The 10% Law – Harness The Power of Swarm

Sorry to disappoint but this post isn’t about the rising cost of sales tax. Or the proper gratuity you should leave on mediocre service. This is about something much more impactful – human swarm behavior.

In 2007 a German biologist Jens Kause and Dr. John Dyer held an experiment (thanks to Elisa French for providing the English translation of the article). They brought together 200 people in a large room. The audience was told to keep moving and nothing else. Left alone, the group moved in a disorganized manner. And then they changed the game. Twenty of the participants were told to move towards a specific target spot in the room. Those 20 people were dispersed throughout the group and could move towards the target but not tell anyone they had been given instructions. There was nothing marking the target and no signage pointing the way. And yet, in minutes the entire 200 person audience had moved towards the target. After experimenting with various participation levels, the 10% rule was born. Think about the implications – it only takes 10% of an organization to create a swarm.

This makes total sense, right? Think about when you get off the airplane in an unfamiliar airport. What do you do; you follow the mass of people walking towards the baggage claim area. Or what about the last web seminar you attended. After the first couple of people started asking questions, did more follow?

What if you could harness the power of human swarm dynamics to accelerate fundamental improvement in your organization?

I believe you can. The environment within which you must re-create the experiment is not static. Your peers are not locked in a room. Moving in the same direction for a few feet is much easier than over the course of several miles. And unlike the imperative of walking towards a target, transformation objectives are often complex. All of this is true, but you can replicate the principal of the experiment within the context of your environment to achieve remarkable results. Here’s how I’ve seen it work.

1) Recruit Ambassadors. In this experiment the stakes were low – “walk towards the corner”. In a business environment you can’t simply say “start selling more” or “build a better product” and make it so. You need to embrace your ambassadors on the journey of creating a plan. But here’s the great part – not everyone has to believe – just 10% – your ambassadors. Other research supports this notion. For example, Malcom Gladwell observed similar results in his case study driven book The Tipping Point.

2) Articulate a Clear Direction – In the experiment 10% were told clearly to walk towards the target. The swarm worked because they understood fully what direction to follow. In your business, charity or family dynamic vision and strategy will rarely be as clear cut as “walk to the North corner” but the more your ambassadors can understand their mission, the more likely a swarm will follow.

3) Keep Obstacles Out of the Way – Ambassadors led the pack because they could. Similarly, people followed instinctively because they could. But what if in one portion of the room a table had been set with cookies? Or a pile of rocks had blocked a passage. Would the swarm have formed as neatly? Not only must we create clear direction, we must empower ambassadors to take obstacles out of the way to clear the path for their followers.

4) Reinforce The Swarm – If instead of walking to the corner of a room, you wanted the participants to walk 10 miles, would you have the same affect? In business to transform an organization you need to sustain progress over time. That means to keep the swarm progressing you must reinforce behavior by provide new compelling incentives to keep the movement forward. Don’t forget to replace ambassadors who are tired and poop out at the 3rd mile, or the 8th. In affect, you have to keep creating little swarms that move you towards your designated goal. Swarms are relatively easy to get started, maintaining them takes patience and focused effort.

The next time you need to make a big change remember, you can get started with just 10%. The swarm will follow.