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Leadership and the Swarm

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
11th August 2011


Excerpted from Rick Falkvinge:

A swarm … “is not an amorphous cloud of equals, where nobody gets any decision power. While this would be an ideal society to some, it is not a Swarm.

Neither is it a traditional hierarchical organization where commands are issued top-down and people are expected to follow them. A Swarm may look like this from the outside, but that’s not what it is.

Rather, it is a scaffolding set up by a few individuals that enable tens of thousands of people to cooperate on a common goal in their life. These tens of thousands are usually vastly diverse and come from all walks of life, but share one common goal. The scaffolding set up by one or a few individuals allow these thousands of people to form a Swarm around it and start changing the world together.

This scaffolding doesn’t appear very complex. At its simplest, it is just a means to communicate and discuss the issues the Swarm wants to make a change on, like a forum on a server. The complexity comes with the meritocracy that makes up how the Swarm operates and decides on courses of action as an organism.

As all the people in the Swarm are volunteers — they are there because they think the Swarm can be a vehicle for change in an area they care about — the only way to lead is by inspiring others through action. The founder of the Swarm has a great deal of initial influence in this manner, but he or she is far from the only one. In a typical Swarm, you will find that people inspire one another across all levels and all geographies, with the only common factor being the overall goals of the Swarm that every particular individual chooses to follow.

Significantly, focus in the Swarm is always on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot or must do.

This sets it sharply apart from a traditional corporation or democratic institution, which focuses sharply on what people must do and what bounds and limits they are confined to. This difference is part of why a Swarm can be so effective: everybody can find something they like to do all the time off a suggested palette that furthers the Swarm’s goals, and there is nobody there to tell them how things may not be done.

In a Swarm, nobody gets to tell anybody else what to do. (People can take on roles and deliverables voluntarily, though.)

Rather, people inspire one another. There are no report lines among activists. As everybody communicates with everybody else all the time, successful projects quickly create ripples. Less successful ones causes the Swarm to learn and move on, with no fingers pointed.

If you want leadership in a Swarm, you stand up and say “I’m going to do X, because I think it will accomplish Y. Anybody who wants to join me in doing X is more than welcome.” Anybody in the Swarm can stand up and say this, and everybody is encouraged to. This quickly creates an informal but tremendously strong leadership structure where people seek out roles that maximize their impact on the Swarm’s goals — all happening organically without central planning and organization charts.

The only people who deviate from this and take on formal deliverables are the ones upholding the scaffolding of the Swarm — being points of contact from media and other external organizations that work in a traditional way. Because of this, a Swarm may sometimes look like a traditional organization. But there is a key difference: it looks like a traditional organization from the outside because it chooses to; because the Swarm is more efficient in interfacing with legacy-type organizations that way. Not because it actually operates that way.

At the bottom line, what sets a Swarm apart from traditional organizations is its blinding speed of operation, its next-to-nothing operating costs, and its large number of very devoted volunteers. Traditional corporations and democratic institutions appear to work at glacial speeds from the inside of a Swarm. That’s also why a Swarm can change the world: it runs in circles around traditional organizations, in terms of quality and quantity of work, as well as in resource efficiency.”

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