• The Change Maker Group

The Science of Emergence - Beauty in the sky helps us keep our feet on the ground.

Have you ever watched a flock of starlings, known as a murmuration, fly around at sunset before they settle for the evening?

The large flocks form the most beautiful, constantly changing shapes silhouetted against the setting sun. For years scientists have tried to understand why it happens and how these magnificent spectacles are created. Most theories are based around protection from predators - safety in numbers. However in another area of science known as emergence, simple rules can be applied as to how these flocks organise themselves - how these incredibly complex shapes in the evening sky made by the actions of individual birds come together to put on such a magnificent display.

Emergence describes small things coming together to form something much more complex. Something that we see, hear, feel has completely different properties compared to the sum of its parts. So, from starlings come those beautiful aerial shapes, something that no one starling or even a small number of starlings can create on their own.

Another example of emergence lies a bit closer to home. Through chemical reactions and ‘signals’, atoms form molecules that combine to form proteins which build into cells that eventually make up organs which when fused together, create unique human beings. It doesn’t stop there either. As human beings we form groups which become families, communities, tribes, societies, countries and of course organisations such as companies, charities, governments. Complexity is created from the sum of its parts and something completely different is formed.

What has this got to do with business and work? Actually quite a lot. How would you describe the organisation where you work? By its factories, its office building(s), its brand, its customer relationships, its financial performance, its approach to social responsibility, its reputation? You can’t actually touch a company, a department, a charitable organisation, a government office, a factory, an office. All these things are fluid and they change because of the human interaction that creates them in the first place and changes them continuously. These too are examples of emergence and we work inside these ever-changing, evolving and emerging communities every day.

Back to starlings, just for the moment. Where computer programs and mathematical models struggle to define the movement of the flock, emergence seems to manage a reasonably elegant explanation with very few simple rules:-

  • Alignment – fly in the same direction as every other bird you can see in your field of vision. They probably know where they are going.

  • Separation – Don’t bump into your friends

  • Cohesion – Don’t be the lone straggler. You might increase the probability of being caught by a predator

Not a perfect set of rules but a pretty good start to defining what we see and explaining how some form of order comes from such complexity. It’s highly probable that it takes very little effort from very few birds (Change Makers in their own way) to modify the shape created by the flight of the flock.

Coming back to our world of work, change inside our own organisations can be a threat or an opportunity. It can be a sudden event, a progressive development or a slow erosion. For many of us, change can appear to be incredibly complex and potentially chaotic but eventually some sort of “shape” is always made from the chaos. It might even appear to be out of our control or even heading for conflict with us reacting to situations we never created.

To mitigate this could there be an equally elegant set of simple rules we can apply to get us started and to help us transform our communities into the organisations and businesses we want them to be?

When I work with business leaders, emergence reminds me to establish a set of acceptable ground rules that are small in number, easy to agree on and understand. Here is one set that has worked well in the past:-

  1. Define WHAT we want to change and make sure we understand the purpose, the need, the value and the benefit this change will bring to our organisation.

  2. Confirm WHO is responsible for delivering the change and who will be impacted by it. Make sure it’s not just a stakeholder list but a deep knowledge of the how every stakeholder will be “touched” by the programme and the impact and contribution each person will make. Get views from outside the group immediately involved. Seeing the solution from one viewpoint (your own) can be parochial and highly misleading. Seeing the change from different viewpoints can be enormously helpful.

  3. Work out the HOW. Do not trigger work to start simply by setting a timeline or a target. That’s is aspirational. Work out the order and flow of activities and the “knock on” effect of each activity required to achieve that timeline and target.

An external facilitator can add value here as they will pose questions others forget to ask. At the Change Maker Group we use a small number of highly effective tools that ensure change can be managed effectively and in a timely manner.

For more information and an informal discussion contact Stephen Newman.

You can watch a murmuration of starlings on YouTube if you click here


We are looking forward to hearing from you!

© The Change Maker Group 2020. All rights reserved.

+44 (0)333 050 9467

227a West St, Fareham

PO16 0HZ, UK

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