propagation - the capacity to transmit skills through direct communication rather than genetically

  • Mobility - the capacity to move around as individuals, to come together into flocks, and to move as a flock.
[Pinta digression

Allan Wilson - in the article linked to above - neatly explains the whole blue tit/milk bottle thing if you've ever wondered.]

Arie then makes two key assertions. The first is that, 'no one can "command" a bird to flock in a certain direction, because the travel pattern of the flock emerges from its own movement.' We all know that choreographing directional flocking in geese or fish is hard. But the idea that the next movement emerges from the current one is less obvious. In an innovation team, as in all things, it may be helpful to start from movement rather than from stasis.

The second is that 'human organisations have resources for evolution'. No quibbling with that. But he expands on this by saying, 'surely, corporate life is not a Greek tragedy in which the outcome is hardwired into the characters by the Olympian gods, and the play can climax only in its inevitable tragic ending'.

To take his second assertion first, I'm not so sure. The error, fatal flaw or hamartia, that leads Oedipus unwittingly but unerringly to the awful climax of killing his father and marrying his mother, is still used in contemporary psychotherapy when talking about the scripts that people act out in their lives. Sometimes it really does seem that an individual is hell-bent on his own destruction or on making the same mistakes again and again in different relationships. Often we can link this determination to explicit or unacknowledged beliefs that the individual holds about himself. I see no reason not to extend this analysis to organisations, where a group of individuals can hold equally strong beliefs and assumptions about the organisation, its worth, its direction and its likely end. When organisation culture experts talk about culture as 'the way we do things around here', they refer to a whole range of values and beliefs that inform every aspect of an organisation's operation and can define, unless they are openly challenged, how that organisation will end its days.

But to return to Arie's first assertion about directional flocking, I learnt that Craig Reynolds was working two decades ago on replicating flocking behaviour with computer modelling. In thinking about the steering behaviours of a boid (a computer simulation of a single flocking creature) he concluded that three factors are at play:

  • Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates

  • Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates

  • Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates
It seems to me that separation, alignment and cohesion (which, at first sight, look interestingly contradictory) may be behaviours or inclinations that can be seen at work in many situations from a holiday beach to an artistic movement to a business. They were certainly in operation at Red Stripe, both in terms of the team members' working relationships with one another and in terms of the team's relationships with the outside world.

Furthermore, I found that Bryan Coffman has
written about the application of some of these principles to the organisation. Talking about Knowledge Nodes or Knodes, he suggests some rules that each Knode follows in a web or flock of Knodes:

  • If another Knode does something you value, emulate it.

  • Send regular "here's my current state" messages - communicate your current state to your neighborhood.

  • Hunt for and discover resources and opportunities. Once
    discovered, communicate these as a part of your current state message.

  • Look outward to identify new ideas, toys, tools and techniques. Once identified,
    communicate these as a part of your current state message.

  • Tell the story of the purpose of the web to new Knodes you run into (which may or may not be a part of the current web/flock that you belong to).

  • Family and immediate neighborhood come first.

  • Critical mass:
    - If the neighborhood flock is too small for critical mass, join another one.
    - If the neighborhood flock is too large and noisy, split off.

  • Align with and converge upon the currently highest wealth-generating opportunity (from your value vantage point) that you are aware of, based on current state messages you receive from other Knodes.

  • Always ship a product from your experiences to your local
    neighborhood. A product is actually a specific subset of a current state

  • Reply to current state messages you think are valuable, even if it's
    just to say, 'thanks, that was valuable'. DON'T respond to current state
    messages which you think are not valuable.

Now there's an interesting prescription for an innovation team. Again, the rules can apply to the way team members work together and to the way the team as a whole relates to the organisation it works for and to the outside world.

  • Emulation reminds us that the incremental approach to change may be more useful than the quantum leap.
  • Current state messages sound like Gerard Fairtlough's suggestion that we write things down.
  • Hunting for resources and opportunities sounds like a more practical approach than hunting for an idea. It might help to avoid becoming-whale syndrome.
  • Looking outward was obvious for this team; less obvious for many others. And looking for toys is like talking to children.
  • Telling the story is what Javier urged the team to do when they were getting stuck.
  • Family first is, amongst other things, a reminder of the issues that some team members faced whilst working so far from their families.
  • Critical mass gives us a guide for the size of the team and the business of working in one room.
  • Focusing on wealth-generating opportunities would have changed the team's direction at the time it was thinking about starting a charity.
  • Shipping a product from your experiences is a way of describing Mike's not-a-white-paper, which could perhaps be extended to include a reminder of the unexploited ideas that the team considered.
  • The formula for replying to current state messages might have been a helpful guide for Red Stripe when they were receiving ideas at the crowdsourcing stage.


The theory of flocking seems to make very good sense and is intrinsically appealing. Web 2.0 is all about flocking and the transmission of memes. As we've noted, the team was doing a great deal on online flocking. But many extremely creative people find flocking anathema. Recruit hermits or flockers to your team? And if you opt for both, how do you get them to work together?

Like what used to be called surfing the web, telling the story, transmitting and acknowledging current state messages, hunting and emulating all require huge amounts of time. Just as a team like this perhaps needs one person working full time on PR, maybe it would be useful to separate out those responsible for all these necessary flocking behaviours and those responsible for making a plan and creating a new business?


Milk bottle: Mykl Roventine
Blue tit: Lawrie Phipps
Flock: fdecomite


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