Hunting for The Elusive Swarming Rule

animals-deers-forest-2570-527x350

There are a variety of different ways of going about swarming. There is the ad hoc approach: all hands on deck, everybody find a way to help. Then there are methods are a bit more subtle. You aren’t just dog piling on whatever the problem is. Instead, what you are doing is applying simple rules that allow behavior to emerge. Easy, right?

Not really. The trick is learning what those rules might be. We are looking for simple rules that when followed may reveal emergent patterns that are hard to predict. That very emergent nature makes them hard to discover. You can’t just say, “Hey, I want a simple rule to build the next mobile app.” It just doesn’t work that way. The rule and the emergent behavior often have absolutely no apparent relationship to each other. So how can we find these rules?

One way to do it is to simply look at others and see what they do. Perhaps there are things people do that bring about the behavior. The problem with this approach is that you need to find a source of pretty significant variation in behavior in order to have the best chance of discovering the kind of behavior you are looking for. That leads me to this conclusion: You aren’t going to find it where you work. In fact, you probably aren’t going to find it in your industry (yeah, I’m talking about software). If you are looking for these kind of rules you need to cast your net really wide. Across multiple industries.

If it were me, I’d look into industries like logistics and shipping, I’d look into the printing industry (they are the reigning kings of resource planning). I’d look across different cultures at food vendors in the streets of india, or the techniques that a London cabby uses to remember all of the streets and byways of London. I’d go to emergency call centers, emergency rooms, trucking dispatchers, call centers, anything you can imagine is game. Start with the end state in mind (at least in broad terms) and then work your way down toward the specific building blocks that might get you there. It’s probably a fool’s errand, but at least you are looking for an answer.

Perhaps it can only come from experience?

It reminds me of deer hunting with my father. In the darkest and coldest hours of the early fall morning we would leave our camp to hunt. As we walked out to where ever we were hunting for the day, often we would debate our strategy for the hunt. My Dad always told me that the best strategy was to pick a likely spot and wait for the deer to come to you. If you were patient and sat still, you were much more likely to see something or have a deer come stumbling across your path. He said that’s why old guys were better hunters. They would go out and fall asleep on stump and wake up an hour later to find a monster buck blithely munching away right in front of them. All you have to do is just sit there perfectly quietly. All. Day. Long.

Now to me, as a teenager, this sounded like an excellent recipe for going rather swiftly and completely insane. There we were, out in the hills wandering through what could easily be described as “God’s Country” There was deer habitat everywhere. A herd of deer over every hill. They could be down in the next valley beside the river in the morning. Later in the day they might be high on the ridges bedded down among the rimrocks. The only way to get those deer was to go to where they were. You had to move around and cover some territory.

I spent days roaming the hills and valleys hunting – and finding nothing but dry grass. I would cover 20 miles a day. It turns out that I make a hell of a lot of noise when I’m roaming around. Even when I’m being really sneaky I still make an unholy racket (at least to a deer). They hear you coming a mile off. That’s if they don’t see you silhouetted against the skyline as you cross the ridge. Or if they smell you coming from the next county as you sweat your way up to the rimrocks. It seemed like where ever I went, they were always long gone.

You see each of us was practicing a simple rule. My Dad’s rule: sit still. Mine? Keep moving. So who do did the best? Dad.

Me? I scared the hell out of every deer, fox, mule, turkey and woodchuck in a 20 mile radius. On the bright side, I never spent a dime on bullets.

I eventually learned which rule worked best, but it took me time and experience to get there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: