Swarm Creativity – feels like a kind of magic …

Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation Networks by Peter Gloor is an excellent book. It introduces the concept of Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs) – a methodology that aims to enhance quality and competitive edge. Anyone who has read The Wisdom of the Crowds or Emergent Intelligence will be familiar with some of the themes in this book, in fact it certainly does continue that tradition. According to Gloor a collaborative innovation network is a "cyberteam of self-motivated people with a collective vision, enabled by technology to collaborate in achieving an innovation by sharing ideas, information and work" – thus by extension Swarm Creativity is what results when such a group works together and exchanges ideas.

The idea of COINs are not new, in fact much of the book is devoted to providing historical examples such as Marco Polo, the Rothschilds and even the Fugger Banking empire of the German  Renaissance period. There are also much more modern examples including SHARE ( Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education ), Diamler Chrysler, , SalesForce, Intel, IBM, Deloitte, even the United Nations.

The book opens with what  I believe to be a seminal quote from Thomas W Malone  "The Future of Work", 2004:

"As managers, we need to shift our thinking from command and control to coordinate and cultivate – the best way to gain power is sometimes to give it away."

I can personally relate to this because the culture we are striving for at Talis seems to be underpinned with this kind of thinking. I don’t doubt that it feels radical to some since it does represent a departure from the bureaucratic hierarchical models of management that seem to permeate through many organisations. This new approach has many advantages though and until you experience them first hand they might seem impenetrable … in fact whilst reading the book I gained my own first hand experience of how beneficial COINs can be …

Just over five weeks ago Talis sent me, Rob, Chris, Alan and Ross away to a separate office to develop a prototype application. We were given a very short brief, in fact we had to actually define the requirements for the system ourselves. What ensued was a a couple of weeks of brainstorming, idea gathering, and then a week of wireframing and the a week of implementation, at the end of which we had a working prototype.

What wasn’t immediately apparent at the time was that this was a small COIN. The company had gathered together a small group of highly motivated individuals, presented them with a problem and asked them to come up with an innovative solution. Now during that four week period the team didn’t always agree with each other in fact we did disagree and at the beginning we probably had somewhat divergent views about what the product should be. We certainly challenged each others ideas and understanding and in doing so we slowly,  over the course of the first two weeks,  converged on a shared understanding and we then were able to very rapidly put the whole thing together. There was no hierarchy in the team, there were no prescribed roles or responsibilities, the team was very much self organising with each member of the team doing whatever needed doing without needing direction or being told to necessarily do something. Everyone, collectively, knew where we wanted to get and did whatever was required to get there. This is echoed in the book where Gloor points out similarities between creative swarms and phenomena found in nature:

"Swarm creativity is like a beehive or ant colony. It may look chaotic from the outside, but everyone has a job, knows what to do, and does it."

For me personally it was an incredible experience, both extremely challenging and also extremely rewarding. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you have a single problem to focus on without any other distractions. But as Alan observed what a collaborative effort like this does is enable even the smallest of organisations to compete with much larger organisations when it comes to innovation.

I thoroughly recommend the book!