Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Smart Swarm

Reading Peter Miller’s book, The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done, (2010) got me thinking.  I want to liberally share from his book (pages 262 – 268) in this post.  If you find this intriguing you may want to get a hold of his book.

Sometimes we humans have a little trouble thinking for ourselves. We get caught up in  “social contagion”. Take for an example standing ovations. It’s a pretty simple way of thinking about contagious behavior and is one we all pretty much understand.  For a standing ovation to occur a small group of individuals may stand and clap at the end of a performance and then a few others join in and then a few others and pretty soon it just seems like the socially correct thing to do so basically everybody is standing.  That doesn’t mean that everybody is truly appreciative, at equally high levels, of the performance.  In fact, there may be some who are not all that appreciative but just would rather be part of the social contagion rather than to abstain.

We humans could probably benefit from learning how to be smart in groups. In the natural world the mechanisms vary widely, depending upon the particular problems swarms are dealing with, but they often include:

a reliance on local knowledge  (which means maintaining a diversity of information);

the application of simple rules of  thumb  (which minimizes computational needs);

repeated interactions among group members (helping to amplify faint but important signals and speed up decision-making);

the use of quorum thresholds (to improve the accuracy of decisions);

and a healthy dose of randomness in individual behavior (to keep a group from getting stuck in problem-solving routes).

Animals – whether they are bees, birds or fish may move and accomplish specific purposes in swarms, flocks or schools.  In the animal kingdom it seems clear that large groups of individuals, without supervision, seem to be following some rules to accomplishing tasks.

Compared to the clever things that natural swarms of bees do, standing ovations look haphazard and arbitrary.  This may be common in many other situations in which yours and my behavior is strongly influenced by what other people are saying or doing.

For better or worse, humans don’t behave the same way as animals. To vastly oversimplify our dilemma, we’re torn between belonging to a community and maximizing our personal welfare. We need more than our natural instincts to help us work toward common goals. We need things like legal contracts, taxes, laws against littering, and social norms about waiting your turn and not talking during a movie.

Thomas Schelling in Micromotives and Macrobehavior, 1978, states that “a good part of social organization–of what we call society–consists of institutional agreements to overcome these divergences between perceived an individual interest and some larger collective bargaining.”

Unlike ants, bees and birds we often don’t know the right thing to do. Caught up in our own complex systems, we struggle with a lack of information, a poor sense of how one thing affects another, and an inability to predict outcomes, whether we happen to the students in Boston trying to identify terrorists, test pilots and engineers in Seattle playing the beer game, control room operators in Akron struggling to gain control of a failing power grid, undergraduates in Philadelphia puzzling over network games, protesters in Reykjavík facing a banking system that’s gone belly up, pilgrims in Mina pushing across a dangerous lead crowded bridge, or guests at a graduation in New Haven wondering whether to stand and applaud Hillary Clinton.  For all of us sooner or later during the right thing is anything but simple.

Because we find it so difficult to understand the complex systems we are part of, we might be tempted to give up and simply do what others are doing. But if standing ovations are any guide, you can be sure of one thing: You don’t want to go through life applauding events you didn’t really enjoy. Nor do you want to end up regretting that she passed up a perfectly good chance to stand up in sheer for something truly wonderful.


Are we facing our challenges or embracing our opportunities?

It’s all a matter of framing. The language we choose leads to the way we think about and approach things as well as work through the realities of our lives. If we frame situations as problems then we tend to look at trying to solve them. If we frame situations as opportunities then we tend to explore and welcome them.

It’s a big shift to change the way we look at what’s right in front of us. A lot of us are successful because we’ve been good at navigating successfully through what we find ourselves facing. We’ve done this with a basic sense of  “being on a path to somewhere”. In other words we haven’t seen ourselves as aimlessly bouncing through arcade game. We have had a sense of who we are and what we stand for and that has served us well as we have faced the challenges we’ve encountered

To look at things differently is to say that what’s in front of us is something that can be appreciated for the strengths that currently displays as well as for the possibilities of the future.   The point of looking at a situation as an opportunity is to suggest that when we look beyond the “problem-solving focus” or the “minimizing the damages” approach to a more “what do we prefer” and a “what about this situation do we want to take into our future” kind of guiding questions approach then our possibilities for how we move toward this opportunity have dramatically expanded.

