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  • Writer's pictureFloris Koot

Swarm Leadership I

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

How to Organize without Leaders?

The question what kind of movement is needed, to save our planet from industrial destruction, is becoming more and more essential. How to collaborate across the globe for alternatives that work? Is a leaderless movement possible? Why would that be a solution and how can it be done? Because complexity is increasing beyond what the conscious mind can understand, or order and control management can handle. We need to shift to adaptive patterns that are in synergy with the principles behind that complexity.

2018 note: Is a leaderless movement possible? Yes, it’s happening:

“You are not a drop in the ocean, but the ocean in a drop.” Rumi

So what is this post about? Swarm Technology: also ‘Intelligent Ant Design: Conscious use of co-creative crowd behavior, without hierarchical leadership. Swarm leadership is the art of being part of the ‘Human Cloud*’ or swarm, that seeks to make the difference. It lets go of the need to control or regulate the contribution of others. It’s about helping the whole as a part, that sees itself as a part or reflection of the whole. You act from where you are. It’s about trusting in, and contributing to, the collective effort for care for nature and humane solutions.

Improvised Opera by 29 people, improvising roles, songs, drama and development on the spot through Swarm Leadership

How I developed a strong vision about swarm leadership

I have been teaching Improv theatre for over 25 years now. At some point I wondered whether it was possible to have 20+ people on stage who’d collaborate in improvising a play together. To make this happen I worked on two things. The first being the principles needed to make this work and secondly the personal attitude needed to support a fluid emergence of a cohesive play. This resulted in a number of experiments with diverse groups who were in for it. And, almost every time, before my eyes, I saw results that were stunning. This part I on Swarm Leadership focuses on the principles needed to make it work. In part II I’ll focus on what attitude it demands of someone seeking to help in a leaderless cloud.

I began with using the principles for music improvisation and applied these on large groups. When everyone balances expression (or action) with good listening the group will start to hear when the total is music and when it’s not. Diversity needs to be balanced as well. Too many differences and it becomes chaos. Too much the same and the music becomes boring. So when it’s boring apply contrast. When it’s chaos support that with binds the whole, like basic rhythms or melodies. Stay in touch with each other. Build on top what’s there. And perhaps most of all, don’t contribute from the ego, but from the listening to what the music needs.

“Take a stand. Not because it will lead to anything, but because it’s the right thing to do. We never know what can or can’t be done; only what must be done.” Andrew Boyd

We are already a swarm at work

(reader edit: skip this bit if you already know why Swarming matters.)

The amount of people listening to the music the world needs is growing. They ‘hear’ the pain of disharmony in the wars, destruction & suffering. All over the world these people convene on and off line and implement solutions. Sometimes helped by local officials and just as often frustrated by regulations. Transitions towns, global connectors and activists, permaculture, sharing economy, resilience training, open source solutions, artistic change festivals, world café’s, etc. Collaboration between the diverse solution path’s is difficult. Making their shared voices one big song of change clashes at times with differences or even conflicts over limited resources. They might fie over funding, frustrated by the needs for income security or seek the ‘one solutions to rule them all’. And whose solutions to trust?

Distrust to our official leaders is growing. Self interests, wealth and power seem to have many of our representatives choose corporate interests over healthy nature or social conditions of the poor. Our biology seems to love leaders. Too easy many cry for a strong leader to take charge. Strong leaders who mostly make a bigger mess of things. Many huge changes that are born in visionary minds can become stifling new systems. From fascism, communism or libertarian ‘solutions’ right down to cults, sects, ‘we know what best for you’ parenting methods. Even activists leading revolutions have become new problems in their own right. So how to collaborate to a ‘world song’ that evolves towards enduring improvements?

When it comes to make a real difference, we can see that many real changes start bottom up with acting on worry. It starts with a few people on a kitchen table discussing a mess they experience daily. When they start to voice something true others connect to, their movement grows. And only when the pressure from below becomes big enough, politics will adapt the new ideas or demands from the bottom. An increasingly number of people is wondering is there a way around these corrupt leaders altogether?

End of slavery, women’s right to vote and academic study, the rise of unions, the end of child labour (in the West), even the fall of the Berlin Wall, all happened because of public pressure. And politics either bows and hears, or things get messy. Today new and similar issues are at hand. Sadly corporate mass media seems to be blind for real issues. Corporate pressure makes politicians supporting toxic solutions for societies and nature. Monsanto would be a one word description of this. Or the Republican refusal to face Global Warming.

