Swarmwise Summary Part 2: Swarm Leadership


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Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, wrote Swarmwise, an excellent book on how he used swarm tactics to launch a new political party and successfully win a major election.

You can read the full text here:

Part 2: Swarm Leadership

Leaderless swarms are not capable of delivering a tangible change in the world at the end of the day.

The scaffolding, the culture, and the goals of the swarm need to emanate from a founder.

Founders do the vision, the swarm does the talking

Communicate your vision to everybody, and let the thousands of activists translate your vision into words that fit their specific social context.

Don’t make a one-size-fits-all message

Activists not only are encouraged to translate your vision, but also to interpret and apply it to specific scenarios Enforce the principle of If you see something you don’t like, contribute with something you do like.

When people in the swarm get criticized by the public and by influential people, that is a sign you’re on the right track. This is not something to fear, this is something to celebrate, and everybody in the swarm must know this.

After the Swarm Forms

First, allow the swarm’s scaffolding to keep growing organically. Train your closest officers in swarm methodology and techniques and set subgoals that are spaced about eight weeks apart.

This may seem like a contradiction to self-organization, but it’s not: you’re telling the swarm the things that need to happen to get from point A to point B. You’re not saying who should be doing what and when.

Each subgoal needs to be credible, relevant, achievable, and clearly contributing to the end success.

  • Leave 10% of the time of every subgoal unallocated for unforeseen events.

  • Using a visible mechanism with a competitive element and measuring things in internal competitions gets them done quickly and adds fun.

  • Measuring the right thing is crucial - make sure you measure the right thing.

  • Anything that you measure in public, people will strive and self-organize to improve. Also, routine activities that are the same from day to day require motivation that internal competitions provide.

Provide work areas where the activists can share work files with one another: posters, flyers, blog layouts, catchy slogans, campaign themes, anything related to spreading your ideas and vision.

Also, they must have the ability to comment on and discuss these work files between them.

Have regular meetings over the phone or over a chat line.

These meetings should be limited to seven people if on the phone, or thirty people if in a chat channel.

Timing and locations of physical meetings can serve to lock out activists from engaging in the swarm — often inadvertently.

Meetings are necessary, because people who are eager to be part of the swarm can easily see meetings as the purpose of the swarm — they will tend to see meetings as work itself, rather than the short time frame where you report and synchronize the actual work.

Focus in the swarm is always on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot or must do.

Communicate three values:

  1. We can do this

  2. We are going to change the world for the better

  3. This is going to be hard work for us, but totally worth it

Once you’ve run the numbers and communicated to the swarm that your insane idea is actually achievable, sparks of energy will jolt across the swarm with loud, crackling noises.

Managing the Swarm: Making Decisions

No one has the right to limit what another can do. This would be the typical swarmthink, at least as far as plentiful resources are involved. (When it comes to money, in case the swarm has any, decisions need to be made.)

Ways of Making Decisions

51 percent of the swarm has the right to exercise power over 49 percent of the swarm – this is meeting-and-voting scenario. This is not only counter to swarmthink, but it also creates a culture of fear of losing rather than a culture of empowerment and action.

Someone has the final decision - ruling over others by decree is not only completely counter to swarmthink, but it doesn’t work in the first place, as people are volunteers and, quite frankly, do whatever they want.

Everybody has the power of veto for decisions - this creates significant problems with who constitutes “everybody” but it is one of the most inclusive ways to get volunteers on board once that problem has been solved. However, it only works well for smaller subgroups (30 or less people).

  • Ruling by decree is out.

  • Voting creates losers, losers are unhappy and mess things up.

  • Don’t assume that the collective makes better decisions than the individual activists - swarms rely on the exact opposite.

  • The values we desire in a swarm are inclusion, diversity, and empowerment.

  • But if we are voting on something, we are limiting the minority — not empowering them.

  • A swarm is legitimate only because it lets every individual include themselves on their own terms in order to further the swarm’s goals.

  • Use a consensus circle to make decisions and if your swarm can’t reach a consensus then:

  • Use “the law of two feet”

It is every activist’s right and responsibility to go where they feel they can contribute the most and, at the same time, get the most in return as an individual.

If there is no such place within a particular swarm, an activist can leave the swarm and go elsewhere.

Activists can float in and out of organizations, networks, and swarms that best match the change they want to see in the world.

One swarm fighting for a goal does not preclude more swarms doing the same, but perhaps with a slightly different set of parameters from a different founder. This is fundamentally good for the end cause.

The swarm’s rules are by and large that there are no rules

Some people will seek to impose them.You need to make absolutely clear that the swarm works by its own consensus, that decisions are made organically by individual activists flowing to and from initiatives of their own accord, and that this swarm is your initiative; if wannabe fixers don’t want to play by the swarm’s rules, they need to use the law of two feet and go somewhere else.

Allocating Resources

The swarm has a structure that can handle budgets and money, and that is the supporting scaffolding. It’s the duty of the officers of the swarm to distribute resources in the most effective way to support the end goals through the initiatives of the activists.

In this particular aspect, the swarm will resemble a traditional top-down organization in terms of allocating its resources in a decentralized manner.

You, in control of the swarm’s formal name and resources, allocate budgets to officers, who subdivide their budget in turn.

Once the swarm has any money to speak of, most of it should be devoted to supporting individual activists’ initiatives where they can reclaim expenses.

The swarm lives and dies with the creativity and initiatives of its activists.

