Flocking to Seattle – Sounds like ‘Simple Rules’

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development2 Comments

The OD Network conference in Seattle, Washington this week is using the phrase ‘flocking to Seattle’ as a catchphrase for the large group of OD people and others that will come together to learn and converse together about various and diverse topics that concern the world of organization development.

I don’t know the actual reason why this phrase is being used but I do know what it stimulated me to think about.  Flocking is one of the concepts that is used quite often when discussing some of the findings of complexity science and specifically the idea of self-organization through simple rules.  There are numerous writings on the idea of simple rules and many people have taken the idea and suggested the phenomena of flocking found in birds and what seems to be the simple rules that govern it can be transferred directly into how we run organizations.

I think this is very problematic and yet very common, and also illustrates some of what I hope to converse about with people in Seattle.

Flocking can be replicated in a computer simulation by programming each unit with typically 3 ‘rules’.  When these rules are then activated, the units then display a form of self-organization in the absence of any pre determined plan and flock in a way very similar to what we observe in birds.  The assumption is then made that if we can find similar ‘simple rules’ in our organizations that we should be able to increase alignment to various goals, get everyone moving in the same direction in a coordinated way and generally improve performance because of this.

This is a common problem that occurs in the OD world with the findings from complexity science.  A direct transfer is made from findings in the natural or computer world to the world of human interaction in organizations.  The reason this is a problem is that human interaction is not the same as interaction in the natural or computer world.  Direct transfers of these types of concepts generally are unhelpful and ineffective.  In addition it can cast the findings of complexity science onto the growing heap of discarded ‘tools’ to better understand organizations.  Another fad or flavor of the month.

We wrote about this in earlier blog posts: Sh_ _ Happens – But What Causes It? and Sh_ _ Happens – The Sequel

The point of this post is not to review the points made earlier but to articulate the hope that we as practitioners of OD can really challenge our thinking over the course of this conference.  Like most conferences such as this there will be keynote speakers and presentations (even my colleague and I will be doing one) and I think too often we treat these sessions as illustrations of best practices to be taken back and implemented in our own organizations.  Kind of like the simple rules thing.  I’m hoping we can more often take the sessions we will attend as starting points to better understand the thinking behind what people are saying and then better understand and question our own thinking.

If OD is to be a field that contributes to making things better in organizations, however you might define better, I think we really must challenge our own thinking, since I’m not so sure we’re thinking much differently than the people we are trying to help.

I’m hoping to have those kinds of interactions while I’m in Seattle, and those types of interactions certainly will self organize themselves but are definitely not governed by simple rules.

2 Comments on “Flocking to Seattle – Sounds like ‘Simple Rules’”

  1. I wish I had seen this post sooner. I like the way you make me think and find the blog very stimulating. Particularly, both your response to the phrase “Flocking to Seattle” because it was my idea, and the point you make about ‘simple rules’ as an OD mistake.

    I see the logic problem of thinking performance improvement objectives and goal alignment can result from simple rules. However, I believe emergent behaviors are produced with simple rules and that innovation and systemic change do happen with high degrees of social interaction and symbolic exchange. Leadership, then, can be more of a centricity than a ‘center’ or a ‘top’. Indeed, a leader in the conventional sense must become partner to what is emerging. Where the paradigm of global communications meets simple rules (like Twitter and AR) we are given a new way of being intentional, of visioning, of going deep while tapping the broader context for a new way forward.

    Just to fill in the gaps regarding the use of Flocking to Seattle, Flocking to Seattle was a title given an action research project that was sponsored by the Network looking at use of Twitter at the conference. F2S was our research group’s shared identity in a sense, especially in the context of Twitter and online interaction around the conference. The project was an open-system discovery of self-organizing behavior. The term was a reference to the Twitter brand (birds). Our assumption was that the natural complexity of interaction both at the conference and online, would be the context of the action research project.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comment Rachel Lyn, and it’s good to know the history of the term Flocking to Seattle. We were actually involved in the research project however I did not make the direct connection to the name. We tweeted about our session for some time in advance and there was to be tweeting going on during it but unfortunately when Kevin G. arrived to look after that, our session was at capacity and they wouldn’t let him in! A good example of emergence and uncertainty at play I suppose.

    In your response you note that ‘I believe emergent behaviors are produced with simple rules and that innovation and systemic change do happen with high degrees of social interaction and symbolic exchange’. For me there is a lot in that statement including an interesting paradox. The paradox is that while the ‘idea’ of simple rules may produce emergent behaviors there are no simple rules governing social interaction or symbolic exchange so the actual behavior produced is highly uncertain and not based on simple rules. In other words you might have a simple rule that causes an interaction (i.e. a weekly meeting) but what happens in that meeting and the resultant outcomes are not governed by simple rules at all.

    For me this is the problem with direct transfers of concepts from complexity science to human interaction. The assumption becomes that simple rules will produce a SPECIFC behavior (i.e. the human equivalent of flocking) and this is simply not the case. The search for simple rules becomes another effort to control behavior much like systems thinking gets used to design systems in organizations to control behavior. These efforts, primarily by management, distance them from their own experiences of their organizations and take away from the more valuable efforts to engage in the emergent and uncertain reality that IS their organization.

    It is only a short step from here to discarding the valuable lessons of complexity science as another ‘tool’ that didn’t work when the real problem is the fatally flawed assumption that the future is predictable and behavior can be controlled to produce this future.

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