What would you rather face in a life-or-death situation: a charging rhinoceros or a swarm of killer bees? Well, every man for himself, but I’d take my chances with the rhino. The reason: I might be able to think of one quick move to avoid a two-ton rhino, but there’s no outrunning the killer bees.
And that’s what I sometimes advise public leaders to consider as they’re moving from planning to action. The temptation is to be the rhino, to see action as one great masterstroke. But an unanticipated obstacle (a lawsuit, an unexpected environmental review) or a determined opponent can turn your masterstroke into a long slog to nowhere. To change analogies, it’s like marching an army up a single road. If there are problems at the front, soldiers in the rear can only sit and wait.
The alternative is to spread out, to attack problems from many directions, not willy-nilly but in a coordinated fashion. It is to be a swarm of killer bees.
This sounds like simple advice, but I recognize that it’s hard to follow for two reasons. First, it’s not the way our minds work. Conventional strategic thinking commands us to find the most direct route from where we are to where we want to be—to march up that single road. What coordinated swarms call for is not strategic thinking but systems thinking.
The second problem is that a charging rhino is heroic, in its own way. A swarm of bees? Not so much. So there’s a natural appeal for leaders in the masterstroke, the single great achievement that will form their legacy.
So what does a coordinated swarm look like and how is it different from a masterstroke? The swarm is a set of relatively modest actions that attack problems and opportunities from several sides. Let’s say you’re trying to turn around a troubled downtown. The swarm might involve dealing with public safety, cleanliness, appearance, retail and development problems in ways that reinforce one another. That way, nuisances are dealt with as the streets look cleaner, new stores are opened as banners are hung, trees planted and sidewalks widened, and zoning issues are fixed as new developments are sought.
None of this is heroic stuff and may not even be noticed for a while. But attacking problems from many directions recognizes the complexity and interconnectivity of urban issues, as well as the cumulative impact that small, reinforcing actions can have. It also brings something vital to the earliest stages of problem-solving, which is momentum—the sense that something, at last, is starting to go right.
Interestingly, what sometimes follows a successful coordinated swarm is a masterstroke, a major action that changes the environment. For a downtown, it could be a new performing arts center or sports arena, a light-rail system or a major new mixed-use development. Masterstrokes can work in these cases because the swarm has lowered many of the obstacles and built confidence that leaders know what they’re doing.
I’ve seen coordinated swarms work many times in many places. (The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program is designed around attacking declining downtowns from four directions at once.) But I recognize that their greatest impediment is that they force us to think about, well, how we think. To embrace the swarm, we have to understand systems and accept their complexity, playing by their rules rather than our own. They force us to enter the world of unintended consequences and feedback loops that amplify our actions, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad.
Learning to think about systems asks a lot of overworked city managers, mayors or downtown executives who are simply trying to fix bad situations. But turning a coordinated swarm of killer bees loose on a problem can be the most effective way to clear the way for the rhino that can smash through those final barriers.
A version of this posting appeared on the Governing website.
Photo by dcJohn licensed under Creative Commons.