By Brian Remer
If you would like to demonstrate the efficiency of a self-organizing system, try this activity at your next meeting. The larger your group, the better. A minimum group size of about 12 will still work effectively.
Ask people to begin with a round of enthusiastic applause as if they have just experienced the best meeting facilitation ever. Thank them for their participation and ask them to applaud again but with these instructions:
"Start clapping again and try to coordinate your clapping into a single, unified, rhythmic beat. Go!"
As the facilitator, do not clap or give any further instruction. Usually, the group settles into a rhythm in short order. Ask people to identify how this happened. Was there a leader? How did people know what to do? Can anyone recall how they chose the particular rhythm to clap? Usually, people have a difficult time explaining how the order crystallized out of chaos.
Invite people to clap once more with these different directions:
"Start clapping randomly and enthusiastically as before but this time try to coordinate your clapping into a single, unified, rhythmic beat that is different from the rhythm you used last time."
Again, do not participate in the clapping and do not give any more direction. After a suitable amount of clapping, ask people to describe what happened. In some instances, the group will settle on a new rhythm very quickly. When that happens, ask them to identify how that occurred. Was there a leader? How did people know what to do? Elicit specific examples of how people settled on a particular rhythm.
In other instances, the group may struggle for some time before a common rhythm emerges. Ask them to talk about what might be going on. What would help them be successful? (But do not let them make a plan or strategy.)
If the group was not successful or would like to try again, give them another chance with these modified instructions:
"Usually groups that do this activity come up with the most interesting rhythm on their third try so I have every confidence that a group of your caliber will be just as successful. You don't need a premade plan or designated leader. Listen carefully to what is happening nearest you and when you hear an interesting rhythm, try to join it and amplify its influence. Go!"
Discussion after this round should focus on what helped people achieve the goal. You will likely get responses that will emphasize some of the following points.
Having an inspiring goal creates a strong focus for self-organization.
Listening to those around you is a way to get feedback about your own performance.
Comparing feedback to the goal is a form of self-reference that keeps the group on track.
When you find your group has got the beat, you have an authentic example of how chaos became collaboration!