The Secret of Agile Organisations


ey-goodwin-zwartwitA few years ago an interesting documentary was brought to my attention. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was about a flock of starlings moving towards the South of Europe to spend the winter. It is fascinating to see them fly together with so many birds as what seems to be a single being. Moving agile and gracious through the air in ever changing shapes. Researchers found three ground rules for this phenomenon. I wondered: ‘Would these rules also apply to organizations?’. In an era where pyramid structures, hierarchical leadership and top-down communication do not seem to comply anymore, perhaps we can learn something from a flock of starlings?

The three basic rules of a flock

In the video below, researchers show us by means of a computer simulation, which three basic rules starlings adhere to, in order to fly in these impressive formations:

  1. Fly with the same speed

Each starling within the flock is flying at the same speed. So initially not even all in the same direction, but all equally fast.

  1. Stay close to your neighbours

Each starling flies in connection with its seven nearest neighbors. The result is a tight network where information is shared constantly, quickly and with minimal loss of signal.

  1. If you see a predator: get out of the way!

Once danger or a change in the environment is detected, the starlings react immediately by changing direction. If you see danger: get out of the way!

These synchronized speeds, rapid and ‘clean’ (= with minimum loss) transfer of information and constant awareness of and reactions to the environment, makes that the flock can react as a whole and change direction seemingly instantaneous. In addition, there seems to be no visible leader or central administration. However there is a clear shared purpose: survive!

The flat and agile organization

Due to the digital developments that follow one another at breakneck speed and the emergence of network organizations with their agility and rapid response times, traditional organizations feel the need, or at least the pressure, to change their existing structures, processes and modi operandi. What can they learn from a flock of starlings?

Re 1. Alignment of Processes and Infrastructure

Organizations that ‘fly the same speed ‘ are organizations where information and communication processes are aligned in such a way that information flows smoothly through the organization and knowledge is easily shared: with a minimum loss of signal. That’s easier said than done. Many organizations only align the outward or most obvious communication processes – for example through the use of social media – but are forgetting that back-office processes and behavior of the people also need to keep up with the same speed and dynamics.

Re 2. Build a strong network of multiple connections

To make information flow effectively and efficiently through the organization a dense network of multiple connections is required. Obviously this is helped by technologies such as Enterprise Social Networks and other digital platforms and apps . Of course we do see connections within traditional organizations as well, but these are often singular and not interconnected. Information is channeled through hierarchical lines causing a loss of speed, content or meaning. Also the lack of transparency often makes it hard to oversee the entire playing field.

Re 3. Monitor the environment and respond to change immediately

In traditional organizations it often takes weeks, months and sometimes years before change is actually introduced. Moreover, due to a predominantly inward focus, critical signals are ignored. Agile organizations are outward focused, customer (employee, patient, client or other stakeholders) centered and thén organize people, processes and teams accordingly. Traditional organizations put themselves in the center, forget to look outside and if they do, fail to respond (timely) at what is happening out there.

Is it too late?

Several experts predict that many of the traditional organizations will no longer exist in 20 years (or even sooner) because they do not have the capability to respond regroup and timely  respond to new situations.

But is it really too late? Needed change will only be achieved by drastic measures that deeply affect the processes, structure and culture of the organization. Sometimes it seems easier to start from scratch, like many start ups and emerging network organisations. But also smaller, existing organizations have successfully transformed themselves: got rid of ‘pegs and squares’ and went for flat(ter) and (more) agile alternatives. For the larger, existing organizations, hybrids are obvious: autonomous, flat and agile parts of the organization that are connected with a larger, traditional organisation. The risk of bottlenecks due to various ‘operating speeds’, weak links or gaps in the network because employees are not well connected with each other and frustration because not everyone anticipates on apparent danger from the outside are imminent.

But it’s a start and worth trying.


This blog was originally published in Dutch in May 2014 on

(Photo Flickr Creative Commons: Beverley Goodwin)

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