Swim Together Better

Have you ever seen a room full of toddlers playing? As any parent of toddlers knows, there are only a few steps between calm and chaos. Wearing emotional instability on their snotty sleeve, each toddler in the room has their own agenda – find a toy and a space to play. Conflict surfaces when toddlers must compete for a particular toy, or space. Inevitably, groups of toddlers with an adequate supply of toys can be compressed into a relatively small space and still achieve “play equilibrium.”

Intuitively, toddlers seem to grasp what C.S. Lewis calls our social ethic – we are, at least, responsible for not bumping into one another. Prevailing practice suggests this is our primary obligation – do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.

But teamwork seems to require more of us than this social ethic. Productivity is not maximized when we each do our own thing - even if we are close enough to one another to be social and distant enough to not disrupt.

What happens when "comfortable independence" shifts to "collaborative interdependence"?

On a recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium I found myself captivated by an Anchovy school in the 3-story kelp forest exhibit. The shoal displayed intricate synchronization and aesthetic genius as they circled kelp strands, threw light around the tank, and dodged larger neighbors.

More than anything, I was intrigued by their organized unity. A step beyond the toddlers, the Anchovy maintained proximity without disrupting one another and added the ability to go somewhere together. Adding trajectory to good social interaction is no easy task. Bringing individuals into a team seems naturally disruptive – first, natural bumping and spacing occurs as members try to settle in. Then, members begin to carve out their own niche and plant themselves in relationships of either independence or dependence. In contrast, the Anchovy shoal offers a picture of interdependence. Many individuals harmonizing around a unified aim.

What if we could empower teams with the wisdom of anchovies?

Alone, individual anchovies would be easy pickings for predators, but with their shared goal of safety, they are able to organize to near synchronicity. And, as it turns out, analyzing their seemingly complex behavior reveals a beautiful simplicity. Research tells us that shoal, flock, and herd movement is governed by three rules: proximity-based repulsion, alignment, and attraction (read more about the research here). In the shortest measure, anchovy make sure they do not get too close to one another. Like cyclists in a peloton, getting too close can be disastrous. In the intermediate measure, anchovy instinctually maintain alignment with the whole. They follow a simple second rule that says swim at the same speed as your neighbor. Finally, the shoal follows the rule of attraction whereby each individual swims slightly toward the center line of the school.

For the shoal, a few simple rules govern complex interdependence.

So, can we learn from the anchovy shoal?

  1. Workplace culture is more than getting along - it's going somewhere.

  2. Alignment and trajectory emerge from shared goals.

  3. We are prone to make things more complicated than necessary.

Their movement is orchestrated, but in a slightly adapted way that makes it really interesting to watch. The fish are not all synchronized on cue – instead they continually adjust their movement to match the group’s spacing, speed, and direction.

So, what simple rules inspire interdependence for your team?


© 2013 by A.R.MARSHALL, PhD