When we look at what is in front of us with one eye on the positive realities that are apparent and another eye on a preferred future – we can enlarge the possible ways of successfully interacting with the situations we face.

To get to the preferred future likely will take time.  That is reality with many preferred futures. The desired state of accomplishment may be very far off.  Think about Martin Luther King when he spoke of having a dream.  It was a dream that was not an immediate likelihood.  On the other hand it certainly was an illuminating focus of a very clear direction.  It inspired many people and they embraced that dream and worked towards that opportunity.

Problem spotting, finger pointing, complaining, negativism, nitpicking, bashing, fault finding, disapproving and or other ways of framing our view of the day or the economy or anything.  This kind of language takes us into a downward spiral.

We are wise when we appreciate that which is good about today as we work toward a much better tomorrow.


Note: As I think about the youth of today I choose to think about opportunies!!!


Discussions with an open mind and a sincere desire to understand

What are my choices?

What am I missing or avoiding?

What is possible?

These are three of twelve questions form Marilee Adams of the Inquiry Institute.  Read them all at: Inquiry Institute: Great Results Begin with Great Questions.  I think her twelve questions may prove to be very valuable to those who want to contemplate an issue and to think in depth about a topic.  The thinking we do helps us to be better and thinking with others.  Thus, these twelve questions can be reframed to be responded to by more than one person.  Changing them to be assessable to two or more people is not difficult.  These slight alterations open the door to interdependent thinking.  Here is what the three questions from the above might look like.

What are our choices?

What are we missing or avoiding?

What is possible?

The complicated realities of today beg for people to think through options together.   The potential of finding ways to move forward with something other than “win/lose” or “I am right and thus my thoughts should prevail” attitudes is essential to society as we meet the future.

My thought is that each of us, in our personal and community life, can practice thinking with others.  We can practice showing up with an open mind and a willingness to learn from each other to think together.  Without intentionally practicing, we can kid ourselves into believing that ,when the time comes, we will be good at and comfortable with thinking with others.  This seems more than a little naive to me.

Practicing thinking together can lead to a rooted comfort with the practice, so consider some of these altered questions and find another person or a group of people and pose the question and begin the discussion with an open mind and a sincere desire to understand the others.

Here is some food for thought:

Connecting mind-to-mind does require people with a willingness to have an open-mind

Minds can open over time – so sharing thinking, with openness, can lead to more openness

Mutual understanding, clarity of agreements and a commitment for growth doesn’t come easy

All interdependentness is challenging, yet embracing this challenge serves the common good 

This complete poem can be found at an earlier blog of mine.



Spirals: Downward or Upward

Problem spotting, finger pointing, complaining, negativism, nitpicking, bashing, fault finding, disapproving and or other ways of framing our view of the day or the economy or anything has an impact. All language has an impact. This kind of language takes us into a downward spiral.


Downward Spiral – Image by qthomasbower via fkickr.

Yet, each of has a choice about the kind of language we use.  Those choices can actually lead us to frames that are positive if the language we use is also positive.

When we focus on a desired future as opposed to the specific problems of the present we can put our energy into motion in the direction of the desired future.

No, this kind of thinking is not flimsy and impotent.  It actually can be the way we, as individuals, groups, and/or organizations effectively move into the future.

Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros in Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change, 2nd Edition, 2008 present the Positive Principal (p 9-10) which says that momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding, attitudes such as hope, inspiration, and the sheer joy of creating with one another.

That makes sense to me! Moving toward something is better than moving away from something! When our image of the future is positive and hopeful our efforts to reach that future become part of a positive journey.  That is not to say it will be an easy journey.  There is no magic in being positive.  But, the effort you invest (which might and likely will be significant) is done to reach your desired state.  It is what might be called ‘want to’ behavior rather than ‘have to” behavior.

