Chapter 1: Understanding The Swarm
Somewhere today, a loose-knit group of activists who are having fun is dropkicking a rich, established organization so hard they are making heads spin. Rich and resourceful organizations are used to living by the golden rule – “those with the gold make the rules”. New ways of organizing go beyond just breaking the old rules into downright shredding them – leaving executives in the dust, wondering how that band of poor, rag-tag, disorganized activists could possibly have beaten their rich, well-structured organization.
On June 7, 2009, the Swedish Pirate Party got 225,915 votes in the European Elections, becoming the largest party in the most coveted sub-30 demographic. Our campaign budget was 50,000 euros. Our competitors had spent six million. We had spent less than one per cent of their budget, and still beat them, giving us a cost-efficiency advantage of over two orders of magnitude. This was entirely due to working swarmwise, and the methods can translate to almost any organized large-scale activity. This book is about that secret sauce.
A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of volunteers that looks like a hierarchical, traditional organization from the outside. It is built by a small core of people that construct a scaffolding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to cooperate on a common goal in quantities of people not possible before the net was available.
Working with a swarm requires you to do a lot of things completely in opposite from what you learn at an archetypal business school. You need to release the control of your brand and its messages. You need to delegate authority to the point where anybody can make almost any decision for the entire organization. You need to accept and embrace that people in the organization will do exactly as they please, and the only way to lead is to inspire them to want to go where you want the organization as a whole to go.
It is only as you release that control, the kind of control that organizations and managers have held close to heart for centuries, that you can reap the benefits of the swarm: the same cost-efficiency advantage and execution-speed advantage against the competition that the Swedish Pirate Party enjoyed. This book will teach you those methods, from the initial forming of the swarm to its growth and ongoing maintenance and delivery. It will not teach you the underlying theory of psychology and sociology – merely share experiences and methods that have proven to work in practice.
When I kickstarted the swarm of the Swedish Pirate Party, I had posted a rough manifesto on a rather ugly web site and mentioned the site just once in a chat channel of a file-sharing lobby. That was all the advertising that ever happened; the next day, the party had hundreds of activists. Timing, social context, and message is crucial – but if you have those three, your initial swarm will form like bees to honey in hours. Growing it and maintaining it will also be crucial, but those are the next challenges in line. We take one challenge at a time.
As we describe the swarm concept, it is easy to think of pure decentralized amorphous clouds of people, like Anonymous or the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, while these swarms share values, they do not share direction or method. That means they are confined to succeeding on small projects that span a relatively small number of people over a relatively short timespan, even if each of those small projects build gradual awareness of the Anonymous or Occupy brands.
The weak cohesion of the Anonymous and Occupy brands can partially be ascribed to their choice of being leaderless. While this brings resilience, as no leader can be targeted by adversaries, it sacrifices direction and purpose. I’ve found that the typical Internet community methods of inclusion, when combined with strong leadership, works much better to achieve global change than working leaderlessly under little more than a common flag.
I learned some of these techniques while being trained for officer’s rank in the Army, and even more of them by participating in many online communities. But the secret sauce recipe of swarm cost-efficiency was hit only when you took an officer’s training in maintaining strong group values, mixed in the net’s strong participatory values and low-cost mass communication, and added a dash of management experience from the dot-com era at the turn of the century.
That dot-com era was quite special as a manager in the IT field. If your people didn’t like what you said at the morning meeting, they would merrily walk out of the building and have a new job before lunch. Your paycheck was far more replaceable to them than they ever were as employees to you. People didn’t work for the money.
Therefore, this experience carries over directly to working with volunteers, where people don’t work for the money either (as they aren’t getting any). Leadership and positive reinforcement is key.
Perhaps most significantly, focus in the swarm is always on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot or must do.
This sets it completely apart from a traditional corporation or democratic institution, which focuses sharply on what people must do and what bounds and limits they are confined to. This difference is part of why a swarm can be so effective: everybody can find something they like to do, all the time, off a suggested palette that furthers the swarm’s goals – and there is nobody there to tell them how things must or may not be done.
Rather, people inspire one another. There are no report lines among activists. As everybody communicates with everybody else all the time, successful projects quickly create ripples to other parts of the swarm. Less successful ones causes the swarm to learn and move on, with no fingers pointed.
