Rules That Limit Us (Emergence)

Have you ever watched a flock of birds, swirling in the low sunshine of an Autumn afternoon? Without an apparent leader, without any clear sense of purpose, they twist this way and that at alarming speed, never crashing into each other but never letting the flock break up.

In 1986, Craig Reynolds tried to model this on a computer. You can find his work here: boids. He found that just three simple rules enabled him to reproduce this flock behaviour. Simple rules give rise to global patterns of complex behaviour. This is one of the principles of living systems and is known as emergence.

Emergence is the way that global patterns of behaviour appear from basic underlying rules. One of the most effective ways of working with large scale change is by determining and influencing these underlying rules so that new patterns of behaviour can emerge.

Seperation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates

Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates

Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates

In our normal lives these rules may be quite evident or quite deeply hidden, even unconscious. What are the rules that allow us to weave our way along a crowded rush-hour pavement without repeated collisions and accidents? What is our response to people who don't follow these rules?

The point is that if we can surface these rules we have the opportunity to change our collective behaviour in some quite fundamental ways. Slight changes cause us to remodel the way we do things in order to achieve our purpose. If this feels a little vague, I'll give you an example.

In English public services we have a drive to reduce cost. One of the ways we see this happening is by more effective interaction between the services we provide. The talk is of joined up delivery, integrated pathways, a seamless process of care. Now let us suppose there are two underlying rules at play here which seem sort of evident.

The first is enshrined in statute and as such is a pretty hard and fast, visible rule. This says that individual Permanent Secretaries are accountable before before Parliament for spending the money voted to them by Parliament in the Budget. In other words, we talk the language of sharing and cooperation, we enforce the rule of separation.

The second is an unwritten rule in public services that says we reward those who spend all their budget (and particularly those who are adept at finding money from other places to cover their overspend) and punish those who manage budgets tightly to achieve underspend. We do this by reducing their funds for the coming year and even by reprimand for not delivering enough programmes.

Played together, these rules generate a behaviour that is directly at odds with saving money by joining up services. It encourages squirrelling away of budgets and sees 'cooperation' as a way of spending someone else's money.

The real challenge for public service leaders therefore is not to keep articulating an idealised future. Instead it is to tackle the underlying rules where they are perverse and out-dated and remove them as blockages to a more effective state.

You can download a programme to make your own desktop flock here; flocking

Reynold's original simulation:

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