Of Collective intelligence, Birds, Business Organisations, Disruption Economy, Football & Special Forces


Didier Marlier

May 11, 2022

From Disruption to Engagement

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Imagine… Imagine if what you saw here below were to inspire your business…

What do these birds have in common with Business organisations, football or even Special Forces? They seek to create an intelligent organisation in order to be able to manage the complex environment which surrounds them.

Let’s go back to 1806… In a summary of his book, “The Art of Action”, the historian Stephen Bungay, explains that General David Scharnhorst, the Prussian army’s chief of staff, led a group of reformers dedicated to understand why and how their professional army, known as the best in class of that time, had suffered shock twin defeats against Napoleon’s French conscripts army, in Jena and Auerstedt. Its conclusions were that “the Prussian army was highly centralised and nobody took action without orders to do so […] it achieved compliance through compulsion”, whereas “The French army […] inherited from the Revolution, had been raised from highly motivated citizen conscripts. It had […] engaged the lines of Prussians in an unordered swarm in which each man acted as he saw fit […] it achieved commitment through conviction.”

Famous strategists, such as General Carl von Clausewitz, soon emerged from the new school of thought inherited from that work. Amongst them, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke was a strong defender of soldiers and officers who dared taking a stand and disobey orders during the battle, when those seemed to make no sense. “It was vital to ensure that every level understood enough of the intentions of the higher command to enable the organisation to fulfil its goal. Von Moltke did not want to put a brake on initiative, but to steer it in the right direction” writes Bungay in his book.

A leader frequently quoted in my articles, retired Lt. General Paul van Riper, who commanded the US Marines, says nothing different in the short interview here below:

What I am taking as a lesson from these generals is that a modern army, must fundamentally differ from the obedient, hierarchical and procedure-driven model from its predecessors. It must act as an intelligent organisation where “it is vital that subordinates fully understand the purpose of the order so that they can carry on trying to achieve it when circumstances demand that they act other than they were ordered to do.”

This resonates with the words of Dr. Ian Couzin, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Department of Collective Behaviour. Iain studies the very behaviours of such living organisms as school of fish or birds’ flocks. “One of the things we’ve discovered, looking at animals’ collective, is that ignorance, or being uninformed, can be a positive thing. Having uninformed individuals, participating in the decision making democratises the group’s decision-making. It prevents extreme’s individuals from having a disproportionate influence. Misinformation can be percolated to human society through things such as media or through broadcasting where you’re broadcasting vast amounts of same information to multiple individuals. Now, when you broadcast the same information to multiple individuals, you may erode the capacity for collective intelligence. Collective intelligence relies on individual components to gather evidence themselves, not being told what to think and so, we find, again and again, when we look at animal groups, that in actual facts, they evolve strategies to avoid having overly correlated information. Unfortunately, in human society, we rely too much on such information”.

Similarly, when James Surowiecki wrote his seminal book, the Wisdom of Crowds, he explained how, in complex cases, the average of replies is closer from the truth than the advice of the best experts. This made some people conclude to the superiority of the “Vox Populi” over scientists. They obviously have forgotten the five conditions for this phenomenon to happen:

  • Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  • Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  • Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  • Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision.
  • Trust: Each person trusts the collective group to be fair

By the way, this is the exact opposite of what we see taking place on social networks, which we could now call, in reference to Surowiecki’s findings: The Stupidity of Crowds!

Moving to football now, intellectual coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Fabio Celestini (check his personal website and you’ll immediately understand) clearly know that players blindly obeying to “the Mister” (as a coach is sometimes called in Italy) and desperately awaiting for his orders, when the opponents aren’t playing in the tactical way that was awaited, will never win anything in modern football. All the work and reflections we do with Fabio Celestini go into that direction: How may we integrate the thoughts of Clausewitz, von Molke, Van Riper, Couzin, Surowiecki and the theories of Complex Adaptive Systems, to create an intelligent, agile and self-organised organism, instead of a stiff, hierarchical and obedient, “star-dependent” football team?

And… what about business? In a recent (and, apparently, much read) article, I was reflecting on the paradox of start-ups, wanting to become as huge as the bull whilst the multinational bulls are sadly longing for the days they were young and agile start-ups.

Clearly, by growing-up, start-ups need to adapt and evolve. As a Brazilian executive recently reminded me, in their fast-growing organisation, three C.E.O.s succeeded one another, when each felt their time had come to pass the baton for something bigger to a successor better prepared for it. So, he said, desperately hanging on to the start-up culture of the early days probably isn’t a wise thing to do. Meanwhile, becoming a procedure-driven, high power-distance, hierarchical and obedient structure isn’t the way forward either, he admitted.

Becoming slowly familiar with that specific “ex start-up” organism, I would say that part of its success is due to its values (profoundly humanist) and its culture of proximity, relationships, informality and entrepreneurship. Is this antinomian to growing fast?

Willing or not, we have entered the universe of Disruption Economy. Relying on pyramidal and hierarchical organisations where knowledge and decision-making powers are in the sole hands of a few “at the top”, is just as risky as being the Prussian army, confronted to Napoleon’s “children of the Revolution” (yes,sorry, I couldn’t prevent myself of referring to T.Rex’ Marc Bolan;). Creating an intelligent, agile, purpose-driven and connected organism is the way to the Future!

Enjoy your Leadership Journey!


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