What can starlings teach us about business strategy?

by Mark Blackwell, Arkaro

As a young boy mesmerised by murmurations of starlings with my grandad in Norfolk I was filled with curiosity. How could the birds be organised to perform such complex dynamic manoeuvres?  Little did I realise then how these summer evening displays would influence my business thinking in years to come…

There is no leader as the starling’s swarm. There is no command-and-control structure to direct the group. Indeed, it turns out that it is the very opposite with extremely decentralised decision-making. Whilst there maybe thousands of birds flying together, each starling notes the actions of up to seven neighbours and applies three rules simultaneously.

  1. Move apart if too close to neighbours
  2. Maintain the same speed and direction
  3. Close in if too far away from neighbours
A murmuration of starlings

Acting on top of these rules, the effect of externalities such as wind and thermals, likely combined with the impossibility of all birds adhering perfectly to all the rules in real time, create the seemingly unpredictable complex patterns. The phenomenon is known as emergence.

What is Emergence?

Emergence occurs when low level interactions, such as the individual behaviours of the birds, lead to higher levels outcomes, such as the observed changing shapes of the population of birds as a whole the flock. The resulting entity has properties that its parts do not. And what is more remarkable, is that no bird has an awareness of the flock. Each individual follows rules locally with no reference to the global result.

Why do the starlings do this? The prevailing hypothesis is that it helps secure food when scarce. By co-operating starlings are more likely to find food, rather than acting alone. However, there is a major flaw in this approach as the co-operating birds now become an easy target for predators. Hence the need for the seemingly unpredictable movements to confuse predators, and thus provide great defence. This complex outcome is achieved from three rules being adhered to with discipline at low levels in the population.

Can you imagine this outcome being achieved with a command-and-control leadership by a dominant starling? Would it even be feasible? What would be the commands, or signals, to create such an outcome? Worse, think of the futility of centralised commands such as “We shall be world class at defending ourselves from predator attack”! Yet sadly review of much business strategy reveals it to be little more useful than such platitudes.

Rules based strategy

With its roots in Rumelt’s “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” and developed in Compo’s “The Emergent Approach to Strategy” major change and innovation is possible by adherence to rules, or policy. Of course, businesses do not need millions of years of evolution to create the rules. Nevertheless, the determination of the “winning formula” is achieved by stressors acting on the system as it is in evolution.

Emergence at Intel

In the early days, Intel had a policy of reviewing production plans monthly, and prioritising the most profitable orders. Whilst the company focussed on producing DRAM, occasionally it would produce microprocessors. Analysis revealed that the microprocessors were more profitable than DRAM. They then started another evolutionary process were lengthy boardroom debate on whether to switch the company’s mission to CPUs.  Ultimately, by adhering to the core policy that generated results, Intel changed from being a DRAM chip to a CPU producer. With hindsight the strategy might seem obvious. However, at the time microprocessors were thought of as low volume custom manufacture parts with computer manufacturers being verticals. The shift to a horizontal industry structure where standardized CPUs secured dominant power was not apparent at the time, but perhaps only hinted at with the greater margins available. The low-level rule’s impact on the higher-level Intel demonstrated emergence – and of course tremendous innovation in future years.

Does your strategy process drive execution – or do the charts sit on the hard drive gathering electronic dust separate from the day-to-day? If you think a rules-based strategy and an emergent approach could be more purposeful than lofty aspirations let’s talk to see if we can help you.

Scroll to Top