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Tuesday
Mar292011

be a swarm worker

Kevin Kelly and other illuminati have written fascinating stuff about the power of the swarm to solve problems- such as cement distribution in Mexico- and there are even sites on the net that offer to solve problems by having lots of people take part as a ‘swarm’. Which is kind of like mass brainstorming.

What I have in mind is a little different: internalising the swarm, using it as a suggestive visual, even tactile, metaphor to generate and deploy hundreds of attempts, approaches and, by using the natural advantages of the swarm, do work better or solve a problem without getting stuck.

There are multiple approaches to work. Either they fall into the organised or disorganised category. Organised means some method is being used to attack a piece of work and disorganised means no method, or, more usually, a series of half-arsed attempts using different methods, is used.

The problem with disorganised work is that you lose confidence quickly. You lose momentum and you lose your way. Watch kids work- they often give up simply because they are disorganised.

Organised attempts at work usually feature some form of sequencing. You buy a wardrobe kit from Ikea. You follow the sequenced instructions in the manual. You sit back with a glass of wine and admire your finished wardrobe. (Or should I say swedished.) Now there are actually hundreds of different ways to build that wardrobe but one of the few good ways is set down as gospel in the manual. Which is all well and good where there is an instruction manual but what if there isn’t?

The problem of sequenced approaches is that they encourage the ‘one gospel’ mindset. You look for an instruction manual that cannot possibly exist. You get all hung up looking for that ‘one solution’. But there seem to be so many options. You usually end up paralysed by choice at some level or another. This plethora of choice, instead of appearing where it should- as hundreds of equally acceptable solutions- appears as hundreds of equally acceptable places to start. But you are scared because you IMAGINE there is only one ‘correct’ route. One ‘correct’ solution. And you are scared of wasting effort so you kind of scout ahead- but sometimes you can’t look that far ahead. So you waste time thinking you can predict the world.

Sequential thinking encourages us to think the world is like one of those maze puzzles. Lots of places to start, lots of false turns possible- only one correct route.

But imagine a maze where almost every route ‘was correct’- as long as you keep going and learn from your mistakes?

What if it isn’t the ‘correctness of the route’ that matters but simply your approach to the maze?

When descending a river you can get all confused thinking ‘there’s only one right way to get down here.’ Nonsense, you’re confused because they are many ways- if you survive then you found one of the many right ways. As the old proverb has it “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Sequential working by definition, corrals us into assuming there is only one solution possible. So we go crazy looking for it. We get mired in the hideous trap of perfectionism. We get screwed up trying to predict what will happen. I love looking at business plans that predict profits in two years time…

Sequential working can also destroy momentum, and in many tasks 'keeping going' is more important than any particular way you work.

Swarm working is a way out.

It’s a way to be organised- ie. you have more up your sleeve than ‘just starting’. Kids have this which is why they are so brilliant at breaking down inhibitions about getting moving. The downside is they have no other tools in the bag. Come snack time and a whole new project beckons.

Swarm working is an organised method of attacking work without the downside of sequential working.

Remember, sequential working works when there is an instruction manual. So use one if there is one. But when you are stuck without one you need something different.

Swarm working utilises the best of ‘just start’ without the downside of giving up. It uses the power of feedback and optimisation- the strengths of the swarm- to generate a solution, to do the work.

It uses the power of organisation by setting parameters rather than asking ‘is this the right way?’ all the time.

And here, which may be the key to the whole thing, swarm working is MORE FUN. When traveling in the desert I watched Bedouin change a burst tyre. Three of them worked on it together. In the West that would have been one guy on his lonesome- the others (if there were any) doing other 'important tasks'. Or, it would have been three guys arguing about the right way to change a tyre ie. an argument about sequence. But the Bedouin just got stuck in and had quite a laugh fixing that tyre.

Swarm working can be more fun because, literally, more people are involved, making the swarm bigger, more like a party. But only if they are not intent on turning it into a sequence. The key thing, whether there is one or many 'swarming it', is you don't bogged down and lose momentum. This way you are more likely to enter a 'flow state' of working. Plodding away like a robot does damage to the natural flair all humans have.

