Skip to main content

By Dave Prescott, Creative Director of The Partnering Initiative and Victoria Thom, Principal of Synergy 2030.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a global crisis, throwing us into uncertainty and complexity at a depth and scale that is very unfamiliar. Our health, economic, political and social systems are being stretched out of their traditional shape. While uncertainty and complexity can drive fear and conflict, they also provide the perfect domain for collaborative efforts to test innovative solutions and find ways forward. In many countries individuals and organisations are rallying together, to play their part in “flattening the curve”. This blog explores how and why there appear to be more examples of collaboration during COVID-19, and asks what is holding us back from acting more collaboratively during ‘normal’ times. 

There many are inspiring examples of rapid, self-organising collaboration emerging from all levels of society to contribute to better outcomes during the crisis.

In most cases, these examples arose from people seeing an opportunity, stepping up and mobilising around it. Not being asked, or seeking permission. In this crisis, as in all strong collaboration, diffused leadership is driving real and collective impact. In contrast to command and control leadership styles, diffused leadership empowers and enables everyone to connect, adapt and respond. It acknowledges that in complexity, there is no one who has all the answers, rather ideas and leadership can come from everywhere.

So, what is it about a crisis that seems to enable rapid and effective collaboration? We might draw some insight from looking to nature, to understand how starlings murmurate in response to threats and to share information for collective benefit. Starling murmurations occur when thousands of the birds flock together, swooping and diving in synchronisation against the autumn sky, a supreme example of collective action.

Clip of starlings based on sequences filmed by wild life cameraman and travel journalist Dylan Winter.

A great deal of study has taken place into how and why murmurations happen. Rather than waiting for orders, birds follow some simple principles that empower them to act both independently and collectively, to survive and thrive. This includes a principle that they will align their speed and direction with their nearest six or seven neighbours. The ability of starlings to be attuned to and sense what is happening around them, then respond rapidly, is critical to their collective success.

We can observe similar behaviour in humans in other complex crisis response situations. Steve Goudswaard, Principal at Goudswaard Consulting has almost three decades of experience in the international humanitarian industry and has led and coached leaders through crisis and complexity. “Disruption takes down the blinkers. When everything is disrupted for everybody, your normal view is broadened and you’re more likely to be open to novel ideas and to be less constrained by traditional factors.” says Goudswaard. “On top of that, in emergency response, the strategic imperative for everybody narrows to saving lives. Everybody drops their individual priorities for the imperative. The hierarchy of needs becomes simplified.”

A case in point was the rapid shift observed to a more collaborative model in an international NGO, in response to humanitarian disasters. A culture and operating rhythm quickly emerged that were very different to business as usual. A crisis leadership team was immediately established, with representation from all core functions within the organisation. People re-aligned their priorities to support the collective response. Meetings were often several times a day to allow for sensing and response to the rapidly changing situation. There was a coordinating role, that was rotated among several people. Each participant was clear on their role, responsibility and was given the mandate to make decisions within their sphere of expertise, instead of navigating layers of bureaucracy and internal politics. Communications were clear and regular. There was no territorialism. There was no power play. There were trust and respect. And, there was unquestionable alignment on and commitment to the purpose – to save lives.

But, when the crisis was over, things returned to a more rigid and challenging environment for collaboration. One can’t help but muse, what would it take to ‘bottle’ the essence of collaboration during a crisis?

Murmurating in ‘normal’ times

COVID-19 appears to have turbo-charged collaborative action around the world. We see novel forms of partnership appearing all around us at multiple levels from extraordinary local-level outpourings of collective kindnesses, care and creativity, right through to calls for a global Pandemic Emergency Coordination Council.

This is to all to be celebrated. And, reflected upon. Why has it taken the sudden collective threat of COVID-19 to yield this sudden outpouring of global collaborative action? If collaboration is a way to solve complex problems by combining diverse resources and create something innovative and valuable, then why is this not the default setting of our organisations, governments and societies? At what point did competitive, self-serving behaviour become the norm? When did the interests and power of a few, overtake the safety and wellbeing of many? And how can we harness the momentum of the current collaboration and sustain it into the future?

Turning to starlings once more, we see that the astonishing murmurations don’t only happen when there is the sudden immediate threat of a large predator, but also in situations of more general, ongoing need or problem-solving. Scientists who have observed starling behaviour suggest that “when food is patchy and hard to find the best long-term solution requires mutual sharing of information among large numbers of individuals.”

This is a profound insight. A starling murmuration is, at heart, an extraordinarily beautiful, collaborative information-sharing mechanism. Each starling feels part of the whole, sensing the movements of others it can see nearby, reacting quickly, and allowing the whole to react to threat. This mechanism has been developed over millions of years on the basis that individual birds can best protect their own ability to find scarce food and resources by acting collectively. Not by the strongest individuals identifying and hoarding whatever resources they are able to grab, at the expense of others.

Just as starlings murmurate, so it is that the most effective partnerships – whether in times of crisis, or otherwise – are underpinned by simple principles that drive collaborative behaviours. With decades of evidence in multi-stakeholder partnerships, The Partnering Initiative and the Partnership Brokers Association consistently see certain factors come to the fore. Some of the characteristics of starlings that also apply in multi-stakeholder partnerships, particularly highly complex ones, are as follows:

  • Strong shared collective vision: very clear sense of the goal of the partnership
  • Interdependence and mutual benefit: generous sharing of resources and evident placement of the collective need ahead of the individual
  • Adaptability and versatility: being able to flex rapidly in response to changes in the context
  • Collective leadership: no single individual in charge
  • Building equity: instilling balance of power and fairness
  • Trust-based relationships: to enable rapid and open exchange of information and knowledge

A final lesson we might draw from the analogy with starlings is about beauty. The forms and displays that emerge from a murmuration go way beyond what any individual can produce. In the more prosaic language of partnership, we might talk about how they create forms of value that cannot be created in any other way.

If we choose, COVID-19 can provide us with the opportunity to ‘bottle’ how we best collaborate in crisis, to create the human murmurations needed to align and act in our collective interest. We can all be leaders.

How can we embark on our ‘new normal’ with these insights to better tackle our climate, economic and social crises together, and balance individual and collective benefit as we re-build after COVID19?



Click here to learn more about how TPI is Mobilising collaborative action against COVID-19


author avatar
Julia Gilbert

One Comment

  • I am working on a Project that looks to and explores maximizing opportunities for sports organizations in my country through sport for development to build up human resource capacity as a practical tool for sport diplomacy. I am keen to receive information on this subject.
    This article is inspiring. Looking at the Starlings and murmuration of what they do as a truly natural way of working together. I love the idea of working together for the common goal. I’m looking forward to reading more.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu