Flocking behavior is the term used by scientists to describe the synchronous movement of birds in flight, fish in schools, insects in swarms and land animals in herds. Wonderfully realistic computer simulations have been developed which model the collective motion of these various species of individually self-governing members. Contrary to the appearance of intentional, centralized control, the flocking motion emerges from individual decisions and actions taken based on a few simple rules:

Separation – avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion)

Alignment – steer towards average heading of neighbors

Cohesion – steer towards average position of neighbors (long range attraction)

Based solely on their individual, local perception of the world, birds, fish, insects and land animals successfully navigate within large groups. Through collective aggregation of individual choice the superficially chaotic and random becomes ordered and unified.

In my experience people behave like birds in a flock: autonomous, but reactive to the social context. As autonomous individuals, human beings make decisions in a manner which spans the spectrum from extremes of cold rationality to insane emotionality. Hence these decisions, at the personal level, are very difficult to predict. Collectively, however, groups of individuals tend to have motivations, goals and patterns in their actions which are much easier to quantify and predict. This is the basis of statistics and technical analysis.

The job of the project manager is to lead a team of individuals in a collective effort to accomplish a finite task, within the constraints of budget, schedule, available resources and scope. The most widely recognized credential for project managers is the Project Management Institute’s PMP certification. The primary text and reference manual for PMPs is the PMBOK Guide. Aimed primarily at managers leading teams in medium to large bureaucratic organizations with established workflow processes in place, the PMBOK is useful as a starting point for structuring activities under ideal circumstances. It suffers, however, from a lack of insight into the often chaotic and purely political elements which invariably exist between and among individuals and groups within highly competitive and steeply hierarchical commercial organizations.

Unitary, top-down, multivariate models of network diagrams, schedules and financial variance analysis are necessary but insufficient tools for building high performance work groups in which smart and creative individuals give their personal best, and support others in doing the same. Great project management happens when leaders are sensitive to individuals’ local perception of the world, and skilled in nurturing the social context to foster tight alignment between organizational goals and team member motivations and efforts. When this happens, self-actualization and project ROI join in a symbiotic and highly rewarding partnership of productivity.

Marshall Shoemaker, March 2011