Here’s a simple example. You have mixed black and white pebbles on a tray. You need to pick up all the blacks and put them in one pot and all the whites in another. Sequential working suggests an obvious order: zoom in on a specific colour, pick it out and drop it in the pot. Momentum is broken each time. What's more, it's boring.

Swarm working is more light hearted. You very roughly sort most of the blacks and most of the whites by kind of sweeping them apart. You then pour them off, en masse, into their respective pots. The few that enter the wrong area are tidied up last.

You set basic parameters- such as ‘mainly black stones’ or ‘mainly white stones’ and then tidy up later.

If you set an exact ‘only black stones’ procedure you take far longer, have a dull time, and possibly lose momentum and give up.

OK- take swarm writing. Instead of assuming an article or book has one and one only ‘correct solution’ I just get started. Without parameters this would be disorganised working and I’ve done enough of that.

So I set parameters. Say it’s an article about mountain biking in Russia. I think of an organising parameter such as ‘mountain biking in Russia is the most varied in the world’. Then I swarm it. Have fun.

I go hell for leather, keeping an eye on my parameter when I get stuck, and when it seems like I have finished I tidy up. This isn’t like the ‘editing’ you have to impose on disorganised writing, where you have to pluck some semblance of a skeleton from what looks like the remains of a jellyfish suicide pact, instead it's just a simple trimming down of things that got swept up into the article by accident.

If it’s a book then I’ll set a few parameters. Say, just for the hell of it, that I want to write a novel about mountain biking in Russia. One major parameter will be point of view- from whose angle is the story told. Another will be ‘the main thing’- perhaps a love story involving the mountain biker and a Georgian BMX champion. Finally I might have the parameter of it being funny or serious.

With my parameters I then go all out not worrying too much about what I am setting down. 

I have to say I haven’t always worked like this. I once spent a long summer not getting a boat into the water. It was a wooden boat and I went about repairing it in a highly sequential way. I spent a lot of time working out what order to do things in so I wouldn’t repeat myself. By the end it had a working engine (kind of silly as it was a sail boat) but still leaked so much it wouldn’t float. If I did it again I’d swarm it. First set the parameters: ‘get the boat working by this date’, ‘make sure it floats first and sails second’. Then I’d attack everything that helped floating and sailing without worrying too much about anything except putting the hours in.

Likewise in writing, for years I was over organised and did nothing, paralysed into making intricate plans of action, character studies and lists of things happening. Then I went to the other extreme- disorganised- just starting and hoping for the best and then spending months picking through the jellyfish remains looking for a backbone.

Now I swarm everything I do if it is a new task or one for which there is no ‘instruction manual’ (which is most things bar recipes and model plane kits).

Even fairly trivial things can benefit from swarming. Take packing up my house to move. When I was deeply sequential this seemed a big headache. The more I visualised what needed to be done the more confused I became about what order I should do it in. The amount of work was stupendous. Then, recently, when I had a new chance to move I used swarm working. I set the parameters: ‘everything out by this date’, ‘move the big heavy things first’. Then I just swarmed the task- going day and night until it was done.

Swarm working implies optimizing all the time from feedback. One of the characteristics of the swarm is that it is highly connected and information is freely shared. When something doesn’t work the swarm absorbs that information and tries something different. In swarm working all your different attempts, suggestions, ideas, actions form the swarm. In sequential working you are very attached to any one idea and this attachment causes you to hang onto bad ideas way too long (the only thing you need to hang on to are your parameters). So your activity mimics the swarm by being continuous, not losing momentum, fluid, inventive. If blocked you try something else.

The organized part of swarm working is setting the parameters. These can be as wide or as narrow as you like, but you need to stick to them. Then you are free to try anything that occurs.

Think of that maze- it's not against you- it's on your side- all you need to do is keep up the enthusiasm and the momentum- and swarm your way to victory. It's a lot more fun.

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