After months of chasing a giant flock of starlings around Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath. James Crombie and Colin Hogg captured a unique display. The lead image is a gif version of the murmuration behind that iconic photograph. For those who cannot see the image, it captures the moment when a huge flock of starlings took on the shape of a giant bird over a lake. I share this image because it emphasises so much about organisational success, especially in times of uncertainty. Before we explore how, let’s first dive a little deeper into why birds behave in this way.
Birds (like starlings) come together in compact masses called murmurations. A murmurations is a phenomenon where flocks of birds move in unison, like a choreographed, connected group. Experts believe birds come together in compact masses because grouping together offers safety in numbers from predators, such as falcons. Such predators find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of up to thousands. Other reasons for murmurations include include the warmth of a group at night during the winter. They also gather to exchange information, such as good feeding areas.
In a fascinating paper, George Young and colleagues explored starlings’ “remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information”. I found this line so apt for organisational survival in a period of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). We are living in an age when lifespans of organisations are shrinking with 88% of the original Fortune 500 already gone and 50% of the Standard and Poor 500 predicted to be gone by 2027.
Just like a starling murmuration, organisations must maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain times and with limited and noisy information. Remember, the group acts as one, but is a collective of individuals. Predation – in an organisational sense – comes in the form of competition from startups, an evolving business environment and threats from within the organisation itself. What do I mean by the latter? For those of you driving change within a complex organisation, you will recognise that the biggest blocker to change for the better comes from your colleagues. This is because the status quo, by its very nature hampers change. Often those in power, have reached the top of the ladder based on the way things used to be, so they are naturally resistant to change. Other times, people in positions of influence will not help because they have a scarcity mindset and they consider your win as their loss – even if it benefits the group as a whole.
While successful change initiatives involve a lot of pain – an absolution of power, a reshuffling of people and the recalibration of mindsets – they often depend on a powerful vision. Vision brings people into lockstep, like a murmuration. When people move as one, they not only align efforts, but also align energy. When leaders align human energy in a coherent way towards a common vision, efforts are magnified and results are accelerated.
There is a less well-known Charles Darwin quote that encapsulates this Thursday Thought: “In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
True leadership recognises people as individuals who are decentralised in their activities but centralised by vision and values.
THANKS FOR READING
If you like analogies for disruption and adaptation you may enjoy my forthcoming book: “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life.” Here is anendorsementby Visa founder, Dee Hock, who also wrote the foreword:
“Aidan McCullen has lived a fascinating life of major change. In his book, ‘Undisruptable’; he brings us a method for making sense of the external world, and an accessible and visual approach to letting go of the past, and welcoming the future with a mindset of permanent reinvention. It is a timely, thoughtful book, well worth reading.”Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA and author of One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization