Murmuration of starlings

Enabling agility: reflecting on the role of heuristics

I’ve been doing a lot of work lately working with organisations to build strategic agility and resilience to continuous change.  This has caused much reflection on what potential enablers might be for strategic agility and distributed decision-making in this increasingly complex and volatile world.  I’ve come to believe that one of the key enablers is an  understanding of the use and value of heuristics.

From a psychology perspective heuristics are defined as “simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions”.  They are often described as mental shortcuts or rules of thumb.  In complex systems they provide just the right level of constraint to enable independent local action (autonomy) while still maintaining an overall coherence to a common unifying purpose, values and strategic direction.  For example the US Armed forces make use of heuristics to ensure soldiers on the battlefield have autonomy to respond quickly to changing conditions, while remaining aligned to the stated commander’s intent for the specific battle.

So I like to describe them as enabling constraints, or guiding principles that enable the emergence of beneficial patterns, whether that be strategic agility, innovation or even safety.  There are many examples, one of the best known from the natural world is Boids algorithm that is used to simulate how birds flock.

Murmuration of starlings
Murmuration of starlings

Anyone who’s ever seen large bird “murmerations” know how impressively they seem to synchronisation with each other.  These complex patterns form because of three simple rules:

  • Cohesion: Fly to the center of the flock
  • Alignment: Match speed & average direction
  • Separation: Avoid crowding or collision

If one of these falls away, the flocking pattern falls apart and randomness or chaos ensues. There are similar examples in human systems for example those enabling improvisation in theatre or music.  If we explore how collective improvisation works in music, we find that firstly there is a common purpose: Making music of a certain genre.  There are also non-negotiable “basics” or governing constraints at play e.g. the musicians need to ensure their instruments are tuned, they need to have the necessary skills (practice) and they need to be on time for the gig.  But in addition to these they agree on a set of enabling constraints – e.g. which key to play in, the musical pattern or rhythm they will follow and to “stay tight”.  All of these create the enabling environment in which they are free to improvise together and co-create emergent music. Without these constraints, they will create noise not music.

Contrast this to the rigidly controlled environment a symphony orchestra, they also have a common purpose of making music, they share the non-negotiable “basics”, but they are completely aligned to creating a pre-defined outcome.  They are controlled by governing constraints – the musical score written by the composer, and the conductor.  Here there is no agility, it’s about creating perfect and replicable results, every time.

One is not better than the other, they each have value in the right context.  It is useful to use Cynefin to reflect on the different kinds of constraints or rules that exist in each context:

  • in obvious there are rigid or fixed rules that govern i.e. we need to enforce them and comply to them (compliance is not negotiable)
  • in complicated there are governing constraints or rules that need to be “applied”
  • in complex there are enabling (simple) rules or heuristics that we choose to follow as guides or implement as enablers
  • in chaos there are no rules

It is a very useful exercise to explore with groups of leaders and decision-makers what heuristics or simple rules enable beneficial patterns in their environments.  It can be quite difficult, as these evolve over time and often remain unarticulated.

Well known examples exist in the IT space in the form of the Agile manifesto which states these four heuristics (the Agile community calls them principles or values):

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

At a recent conference with sales leaders, a couple of interesting heuristics emerged that the experienced salesmen follow:

  • Always have another plan
  • If you don’t take care of your customer, someone else will
  • Start with a positive expectancy (not expectation)
  • Don’t focus on closing a sale, focus on opening a relationship

I’m currently developing a set of adaptive change heuristics as part of a client engagement.  I’ll share those when I’m done.  In the mean time, I’d love to hear some of the simple rules that you’ve discovered in your own contexts.  Feel free to share them in the comments.

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