Are You in Control?

Simple Birds

It was half term last week. I took my children to North Norfolk. We explored sandy beaches, rolling countryside and panoramic skies.  It was as beautiful.

The highlight was a walk across the salt marshes and the sight of a flock of startled geese scurrying across the sky.


How do the birds — which let’s be honest are non to bright — manage to create such complicated patterns?

Mathematicians have modelled it, it turns out it isn’t too complicated at all. There are only three rules the birds have to obey:

  1. Alignment – fly the same direction as your neighbours
  2. Separation – avoid other birds that get too close
  3. Cohesion – move towards another bird until it gets too close

A beautifully complicated defense mechanism governed by three simple rules.

French drivers are equally simple

In his book the laws of subtraction Matthew E. May describes another complicated system governed by simple rules. He tells the tale of driving around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a roundabout with 12 entrances, no traffic lanes and no signals.

Again the rules are simple:

  1. Give way to traffic entering the junction
  2. Look out for traffic coming from the right
  3. Avoid traffic that gets too close

At least some complicated systems can be controlled with very simple rules.

We operate complicated systems every day

We collect taxes, run hospitals, provide telecommunications, direct air-traffic…

But the way we control our systems is far from simple.  We have multiple business rules, targets, audits, incentives, regulations, policies and procedures.

Which begs the question… Do we understand what the really important rules are?  The rules that make the system work?  Or are we simply cluttering the workplace with endless controls that only get in the way?

Are we clever or bird brained?

Maybe we could learn a thing or two about control from a bird with a brain the size of a walnut, or — heaven forbid — a French driver.

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Bird Brain

Read another opinion

Image by Bertuz


  1. James,

    I think if expectations are set accordingly, if we know the vision and the purpose, i.e., if we know what we’re supposed to do and are then set free to do it, I think we can achieve the same results as the birds and the traffic circle.

    Love the analogy.

    Annette :-)

  2. Hello James,

    I say that when one looks underneath all the rules and regulations one finds a desire for control interlocked with a mistrust of people. Put differently, those who make the rules distrust people and see rules and regulations as the answer. What is missed? The interconnectedness of life. And the fact that my behaviour is always in a dance with the way the world shows up for me. If for example, driving without seat belts and talking on the phone show up as safe for me then I will continue to do so. The rules and regulations become a hurdle/barrier to work around.

    Let’s take a look at the flocking behaviour of birds. I have often been struck by the beauty of the movements – the way that the birds appear to act as one. Now ask yourself the following question: if one can simulate the flocking behaviour of bird, on a computer, through simple rules does this necessarily mean that the birds are using these simple rules? Before you answer this question ask yourself this one. If both of us, start from my home and end up at your home, and we do so at the same time does that mean that we both necessarily took the same route? Or followed the same rules? Not necessarily, right? Those into computers and cognition, start from the assumption that thinking-rules-algorithms drive behaviour. Then they look for and construct ‘evidence’ and/or explanations to prove their ground: the computer and cognitions ground. What is not clear, is that all of their science (and proof) is based on a taken for granted metaphysics: individuals, subjects v objects, thinking, rules….

    Now let’s turn to the drivers and driving at the Arc De Triomphe. Have you every driven there? Has Matthew May driven there? I have (both as a passenger and as driver) as I am married to the French. What I can tell you is that no such rule based behaviour occurs in the sense of people sitting in cars thinking of these three rules. I can tell you that the some French drivers have a feel for the situation. And they ‘feel’ their way around the Arc De Triomphe.
    Other French drivers choose to drive as fast and as recklessly as possible, in an inexpensive car, around the Arc De Triomphe counting on other drivers to make the necessary adjustments. If Matthew May’s argument is correct then it should be possible to build a driverless car, program it with the three rules, and the car should consistently make its way around the Arc De Triomphe even on the busiest occasions. I say this is just a ‘computer-cognition’ dream. And I am willing to be proved wrong. When do you think that we will have driverless cars navigating successfully around the Arc De Triomphe? Would you be willing to bet your daughter’s life on it?

    I do find myself in agreement with the question that you ask: “Do we understand what the really important rules are? “. And it occurs to me that the associated question is this one: “How do we generate the understanding of what the really important rules are?” I say that if you stick to the default way of thinking about human beings and human behaviour you will end up with the nonsense we see around flocking birds and the Arc De Triomphe.

    All the best

  3. James,
    I find that when there are a lot of rules governing a complex systems it, generally, means that we haven’t worked hard enough on the simplicity of the rules.


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