Murmurating birds Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash - cropped

Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash (edited)

Simple complexity

Get your head round complexity



Murmurating birds Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash - cropped

Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash (edited)

Article Author John Willcox

John Willcox is Fairisle Consulting’s Lead Consultant

Just because a problem seems complex, it doesn’t mean the solution has to be.


We’re based in Brighton on the south coast of England. We have two piers, the Brighton Pier and the West Pier. The Brighton Pier is what you’d expect of a traditional British seaside pier, with a fun fair, amusements and places to eat and drink. The West Pier though is a wreck, and its decline began a long time ago. These days, after years of storms and a couple of disastrous fires, there’s barely anything left.

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But it has a kind of new life because it’s where the murmurations happen. Murmuration is when thousands of starlings form a huge flock and fly together in a great mass. They move in a seemingly synchronised way to create ever-changing shapes. It’s a beautiful and mesmerising sight.

When you first see it you think ‘How on earth do they do that? How can they fly in such perfect unison? How come they don’t bump into each other?’

There are a number of theories, but it’s generally accepted that murmuration operates on three basic principles:

  • Separation – steer away from nearby birds
  • Alignment – move in the same direction as nearby birds
  • Coherence – move towards the centre of nearby birds

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No plan

In other words there is no controlling intelligence or plan. It happens because all the birds in the murmuration follow the same basic principles. It’s an example of emergent behaviour, where the interactions of millions of tiny movements create a new group behaviour. It’s entirely unpredictable and it’s an amazing thing to see. But it can also happen in human settings, and that’s not always great.

For example we recently helped a client with an IT problem. The client thought their software couldn’t produce the data they needed. We looked into it and found nothing wrong with the software itself. What we did discover though was an error in the way the system had been set up.

Rather than fix this problem, people had made workarounds. They downloaded some of the system’s data, and combined them with data from elsewhere using spreadsheets. Over time the number of spreadsheets had grown and grown. Like the murmuration, the individual actions were easy to understand, but the emergent behaviour was not beautiful, it was chaotic.

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A simple solution

Even though the problem looked very complex, the solution was actually quite simple. We asked people ‘What information do you want and why?’ Then we broke down their answers into user stories. For example, a user story might be:

‘As a project manager I want to see the staff hours available to my project so that I can assign tasks without overloading team members .’

A big advantage of user stories is they make it really clear who’s carrying out a task, what they’re doing, and what they’re hoping to achieve by doing it. This had become lost with all the spreadsheet jockeying.

Before long, it became clear the information requirements were actually pretty straightforward. All the spreadsheets were just causing confusion. Once people focused on outcomes, order began to emerge from the chaos. The right fixes were made to the software and the great murmuration of spreadsheets disappeared.

If you want to know more about user stories and how they can help you solve complex problems, get in touch and we’ll be happy to explain.

In the meantime, have a look at this amazing murmuration video.

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