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Innovation Birmingham Campus

What to do when you don’t know what to do

In our fast paced, complex world we often don’t know what to do. We know we need to innovate but often stumble when considering in what way to innovate and to achieve which outcomes? Start-ups often need to pivot but even our best-crafted strategies can become de-railed though market shifts. As a result, momentum is easily lost and but nature often provides some clues about how we can navigate in shifting landscapes.

Thousands of birds flock closely together, seemingly of a single mind. Sharing a common purpose and mutual respect, they embark on complex journeys of thousands of miles. Who is controlling them? How do they know when to turn? What’s their strategy? How do they communicate? Why are there not more accidents? How do they manage change?

Birds flock based on three simple guiding principles:

  • Fly at the average speed of the group
  • Maintain equidistance from neighbouring birds
  • Take the lead if the lead bird tires

The first principle stops the velocity of the group exceeding the capability of the slower birds. Note, it doesn’t set a specific, quantifiable speed – one difference between a principle and an objective. It also harnesses the collective intelligence as to the ‘right’ speed to achieve the journey. All birds have minute inputs into velocity and so the group as a whole represents the collective decision-making of the individual birds.

The second principle says nothing about direction or indeed how ‘tightly’ the birds should flock. By maintaining an equidistance from neighbours, birds don’t need to concern themselves with direction, only spatial proximity – a much less stressful occupation. In-flight bird collisions are extremely rare within a flock despite there being thousands of individual actors and a lot of wing flapping!

The third principle is automatic job rotation. Ask any cyclist leading the peloton in the Tour de France how much more tiring it is being at the front. Neighbouring birds watch for changes in flight, performance of the leader and indeed the leader will often drop back and let another take the front. There is no set time for leadership change, no performance measures to meet up, no external judgement; just a team, getting to a goal, using simple guiding principles. Often there is no identifiable leader at all.

So what makes a simple guiding principle, effective? Well, it achieves a great deal with very few words. Typically, the guiding principles are:

  1. Simple! They are one sentence and use accessible language.
  2. Begin with an action verb, which is important as it gets the mind thinking in action terms rather than thinking terms. In this way, principles can become a powerful decision-making tool. When setting the partnership strategy for Orange, one of our principles was “partner with those with whom we can co-learn”. At Innovation Birmingham, we “create experiences that help our businesses grow.”
  3. Are small in number. If you only have one, then you probably haven’t covered enough. If you have more than six, few people will remember them all.

Guiding principles linked with a clear vision statement provide a contemporary method to do strategy. They offer robustness and resilience where traditional ways of strategy creation become rapidly out-dated. Birds achieve so much without rules. Perhaps companies can do without them too.

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