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Pyramids and flocks: risk-taking and change in academic communities

emccorma's picture

I.Towards understanding risk-taking and change within academic communities...

Last time, several interesting questions that came out of the discussion. In considering what it might mean to have an institutional culture of risk-taking, I was intrigued by the notion of the scalability of risk-taking from the local/personal to the community-wide/institutional level.

What is the connection between the behavior of individuals to the behavior of an institution?

Which raises the related question of what do we mean by "the institution"?

  • a piece of real estate?
  • the leadership? the administration?
  • a shared history? a tradition?
  • an agreed to purpose?
  • an agreed to set of rules, relationships and practices?

Let's play with some ideas before deciding...

There are many conceptual models one might come up with to evoke the connection between individual attributes and behaviors and those of a community. Two models which come to my mind are the pyramid and the flock.


I. Pyramids




What attributes and behaviors do pyramids evoke?

What's connection between individual and institution in this model?





II. Flocks of starlings

starling flock 1

"Black Sun in Denmark": European Starlings Flocking.
Earth Science Picture of the Day, 6/19/2006

Check out the dynamics of a flock.

starling videos


What attributes and behaviors do the starlings evoke?

What's connection between individual and institution in this model?




III. What are the implications of these observations:

1) on our expectations of leadership--what does leadership look like in these two models?

2) what does risk-taking look like?

3) what does change look like?

4) what other conceptual models come to mind?

5) what model or combination of models do you see operating at Bryn Mawr College?

5) what model or combination of models would you like to see operating at Bryn Mawr College?

6) what would be your role in such a model for risk-taking and change at Bryn Mawr?



Anne Dalke's picture

I agreed to take notes on the brainstorming that occured when Liz invited us to look @ these images. What might Bryn Mawr culture look like, if it were to sponsor risk-taking? How might we connect individual actions, values and behaviors, to create an institutional culture of risk-making? What is the scaleability of risk-taking? How does one move from the individual to the institutional level?

These were the attributes and behaviors that the images of pyramids evoked for us:
top down, hierarchical (but this depends on perspective/how you look @ it)
unchanging, static
preserving histories
self-actualization: reaching the top/setting a goal
team work
reliance on the backbreaking labor of others
made of inorganic, non-living stuff
a quilt
distinct, well bounded
identical individual units, not distinguishable
an achievement
a lot of work went into making the pyramids,
but we only see the product, not the process
the pyramids were built to celebrate a life, not the lives of workers
the uniqueness of the creators are not visible

What are the connections between the individual and institutional levels in this model?
they are less visible
the institution exists as an assembly of individuals
the structure is only (nothing more, nothing different from)
an ordered assembly of individuals:
the attributes of the structure emerge from the grouping of the individuals,
but the structure is not a copy of the individuals; it is a distinct shape
attributes are tied only to the assembly, not to the individual units,
which are all the same
there are hierarchical distinctions among the parts, but all are needed

there may be lots of flaws among the individuals; none are perfect
if a few blocks were removed? we would call this deferred maintenance

this structure has a formalistic quality
instructions led to the construction of the pyramid:
it had a model, a formal organized intention
it was a priori, a "dictator" model
there is an inherent limit to the plan; it has boundaries,
beyond which it cannot be built

individual self-definitions are highly shaped by where they are in the pyramid
there would be protection of individual positions in the structure
individuality comes from a sense of location, and
those locations are not interchangeable
we don't want the blocks innovating
the shape of the pyramid is not inevitable,
but it would be a monumental task to get everyone to change
one couldn't make every block buy into change, but could make every block make a change

These were the attributes and behaviors that the flocks of starlings evoked for us:
how get emergent behavior from a collective system like this one?
this is an active area of research now:
it doesn't happen just by responding to one's nearest neighbor;
there are long range interactions and sharp boundaries

the attributes and behaviors are
unpredictable and mysterious
the purpose is not apparent; it's puzzling

organic, dynamic, living, changing, responsive
integration of labor and product: no hidden factors
corporate, interdependent
no clear hierarchy, no leader (?)
diffuse, bounded, not symmetrical
controlled randomness
variable density

the structure is not symbolic: its coming about it what it is
it is built of a collection of individuals;
like the pyramid, it is only an ordered assembly
the individual is not distinct, as it is in the pyramid;
the loss of individuality is not as evident

it is innovative (?): every moment it takes a different shape
it is a reaction to exterior environment
it's not clear why the direction changes
it can change size without adding or subtracting individuals
what causes the majority of the birds to clump? where are the rebels?

What are the implications of our observations?

What have been our experiences of leadership in each model at BMC?
we might think of this as "steering vs. rowing," a contrast between a leader w/ an a priori plan, who tells others what to do ("form comes first") and an emergent process, responsive to internal motions and external threats (is a leader needed?)

do the different models serve different purposes and roles?
are we describing behaviors (actions, reactions), not people?

the shared point here is simple: all behaviors could occur without design, in the absence of difference among individuals, and without the individuals having conscious objectives

an interactive organization acquires form and behaves "purposefully"
no bird has a sense of collective action
collective behavior is not instantiated in individuals
there is no personified leader, but individual actions lead to group activity
there is a leadership process, without an objective

is there an evolutionary purpose to flocking (defending, feeding)?
do the birds have agency? is this about instinct or free will?
there are consequences for the birds that break formation
all elements are capable of moving, but doing so will increase their vulnerability
there are advantages to being in formation, but the birds, who possess the "agency of belonging," don't have a perception of this
they are not computer cubits: this is an advantage and a disadvantage
the analogy is to individuals who have a stake in the collective outcome
they have freedom, yet there is a collective agreement to respond to danger
compare this structure to BMC's attitude of defense

But there is freedom in being part of the pyramid!
when everything stays as it is,
individuals can rely on the institution to stay in shape
the starlings have to be constantly aware:
this is a burden, not liberation!

individual and institutional innovation are not the same thing
there are advantages in safe spaces
but classrooms are in the service of institution,
which is in competition w/ other institutions
we have to think about our role in the larger structure

Members of the BMC community can't flock, or respond this flexibly to danger
our structure is incredibly flat, not hierarchical, more like an obelisk

a germane question is what accepted practices @ BMC
inhibit individual variation and innovation

there is a predator/prey relation between falcons and birds
the models of pyramids and flocks are the inverse of each other

Liz doesn't have a prefered model;
perhaps attributes from each can be combined
she offered them as comparisons to illustrate how complex it is to
say we "need something different"; somethings need to be preserved

do we prefer distributed leadership?
what about other models?
(an onion? a coach and team? a feedback network?)