“I am because We are.” Fundamental Ubuntu philosophy

Example of ‘Intelligent Ant design’

After a festival with about 350 people we had to clear up a lot. We are with about 60 people left and many may leave tomorrow morning. Big tents have to be broken down, personal and community stuff separated, sorted and some of it has to be thrown away, other stuff had to get back to the rightful, and supportive of the festival, owners. Other stuff, from chemical toilets to technical equipment has to be gathered and stationed so the rental companies canpick it up. Etc.

Normally you’d separated everyone in groups with leaders and assigned tasks. Often you see, people resting and claiming they have done their bit, while others are still at work. Coordination often loses control on which group is doing what and this sorting also takes time, while people who could have been doing stuff are hanging around.

Basic instructions for Swarm Cooperation

So we decided to try it differently: with Swarm leadership, although then I called it ‘Intelligent Ant design’. How does it work? We gathered the volunteers and shared the following principles:

  • We first shared the vision of the desired result. How should it look when we all would be ready?

  • Everyone is told very clear, what needs to go where. What is most important now and what is less so.

  • Everyone is asked to act like a smart ant. ‘If you see a job, its yours.’ Fill up the neglects of all others.

  • Help everyone who can’t do something alone first.

  • Accept and ask help when needed on an equal level. There is no ownership of any job, unless specified by us. But do know that some people may have more experience than you in certain things. Trust those.

  • You are ready when we all are ready.

Then there were some ‘smart’ roles. Some people handled incoming goods in a big tent, they separated all the little stuff in easy to find ways. There was someone where you could bring or get jobs if you couldn’t see or handle them yourself anymore. And I was walking the field to nudge people a bit in the right direction. I would whisper things like: “That shovel was on loan from the neighbor, could you bring it there, please?”

Two worlds collide. One is a hierarchy in status, the other only knows hierarchy in values and needs to act upon.

How Do Smart Swarms Operate?

The theory behind the mechanics. In his book “Smart Swarm” Peter Miller names three important aspects of Intelligent Swarming:

  1. Self organisation. This demands a lot of open communication between all members. A few well informed can help to steer. At the festival this was easy. We all walked in the same field and could easily shout and point things out to others. Self organization works through decentralized control, distributed problem-solving and multiple interactions.

  2. Indirect Cooperation. Within herds and flocks of birds this is enforced by adaptive mimicking: if others turn and flee, you better do it too. It requires and open attitude to support to the general purpose. In Occupy and at the festival clean up, this is about filling up the gaps, trusting others do the same for gaps you don’t see, or have no experience with.

  3. Diversity of knowledge. This is where the ‘wisdom of crowds’ comes into play. We all together must have a feeling of what’s at play, this means including ‘weak signals’, the voices of those less heard; those who see what the rest doesn’t see yet. It also demands smart decision making tools and open dialogues. We should not so much fight different opinions, but listen together for what feels most true. Therefore be as truthful as possible and do not fear to stand alone for a bit. Swarms have no interest in which opinion is right or wins, the swarm wants to flourish.

  4. Peter Miller forgets one essential part, perhaps because it’s so obvious: A Clear Collective Purpose or Longing. Bees dances work if it’s clear what’s at stake, whether it’s looking for honey or a new nesting place. We need to feel direction. That’s what makes Sir Ken Robinsons TED talk so famous: it phrases a shared worry about current education and offers an alternative of where to look. One could say our bee dance of how we wanted to clean up the festival terrain was embraced by our hive.

How to grow communities and movements?

So what gives live to groups and movements? Often the same what makes a strong community:

1. A mix of people that trust and acknowledge each other. 2. Shared purpose and access to active participation in getting there. 3. Members feel at the same time builder of it all and of service to it all.

A general feeling ‘something must be done, now’ can be enough to start. Consider how crowds self organize help immediately after an earthquake. That will work, especially on the pragmatic level. And if you need more helpers, be inclusive towards new participants or helpers. Make them feel appreciated for stepping in. Don’t think you own the movement, because you started it, nor because everyone looks up to you for advice.

How to create a sense of community within the cloud or swarm? Here are some things you can do to help the community around you to grow and learn (a list I compiled with Charles Davies):

  • Tell stories that show the community what works and how it works.

