Chris Read: Murmuration is what you need

Starlings’ murmurations prove a good model for ‘back to the office’ planning and even more agile business strategy, writes Chris Read

The starlings are gathering on the radio masts to see out the day. As the summer turns from July to August, the long summer days shorten to give way to early evening sunsets.

The oncoming autumnal days see thousands of starlings, swooping, diving like dancing cloaks as ‘murmurations’.  Perhaps this is a safety in numbers strategy to confuse predators. Maybe it’s because they like doing it?

Whatever the reason, an autumnal murmuration of flocking starlings is a thing of curiosity complexity and beauty in equal measure. There are three simple rules that the starlings adhere to whilst flocking in flight.

  1. Separation – avoid crowding and flying into your neighbour
  2. Alignment – steer towards the same heading as your neighbour
  3. Cohesion – keeping an average position between neighbours

Research over the skies of Rome by the STARFLAG Project in 2007 conducted ground-breaking studies on murmurations. Using interlinked cameras in three dimensions, they reconstructed the movements of an individual starling. They found that a single bird will interact with six to seven other birds as it adopts and disrupts the three rules.

Murmuration theory provides parallels to understanding collective dynamics, or how groups of people behave. With starlings, one individual bird may randomly decide to move in a way outside of the rules. As this happens, the rest of the flock re-calibrates to adopt a new norm. Somewhat like our adoption of new technologies, changing social attitudes and even working habits. It is these individual ‘disruptors’ that create the shifting shapes that murmurations present.

As we move towards the shortened days of autumn, our working lives are being moulded by our own murmurations in protection from a common danger – be it the virus itself or the stormy economic fallout from Covid-19. We can learn much as we observe and try to understand a murmaration. Taking something more topical, we can look at murmuration theory and apply it to the return of staff to office workplaces or the adjusting of a business strategy in uncertainty.

Let’s take the return to the office workplace and look at the three simple rules of a murmaration:

  1. Separation – awareness of the surroundings and receptivity to comply
  2. Alignment – the physical space has changed so readjust your patterning to the new flow of movement
  3. Cohesion – keeping social distancing in mind, to keep the R number down.

Turning to business strategies, let’s apply the same three simple rules:

  1. Separation – focus on your role within the plan and be aware of those around you and what they are looking to achieve
  2. Alignment – working towards a common plan, a destination which, one hopes, will prove to be a fun journey
  3. Cohesion – delivering the strategy as part of a team.

Living in a pandemic has presented us all with challenges and rewards alike. Thinking about the marketplace ahead of us and opportunities in a world that has become ever more cautious and anxious will need careful thought if not predictive magic. Suffice to say that defensive approaches to building a business strategy will make a resurgence. Like a murmuration, businesses will increasingly look to come together, to consolidate, to joint venture and collaborate. They may look to acquire or be acquired to create stronger, more agile, and more caring businesses that encourage disruption to the norm and create opportunities for new and innovative ways of doing business.

Whichever way you look at a murmaration, it is ultimately a flock, a coming together, an amalgam.  The starling’s strength in numbers, with the capability of an individual to disrupt the norm, is a powerful indicator of how to prosper in the years ahead.

Chris Read is chief executive at Dunstan Thomas