If you want leadership in a swarm, you stand up and say “I’m going to do X, because I think it will accomplish Y. Anybody who wants to join me in doing X is more than welcome.” Anybody in the swarm can stand up and say this, and everybody is encouraged to. This quickly creates an informal but tremendously strong leadership structure where people seek out roles that maximize their impact in furthering the swarm’s goals — all happening organically without any central planning and organization charts.
At the bottom line, what sets a swarm apart from traditional organizations is its blinding speed of operation, its next-to-nothing operating costs, and its large number of very devoted volunteers. Traditional corporations and democratic institutions appear to work at glacial speeds from the inside of a swarm. That’s also why a swarm can change the world: it runs in circles around traditional organizations, in terms of quality and quantity of work, as well as in resource efficiency.
THE SWARM IS OPEN…
A key aspect of the swarm is that it is open to all people who want to share in the workload. Actually, it is more than open – everybody in the whole world is encouraged to pick work items off a public list, without asking anybody’s permission, and just start doing them. There is no recruitment process. Anybody who wants to contribute to the goal, in their own way and according to their own capacity, is welcome to do so. This contrasts sharply with hiring processes at traditional organizations, where people have to pass some kind of test in order to start working for the organization.
The advantage of this approach is that resources of the swarm aren’t spent keeping people out of it, but are spent getting people in to it. Granted, some work will be a duplication of effort since many people will be working on the same thing when nobody gets to tell other people what to do – but the result will be several solutions that are tried in parallel, and the swarm quickly learns which solutions work and which don’t. The workflow becomes an iterative, evolutionary process of trial and error, of constantly adapting and improving, without anybody’s supervision to make it happen.
Being open and inviting is a key defining feature of a swarm.
The swarm isn’t just open, it is also transparent as a defining feature. There are almost no secrets at all. This can be a mind-boggling concept, coming from a traditional organization.
Everything is transparent by default. Financial records are transparent for all to see. Discussions about strategies and tactics are transparent for all to see (and open for all to participate in). Conflicts are transparent for all to see. This is because all discussions happen in places where everyone can see them.
This provides for trust and confidence. Since everybody can see all the information and all the discussions in the entire organization, it provides a very powerful sense of inclusion.
It also provides an extremely effective rumor control. It is an inoculation against distrust, since distrust depends on information starvation and people drawing their own conclusions from incomplete data.
Transparency is also effective at preventing scandalization: there have been several instances in the Swedish Pirate Party where media caught wind of a conflict, sensationalized it in a typical tabloid fashion, at which point a normal organization would have capsized – but since everybody reading the stories were able to go to the source and read the actual and original exchange of words, there were no rumors and there was no “he said, she said”. Conflicts do not escalate beyond control when this transparency is in place.
Of course, this doesn’t mean every discussion over coffee or a drink must be recorded. That would create an untenable workload, and couldn’t be enforced anyway. But it does mean that work isn’t applied to keep some people away from information that is available to other people – so when discussions are held online, they remain recorded and they remain readable.
- “Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.” — Commissioner Pravin Lal
In the few cases where secrets are kept, they are to protect the privacy of people in the swarm, and anybody can easily find exactly what information is kept secret – and more importantly, why it is kept secret, and who has the knowledge of it.
An example of a legitimate secret in a swarm could be the identities of donors, in order to protect the donors and prevent conflicts of interest as people would consciously or subconsciously try to please the larger donors rather than work toward the overall goal of the swarm. The person administering the bank account and/or credit card records would know this, but would be tasked with keeping it to themselves.
Last but not least, being fully transparent alleviates the problem in traditional chain-of-command structures where somebody in the middle may distort information passed up or down, either consciously or subconsciously, in the scenario where every link in the chain is an information bottleneck. By making all the information available to everybody, nobody will have the ability to distort it to parts of the organization. Conversely, nobody speaks for other people in a swarm, as everybody has their own voice. This prevents factionalization, as there aren’t any traditional middle managers who can set their own goals that conflict with those of the overall swarm.
SO YOU HAVE A PROVOCATIVE IDEA?
You are probably reading this book because you have one or a couple of provocative ideas lurking in the back of your head, and are looking for ways to realize them. Here, then, comes the boring part of realizing them: have you done the math?