Innovation and Activism

The advantages of the swarm are cost-efficiency and execution speed. In order to increase the advantage in execution speed you need to minimize the try-fail-learn-try again cycle — the time from a failure to the next attempt at succeeding.

Make it possible to learn and try again, learn again and try again and say that this is not only allowed, but expected.

Increase the number of experiments by using the Three Activist Rule.

Managing Behavior

Everything that we focus on, no matter how or why, will grow in the swarm. If there are behaviors we don’t want to see growing, we should ideally pretend they aren’t even there — block them out from our conscious radar, and spend time rewarding other kinds of behavior.

Trolls will create a group of followers determined to wreak havoc until they get their way.

This can be very disruptive and goes counter to swarmthink, where the best ideas and the best arguments win, rather than the loudest mouths. Still, it is a significant disturbance. The way to deal with this is not to agree to demands — if you do cave in to get rid of the disturbance, you will teach the entire organization that creating loud disturbances is a very effective way of getting influence in the swarm, and you will start going down a very bumpy road as other people start imitating that behavior.

You will never be able to convince trolls that they have bad ideas (and especially so if all they want is attention for themselves, rather than recognition for ideas). You will never be able to win that person.

Rather, you need to identify the reward mechanisms within the subgroup that has formed around the troll.

Odds are that they’re forming a group identity around not being recognized as individual activists.

You can shatter this identity by recognizing good contributors in the troll support group; odds are that there are several good contributors in that group who are just temporarily wooed by the trolls charisma.

If you pick away a couple of key people in this group and recognize them for good earlier work — unrelated to the troll’s yelling — you will isolate the trolls, and the disturbance will lose critical mass. An organization is people, and attention is reward.

This works for most people but for those who troll as a way of life you’ll need to look at Troll Control in Swarms for further advice.

What behavior do we want to encourage?

  • Initiatives - Even initiatives that fail.
  • Supporting others - Helping others excel is just as valuable as excelling on your own.
  • Creativity and sharing ideas - Helping people get along.

Adjusting Goals

At some point, you may want to adjust the goals of the swarm.

For a political party, this is almost inevitable. For a single-issue swarm, it is more avoidable. Nevertheless, it creates very difficult problems in the face of the swarm’s disorganization and it may be easier to start an overlapping swarm.

Avoid Excluding People

Always work to include. It’s easy to inadvertently exclude people from participation and every exclusion is a failure. Just because you don’t see any people being formally excluded, that doesn’t mean people don’t feel excluded.

One way of getting around this is to allow everybody with formal voting rights to select somebody to vote in his or her place.

This voting right can be assigned differently for different issues, and also be assigned in turn, creating a chain of trust to make an informed vote. This taps into the heart of the swarm’s social mechanisms of trusting people and friends, rather than fearing to lose.

Communicating Values

In a swarm organization, the organizational culture cannot be communicated from person to person as the organization grows — it must be actively communicated centrally, and repeatedly communicated as new people keep joining.

  • You need to make a values document based on the swarm values you thought of at the beginning.

  • You should keep reminding the entire swarm about the organization values regularly, as part of your heartbeat messages both to reinforce the values to old activists and to introduce them to new activists.

  • Describe one value in every or every other heartbeat message.

Needless to say, you also need to practice what you preach.

However, having this document and continuously reminding people that it exists, in words and in action, is not enough. You also need leadership guidance and tons of empty positions in the organization that new activists can fill.

If you don’t have an empty box for that position in advance, it can’t be filled. If the officers of the swarm’s scaffolding don’t know how to uphold and communicate the swarm values, it won’t happen.

In addition to the values that go for the organization as a whole, you also need to communicate values for the leaders that take on formal responsibility in the scaffolding.

Just like the overall values that apply to all activists, these need to be communicated over and over, and, of course, reinforced through action. The challenges lie in the constant demands for transparency and influence from your area of responsibility, combined with the demands for results and accountability from those you report to. Basically, this means that leadership is a social skill, rather than a management or technical skill. It is about making people feel secure in their roles.

Above all, we need to defend two things in all our actions:

  • The organization’s focus
  • The organization’s energy

It is very easy to get drained of energy if you start feeling negative vibes. There is a need for a constantly reinforced we-can-do-this sentiment. In order to sustain these two values, we who have taken on officers’ and leaders’ responsibility use the following means:

Monkey see, monkey do.

  • We are role models. We act just the way we want other people in the organization to act. One part of this is to always try to be positive.

  • We make decisions. We have had decision-making authority delegated to us in some area of the organization, and we use it.

  • We lead by inspiring and suggesting, never by commanding.

  • We advance role models.

  • We reward our colleagues as often as we can, both in public and private, when they display a behavior we want to reinforce.

  • We reward with attention. Every behavior that gets attention in an organization is reinforced. Therefore, we focus and give attention to good behavior, and, as far as possible, we completely ignore bad behavior. We praise the good and ignore the bad (with one exception below).

  • We assume good faith. We assume that everybody wants the organization to succeed, even when they do things we don’t understand.

  • We react immediately against disrespect. Even if we have great tolerance for mistakes and bad judgment, we do not show tolerance when somebody shows disrespect toward their colleagues, toward other activists.

  • We speak from our own position. When we perceive some body as being in the wrong, we never say “you’re stupid” or similar, but start from our own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Administration is a support and never a purpose.

  • We try to keep administrative weight and actions to a minimum, and instead prioritize activism.

  • We build social connections.

  • We meet, and we make others meet.

  • We develop our colleagues.

  • We help everybody develop and improve, both as activists and leaders.