“Seven is not the loneliest number.”

Posted by jlubans on February 08, 2016

Caption. Starling: "Wait for me!".

The Internet and beehives - both complex organizations – are akin to the acrobatic murmurations of starlings. And, for my teaching purposes all three are excellent examples of leaderless, self-managing organizations.
There is no grand maestro directing any of the three, telling underlings what to do and when to do it. However, unlike the pure democracy among the bees and starlings, the Internet is a magnet for regulators and regulation – man’s and woman's itch to control just won’t quit.
Of course, that raw desire for control is pasted over with all the best and selfless of reasons; remember Orwell’s “all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.”
Given the opportunity, I’d even guess the “we-know-best” crowd would want to intervene with the democratic decision-making of bees, or the spontaneous decision-making among thousands of starlings. But, the bees’ 80% success rate in decision-making and the starlings’ consistent success in avoiding predators would be hard to improve on.
Complexity is a complex topic. Melanie Mitchell, writing in "Complexity: A Guided Tour" sets forth some of the parameters in her definition: “A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptative learning or evolution.”
I’ve emphasized the lack of central control and the simple rules of operation. Please note that there’s no mention of hierarchy, our favorite way of organizing our work. Unlike self-organizing systems, hierarchies require regulation because hierarchies cannot be trusted to behave in fair and impartial ways. They can be abusive because of the power a few have over the many. Hierarchies gravitate toward secrecy and closed books; that can lead to corruption. A self-organizing system is open, transparent, and needs no formal performance appraisal – feedback is immediate and whatever’s incongruent is corrected.
Birds appear to abhor hierarchy: “Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members.” While we can wonder about those flying and turn-taking wedges in the northern skies, the starlings give us something more. Thousands of birds cartwheel; create funnels, clouds and other shapes all the while responding in an agile unity. The question is how can thousands of birds move at varying speeds and in different directions all the while remaining as a unified, fluid, predator-proof group?
Seven is not the loneliest number.
The research has it that “one bird's movement only affects its seven closest neighbors. So one bird affects its seven closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors' movements affect their closest seven neighbors and on through the flock.”
Coincidentally, seven is a good number for a self-managing team. Of course, each of the team members, like the starlings, has to have something to offer and willingness to lead/follow. Being one of 100,000 birds in a fluctuating flock suggests a remarkable example of Leading from the Middle!
No starling (unlike the illustration at the top) gets to sit out the murmuration, to not take part at full throttle. The starlings might even score high on the “C” scale instrument for measuring team effectiveness. “C”, as explained in one of my assigned readings, “Good Teams: What’s the Secret?”, predicts group failure or success through three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. Seven is large enough for diverse viewpoints and participants, a high collective social IQ, and small enough for everyone to participate in group decision-making. Gender may have less of an influence among starlings than it does for humans.
I’ll be showing my class this video.
It features two science students in a rowboat who capture a remarkable murmuration out on the water. The video, I hope, will bemuse the students and lead them to marvel at what the starlings do and, beyond the starlings, to wonder about other ways of organizing – we humans are not necessarily limited to the top down command and control model of working.

Caption: Paraboloids and hyperbolics!

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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