Sunday, May 23, 2010

An "impossible" feat of self-organization

In his new book, Complex Adaptive Leadership, Nick Obolensky shows how a group can successfully complete a very complex task in just a few minutes, if everyone follows some very simple rules of interaction.

It's a powerful example of how to lead or manage in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.  And offers an alternative to the traditional approaches to the division of labour, co-ordination and managerial control which are often failing us, as the world becomes more complex, uncertain and ambiguous.

I first played this game with Carrie Lobman at the Eastside Institute in New York. It's an Improv game from the book Carrie and Matt Lundquist wrote called Unscripted Learning that helps teachers use improvisation  in the school classroom to help young people learn "playfully".

They use the game to teach kids about triangles....isosceles triangles. Two of the three sides are the same length.

It's an activity for 5-80 people and can be played in a room, but preferably in a space with clear boundaries such as a tennis or basketball court.

Each person selects two people at random and must stay an equal distance from both, for the remainder of the game.

Acording to Nick Obolensky, the group settles into a steady-state pattern in about 1.25 minuutes per 20 people. So if there are 60 people in the group it will take three minutes for everyone to stop moving around.

It's the same kind of simple rule that helps bird flock and fish to shoal without crashing into each other. They maintain the same distance from each other, and as they change direction make tiny adjustments to maintain the rule.

So here's a workshop to explore this emergent phenomenon:

1. Undertake the "simple rules of interaction" experiment for yourselves. Then report back, how did it feel?.
2. Given the range of possible solutions and the number of people involved, how complex was this task and what makes the task complex? Describe what would have happened if one person had been in charge.
3. The group quickly achieved a task that some think impossible or would have taken a long time to complete. What helped the participants perform the task?
4. Explain how each of the following enablers helped you achieve the task. * Clear individual objective * Few simple rules * Continuous feedback * Discretion and freedom of action * Skill/will of participants
5. What are the consequences for traditional models of organization leadership and managership in rapidly changing and more complex times?
6. Describe how you could could get complexity to work for you (rather than against you) for all different kinds of organization problems/issues?
7. Brainstorm a list of outcomes you want e.g. trust each other implicitly, and then describe a "rule of interaction" for each outcome, that could improve your relations or coordination with others?
8. Where might you discover really good examples of rules of interaction?
9. What operating principles have your discovered today about operating in emergent, chaotic situations?

1 comment:

  1. If you want to see the game in action you can check it out at