What Networks Can Learn From Flocks of Birds

Sometimes, the actions of what seems like an incredibly complex system can actually be explained by a few simple rules.
David Ehrlichman
November 2, 2021
4 min

Sometimes, the actions of what seems like an incredibly complex system can actually be explained by a few simple rules.

Consider the incredible murmurations of starlings, in which a group of dozens or even hundreds of birds swirl, shift direction, and move swiftly across the sky. The birds somehow seem to move both in unison yet also in unpredictable ways.

As it turns out, mathematical models have demonstrated that their cohesion is due to each bird taking cues from six or seven of its closest neighbors. When a predator arrives and disturbs the flock, one bird initiates action and the other members of the group respond. The leader changes based on who knows what to do next, and the whole group stays connected through communication.

These patterns can be recreated using a simple computer program. Before reading on, watch this 3-minute video of a basic flocking simulation.

Like flocks of birds, impact networks (and any kind of decentralized organization) are also living systems, so they draw lessons from how nature works. They, too, are beautiful, swirling collectives that change shape and adapt in real time. They are made up of individual entities, but the whole system stays connected through communication.

Meanwhile, impact networks — with all their emergent creativity and spontaneous self-organizing — are also guided by a few simple rules (or, if you prefer, we can call them principles, agreements, or guidelines). These rules are found most often in the purpose and principles that networks articulate for themselves.

Due to their self-organizing nature, impact networks cannot be controlled. They can, however, be oriented toward a shared purpose — a shared direction to steer toward. This is how they stay coherent even as they move, evolve, and grow. Purpose is “the invisible leader,” writes Samantha Slade in Going Horizontal.

As participants clarify their shared purpose, they should also seek to define shared principles to guide their emergent behaviors. Whereas values are fundamental beliefs about what a network holds as important, principles are corresponding guidelines to inform decisions and actions. Principles operationalize values. Therefore, principles are the ultimate articulation of what the network stands for and how it will show up in the world. When created collectively, they provide a powerful touchstone that enables participants to hold themselves and each other accountable for walking their talk in how they work together to advance the network’s purpose. Having clear principles means that “as conditions change, there is a common understanding of what matters, a way to return to shared practice and behavior,” writes adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy.

Together the purpose and principles create a simple rule set that the network uses to move forward amidst great complexity. As Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa International, has said:

“A purpose is not an objective, it’s not a mission statement — a purpose is an unambiguous expression of that which people jointly wish to become. And a principle is not a platitude — it is a fundamental belief about how you intend to conduct yourself in pursuit of that purpose. . . . To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common, you can dispense with command and control.”

The key point is at the end: with clear purpose and principles, you can let go of command and control. Instead of trying to force the direction of the network or figure out everything in advance — an impossible task when things are changing rapidly — we can instead orient the network around a shared purpose and principles to guide behavior and decision making.

By defining a purpose and principles that are clearly understood and commonly shared, participants agree to act in alignment with one another while maintaining agency to pursue their specific interests. Together, purpose and principles create a foundation for vibrant self-organization, turning a group of people into a coherent collective that is greater than the sum of the parts.

David Ehrlichman

David is a catalyst and coordinator of Converge and author of Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change. With his colleagues, he has supported the development of dozens of impact networks in a variety of fields, and has worked as a network coordinator for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, Sterling Network NYC, and the Fresno New Leadership Network. He speaks and writes frequently on networks, finds serenity in music, and is completely mesmerized by his newborn daughter.