Without question we as working stiffs, all know the top dog in any company is the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) as they set the direction the rest of us follow right? So when we look south of the “big chair” are we all a leader in some form or just another bunch of followers?
To answer this question many social & behavioral scientists have looked at the social dynamic of flocking or schooling animals to understand how at a high level, “group think”
adds to their efficiency. Here a recent article in The Economist titled “Follow My Leader” profiles the work of Dr. [Ian] Couzin’s of Princeton University who is studying the actions of shoaling* in schooling* fish by modeling their actions in a virtual setting and comparing this to the real world.
What he has found is interesting in that the larger the “shoal” the more efficient it is and that fewer leaders are needed. In fact Dr Couzin found that adding leaders actually reduced the efficiency of the “shoal” by inducing confusion into the group. This in itself is rather interesting as it explains a number of various dynamics, let’s take the explosion of manufacturing in China as a working example.
Here the rapid growth has been fueled by a “top down” culture of “do as I say” rather than that of cross collaboration found in the American and Western European cultures. However it also fits the closest with Couzin’s model as the goal of the “shoaling” fish are to first “feed” and second “avoid predators” in order to re-feed** with the end goal of replication. Note in this model there lacks the requirement for collaborative improvement of systems.
While there is likely a sub component of this to be found in the feeding “loop” it is reactive in nature only. As if the food supply moves, the “shoal” will move as a “reaction” to the lack of food. As the “shoaling” fish are not collaborating to “out think” the food source as that is not their primary goal.
What does this explain about the current manufacturing environment and its future? In simple terms, manufacturing unlike in the past operates at higher efficiencies if removed from the collaborative aspects of product creation as the flow down of collaborative aspects only serve to add what I refer to as “crowd confusion” as the typical plan, do, check, act is more of a rote hierarchical undertaking much like the reactive nature of the shoaling fish who move with the food rather than in advance of it. In short, the ROI for collaboration is not returned to the system, when the goals of the system are well defined and not subject to conjecture***.
In retrospect this also matches with (Robin) Dunbar’s work around the “Dunbar Number” being 150 persons in a group means saying only one leader is needed for every “150 persons” as an optimal configuration. In fact the Gortex ™ company will build a new manufacturing plant rather than expand staff when it reaches 150 persons at a site as this eliminates the need for middle management altogether.
While still in its early stages, Dr Couzin’s work promises to add new insights into the future of organizational efficiencies and without question is worth watching…
*Note: In biology, any group of fish that stay together for social reasons are said to be “shoaling” or a member of a “shoal” and if, in addition, the group is swimming in the same direction in a coordinated manner, they are said to be schooling. While different, these terms are sometimes used rather loosely and interchanged incorrectly.
**Note: The cycle must start with “feeding” as without that there would be no reason to avoid being fed upon and also worth noting a portion of the shoal will not avoid predators and therefore support the “feeding” as the start of the causal loop.
***Note: Fans of Darwin may argue if there is never a change in the system, then the system will likely die off as only the strong survive. However in its most basic form this argument actually supports the counter as think of primordial man spending the time to “collaborate” the activity of fleeing a predator as the time spent would mean they would be eaten and not re-feed. As collaboration in this case only has a positive ROI in the “feeding” sub-loop of the overall “feeding” phase.