All swarms are a matter of quantity. Quantity of people. Like army ants in the Amazon rainforest, it is a matter of overpowering your opponents with sheer biomass through superior ability of organization and ability to channel volunteer energy – using your organizational agility to always be immensely stronger than your adversaries, whenever and wherever you choose to appear, just like the army ants overpower an opponent by their ability to quickly direct and relocate their local biomass advantage.
So this is the first hurdle your idea must pass: are enough people affected by this idea, and can a large enough amount of people be energized to contribute to it in order to pass the critical threshold? Can the threshold be identified, and if so, how many people must get onboard for your idea to succeed?
As we can see, this is where it gets a bit traditional. We must determine what the success criterion for the idea is. What event constitutes success, and what does it take to get there?
For a new political party like the Swedish Pirate Party, the success criterion is easy to determine: get elected. There are many small steps on the road there, of course, and many steps after that goal has been achieved (such as staying elected). But it gives us a tangible goal to work with.
Let’s see how this goal breaks down.
We would need activists in quality and voters in quantity. Politics, after all, is strictly a numbers game. It is a spectator sport performed in public.
In the case of the Pirate Party, the trigger for quantity was file sharing. In 2006, about 1.2 million citizens – voters – in Sweden were sharing culture and knowledge in violation of the copyright monopoly, and didn’t see anything wrong with that, but were still being actively demonized by the establishment.
To get into Parliament, you need 225,000 votes. This meant that if just one-fourth of the people thus demonized were angry enough about it, and didn’t take that kind of treatment sitting down, then the Pirate Party would be in Parliament. That was our goal, posted on the very first day on the website: 225,000 votes. It was credible, it was tangible, it was inclusive, it was world-changing.
Of course, there were other factors in society as well to this conflict, the underlying themes being freedoms of speech and expression as well as general net liberties. But if you start talking about abstract concepts, you’ll just have yawns among your prospective volunteers. We’ll need a large recruitment surface with concepts that are easy to relate to people’s everyday lives in order to grow the swarm to critical mass.
Once inside the swarm, people and activists will strive to understand the concepts on a deeper level. We need that too. But the surface area of the swarm’s idea must be large enough to attain the sufficient quantity of people for success.
Your idea must be possible to break down into that kind of math. How many people engaged at a minimum level, equivalent to voting, buying a product, or signing a petition, do you need to succeed?
You need to identify the group of people affected in a positive direction by your provocative idea, estimate the size of that group, and then make an educated guesstimate as to what portion of this group may engage in the swarm at the lowest level of activation.
However, remember the scale of the quantities of people we’re talking about. Swarms typically engage hundreds of thousands of people, even millions. They’re operated and coordinated by some thousand people who contribute to the swarm in their spare time, and maybe – just maybe – there are one or two full-time people coordinating the bulk of it.
Your swarm may have lower requirements for success than engaging one million people, of course. Only you can know that. But at least, you need to take your best guess at the numbers.
This is hard, because best guesses are all you’ll ever get. For instance, a women’s rights party in Sweden – which is already among the most gender-equal countries in the world – potentially affects a full half of the voter base. But can you activate a large enough portion of those people on the idea of further equalization of the genders? (It was tried. It turned out that you couldn’t.)
In contrast, three years after launch, in 2009, the Swedish Pirate Party got 225,915 votes in the European Elections, securing its first seats. The math had checked out beautifully from my initial estimate of 225,000 votes.
So for the rest of this book, we are going to take a hard look at your idea on how to form a swarm, and see what is required to realize it, the way the Swedish Pirate Party realized its success and started changing the world.
We’ll start with looking at the launch moments of the swarm, and see how intense they can be, and discuss how a scaffolding of go-to people – officers – can be organized in order to enable the swarm all across the ground you intend to cover. We’ll be discussing techniques and methods for the swarm itself, even going down to practical things like handing out flyers, and how you teach people to hand out flyers effectively.
Going from there, we’ll take a closer look at how you can manage the day-to-day operations of the swarm – one portion classic project management, one large portion of wisdom about conflict resolution, and a portion of methods on preserving the swarm’s goals, culture, and values as it grows.
Finally, we’ll take a look at how you use the resulting swarm organization to deliver those large-scale results that change the world, as well as what happens when you succeed too well.
But first things first. Let’s return to that provocative idea of yours, lurking in the back of your head, and discuss how we can begin realizing it.