We, as individuals, groups and/or organizations can build positive upward spirals of thinking and behavior.  In doing so, we will have no reason to problem spot, finger point, complain, nitpick, bash, fault find, or disapprove.  We will be too busy engaging with the achievement, innovation, appreciation, social capital and designing of our or the group’s  destiny.



Upward Spiral Image by Hakim_Bey via flickr. 

This saddens me . . . An avalanche of cash threatens to suffocate local control

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Having been an educator in public schools for over 30 years, having been a superintendent for many of those years, having worked closely with many locally elected school board members, having seen the influence of politics, and power and money I am wondering where we’re are going related to local control.  I am concerned about all (I do mean all!) of our country’s children and their access to a quality education.  I don’t think what is happening in Denver is leading in that direction.

David Sarota states and I agree: “It’s easy to delude (ourselves) into thinking that the only elections that matter are celebritized presidential and Senate contests, and that local elections for your school board or town council or county commission don’t count. Clearly, that’s not the case.”

I recommend reading Sarota’s complete article: W. enters my wife’s schoolboard race.  Yes, “W.” stands for former President George W. Bush.  Having Bush show up and weigh in is provocative.  And even more provocative to me is the money that is flowing into this election.  As a life long educator, part of me finds this both ‘way to believable’ while also being ‘way to full of questions’. 

Where are we going with public education?  Do we want to allow money to flow so freely into local school board election?  Are we moving further away from – or closer to – the concept of public schools servicing as an important part of the American dream by opening up opportunity for all? 


Embracing the Future by Thinking and Working Together in Service of the Common Good

When we think about the current: state of our educational systems within America, the large numbers of children living in poverty, the changing world economy, the national and state by state employment percentages and/or any number of other issues from the environment to energy it is hard to see a bright future.

When we think about a better future we often think about all of the ‘loss’ and ‘change’ that might need to be sustained to transition from the present – albeit fraught with imperfection –  to a potentially better future.  Our comfort with the status quo leads us to be weary of letting go of the known to embrace an unknown future.

Heifetz, et al writes: “Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.”  Framing change as adaptation makes sense.  Not jettisoning what is good and valuable about the present makes sense. Finding new ways to think and work together makes sense.

Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (2009, Harvard Business Press) write about adaptive leadership.  Their definition: Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive (page 14) sounds like the kind of leadership many of us might want to experience.  Tackling tough challenges and thriving is the direction to the future that I want to put my energy into.

When I envision thriving families, schools, communities, cities, states, regions, countries and/or globe – I envision people willing and able to think and work together in service of the common good. 

From my point of view thinking and working together are among the crucial skills the future will require of us.  Let’s get good at thinking and working together!




A ‘Wall Street Game’ or a ‘Community Game’


The words we use have power. The power rests in the “frames” they create in the minds of people who use and hear the words.  So, each of us needs to be mindful of the choices we make when we express ourselves.  Stanford psychologist Lee Ross found this to be true in a study he conducted.

Stanfords subjects played a game in which they could either cooperate or compete. In each round, subjects had to decide whether to share money with others or keep it for themselves. Half of the subjects were told it was the “Community Game”.  It was introduced to the other half as the “Wall Street Game”.  Both groups played exactly the same game, but the second group was far more likely to steal, lie, and cheat.  By connecting their actions to their image of “Wall Street,” subjects (and this is true truly unfortunate) felt more comfortable behaving like scoundrels and feeling good about it.  In contrast those who use the word “community” felt fine about winding up with less money because they were sacrificing for the “common good.” From Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillian and Al Switzler, 2011 page 58.

It makes me wonder if one of the draws of the current protests isn’t capitalizing on the connotations people have of the words “Wall Street.”

The words we choose do help set “frames” in our minds.  Here some words I would like to leave you with to help set your frame of mind: dream, positive future, possibility, hope, collaboration, interdependent thinking, potential, appreciation, and forward development!