  • Tell stories where you want to go with it. Be honest.

  • Ask what you need. Offer what you can. Expect nothing in return.

  • Build relationships for their own sake, not to get anywhere.

  • If you got something from the community show that it worked or how it helped you.

  • Good relationships are more important than being in control.

  • Get everyone to share in the action, results and celebrations.

Investing in a good chemistry and ‘community of practice’ amongst participants is worth a lot. Be among the first to invest in people with time, attention and help.

“Communities of Practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor” Etienne Wenger

What I Learned From Swarm leaders in My Country

Here are some effective methods and principles that help Swarms to act and make a difference:

  • Ask a lot of People for very little. Make it easy, safe and fun to contribute anything. Here I know the use of Social Surplus works the fastest. Social Surplus is anything that is available in time, money, materials, talents, that can be committed within the crowd for free. The trick is to have smart ways to connect demands with questions. One such a tool is the #Durftevragen (Dare To Ask) community in the Netherlands.

  • Use Social Media, Apps, anything that helps to improve everyone to communicate with the right people as much and as easy as possible. When you involve the crowd work with their contributions, even if it deranges the core a bit according to yourself.

  • Invite and invest in Sustainable People. People that contribute more than that they cost. Get them involved first. Make it interesting and great to contribute. “Yes, I was part of the Gentle Revolution (or any movement that matters) and helped it grow!”

  • Use smart facilitation tools like World Café, Open Space Technology or Unconference to develop the core with a bigger group of people. Innovations that come out of these sessions tend to be carried by the whole. These methods are all Open Source with everything you need to host them online. Using experienced facilitators does help much though.

  • Seek to consciously frame principles together that offer a fundament for the community like: “Offer what you can, Ask for what you need”, ‘Whoever Comes Are The Right people.” Use checkable sentences.

  • Embrace Diversity. A Big Swarm needs all kinds of talents, knowledge, people. If you become a subculture too soon, others will point you out as ‘them’. “Them’ are always heroes to some and crazy to many. Still standing out and being seen is of equal importance and if the paradigm is new, a lot of people won’t get it at first. That’s why you need very diverse people too. To help you find the language that bridge the gap to everyone.

  • Building on this, keep good relations with everyone connected to the vision or even that you meet along the way, from the media to local police and the bakery on the corner. The Swarm is not a horde of barbarians out to destroy, it is there to make a constructive difference for everyone!

  • It is important that every individual in the crowd is also an independent free thinking soul that takes responsibility for his or her own actions. Don’t give your responsibility away or let it be misused by others. To stay Smart, the Swarm needs intelligent people who keep their wits about.

  • It’s okay if things fail or get messy. We are finding things out. Together. Celebrating some failures is often the best way to stimulate innovation, contribution and heroics in contributors.

  • Allow for ‘the right of initiative’. If there are 2 different ideas, why not do them both and see which one works? You may be against something, but if this moves things forward with his energy towards his plan, it contributes to the whole swarm. Therefore give space for personal initiative. This both creates space for the energy to flow forward as it turns the ones who carry the idea more into leaders.

  • Make sure the Essentials are taken care of. In Benghazi (where the Libyan uprising started) there were immediately committees taking care of patrol, hospitals, keeping the water and electricity running. They said, if we fail this, people may think we are not capable of taking the responsibility. People who are cold, have no food and water very soon lose motivation.

  • When you’re seen as the leader or the source: Be like a ceremonial king. Don’t interfere too much, don’t seek to control, push or regulate. Just be there for the people. Show gratitude. Carry the vision. Encourage all to keep on going. Be honest and vulnerable.

For this list owe a huge debt to the wisdom and practices of Nils Roemen, Fanny Koertz, Martijn Aslander, Herman Dummer and many others. They started formulating many these insights based on their experiences for several purposes. I just combined them, may have (re)framed some and added a few of my own.

Serve a Higher Purpose

When you are part of a bee dance or great story, help it to develop. Swarm leadership is no game or business model that becomes successful when you just follow the instructions. It really means to serve a higher purpose, to help voice a worry shared by all of us. To make a difference for us all, and with us all.

Because we, the masses, will only contribute if it makes sense and has meaning for us. And of course, if it’s fun and easy to do so.

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