Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership


Companies and organizations everywhere cite creativity as the most desirable – and elusive – leadership quality of the future. Individual creativity is viewed as either a genetic inheritance or a specialized discipline that can be improved through instruction. In his book, “Swarm Intelligence,” James Haywood Rolling, Jr. explores what nature teaches us about shaping creative leadership and addresses a missing gap in studies about creativity including the role and impact of social behaviors in swarms.

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The evidence is clear: Business leaders value creativity as the Number One leadership quality of the future. The majority of existing literature on creativity views it as either a genetic inheritance or a specialized discipline that can be improved through instruction. The insightful book ‘Swarm Intelligence’ addresses a missing gap in studies about creativity: the role and impact of social behaviors in swarms.

The emerging 21st century is characterized by global networks of vastly differing cultures, social agendas and niche interests – an amazing opportunity for new forms of creativity to sprout, provided leaders have the open mind and collaborative skill sets to engage with and help lead swarms. It is increasingly important for executives to deeply understand how creativity is a collective, self-organizing and non-linear social networking behavior. Creativity is present in everyone—in all your employees and stakeholders—we just have to understand that creativity can have different expressions.

Swarm behaviors can have negative expressions such as groupthink, mass hysteria and peer pressure. However, swarm behavior also has a symbiotic relationship with collective creativity and individual creativity, says James Haywood Rolling Jr., associate professor of art education and leadership at Syracuse University.

Top-down learning in schools and the conservative organization of big enterprises can stifle creativity. Based on research of biological swarm theory and systems theory, Rolling explains in detail that group collaboration and adaptive social networking make us both more insightful and creative. We need to help design workplace practices around these natural principles of group activity, putting much less emphasis on individual achievement.

Rolling identifies key mechanisms of self-organization in swarms: decentralized control, distributed problem solving, multiple interactions between agents, and adaptive mimicking. These principles have been identified and implemented in different forms in the behavior of automobile manufacturers (Ford assembly line), and more recent crowdsourced innovation by Procter & Gamble’s Connect + Develop program (alignment of interests), crowdfunding for startups (e.g. Indiegogo, Kickstarter, RocketHub and RockThePost) and trending behavior for sites such as TED and the latest THINK Prize implementation.

Stories are the most powerful drivers of swarm behavior: compelling narratives draw users in because of their novelty, familiarity, alternative views or metaphorical value. In addition to being swept up by swarms, creative behaviors can be cultivated by a combination of observation, active innovation, idle time (resting) and idyll time (daydreaming).

Periods of distraction, ‘controlled messiness’ and ‘mental clutter’ can actually help make unexpected connections. “If you don’t like someone else’s story, write your own,” African writer Chinua Achebe famously remarked.

Rolling recommends that bridges be created between the arts and sciences, and more emphasis be placed on self-directed learning driven by curiosity and personal motivation. He workspaces be converted into ‘crucibles for collective, collaborative, curious swarming creativity.’

‘Swarm Intelligence’ will change your thinking when it comes to creativity and help you build a more collaborative and humanistic enterprise.

Buy the book at Amazon.com

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