I am frequently looking at agile organisations, why they are effective and what we might do to be more agile in our daily work. In researching this I have come across a terrific concept that pre-dates agile but helps explain why it is effective. In this 2001 article on HBR
the authors discuss a concept they dub “Swarm Intelligence”
Social insects work without supervision. In fact, their teamwork is largely self-organized, and coordination arises from the different interactions among individuals in the colony. Although these interactions might be primitive (one ant merely following the trail left by another, for instance), taken together they result in efficient solutions to difficult problems (such as finding the shortest route to a food source among myriad possible paths). The collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence.”
In the article the authors highlight the advantages of Swarm Intelligence
Flexibility: the group can quickly adapt to a changing environment.
Robustness: even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks
Self-Organization: the group needs relatively little supervision or top-down control.
Perhaps the most powerful—and fascinating—insight from swarm intelligence is that complex collective behaviour can emerge from individuals following simple rules. For social insects, millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned those rules for great efficiency, flexibility, and robustness. Can managers develop similar rules to shape the behaviour of their organizations and replace rigid command-and-control structures?
For example, the leadership of a large global financial firm came up with four basic guidelines to ensure that everyone in his organization was working toward the same goals:
1. Always align IT activities with the business (that is, keep the company’s overall goals in mind).
2. Use good economic judgment (spend the money like it’s your own).
3. Be flexible (don’t box yourself into one thought pattern).
4. Have empathy for others in the organization (when people ask you to do something you don’t agree with, put yourself in their shoes).
These rules were used with great effect to drive innovation and competitive advantage through the organisation.
[this]… point to an error of which many organisations are guilty: the suppression of variation. This is done under many headings: quality control, best practice, teamwork, process, compliance…the list is legion. We all approve of the ‘invisible hand’ of markets, or at least we say we do. We all approve of innovation, or at least we say we do. But the invisible hand and innovation imply dynamism and variation. We applaud the free flow of information in markets, but run the companies which constitute them like mini-Soviets, complete with 5-year plans. Only in the fluid environment of start-ups are variation, and therefore innovation the rule. However, in established companies, breakthroughs in performance are often produced by mavericks, or simply naïve newcomers who are ignorant but intelligent. The mechanism of performance improvement detected by Dora and her team of adding naïve members to a group that is already successful may be one of the most profound lessons we have to learn from the wisdom of pigeons.
So the challenge lies in bringing together seemingly contradictory goals of reducing variation in output through standardisation of work, whilst at the same time providing the space and flexibility for individuals to chance upon discoveries that really set the business alight. Too rigid and numerous rules constrain the organisational creativity. On the opposite extreme a laissez faire attitude with no clear organisational direction under which to align can be equally fatal. Agile organisations appear to have the edge in managing between these constraints.