Innovation Is Murmuration

15th October 2018

I am interested in how groups of people can, in the right context and with the right invitation, come to act as one in pursuit of progress. 

Such a thing – scattered people coming together to act with unity – is so rudimentary as to be almost invisible in our day-to-day lives. Observe, for example, how a group of passengers exiting an aircraft in an unfamiliar terminal can collectively decide where to go, so that they take the optimal route to passport control, customs control and beyond. Plenty of other options might have been taken, but the group lands, somehow, on the best one. 

Or, consider the last time you were at an adult birthday party. The cake has come in. There is applause. And then somehow, as if by wizardry, thirty semi-inebriated adults join in unison and in tune, to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Keep an eye on it next time and I will guarantee you this: by the second syllable of the second word (happy birthDAY), everyone is fully on board, singing from the same hymn-sheet. 

To understand how we collectively agree on one course of action and not another, or on one opinion and not another, is at the heart of progress and growth in life. We are social animals and do better because we do things together. In the enterprise of brand-building, we equally seek to create solutions which will be adopted by a targeted group, together. The more spontaneously, the better; slow-burn innovation having its limits, as we know.

Let me begin in Nature, mother of all phenomena, and hence mistress of the metaphor.

Have you ever been present when a group of yapping starlings, ostensibly scattered and disordered, suddenly take flight, swelling and soaring in unison? If not, I at least invite you to experience the sensation on YouTube. Such a flocking, called a murmuration, is a display of such beauty and such wonder that one is moved to believe oneself small, unequal to the marvels of the world. Within the starling murmuration – a collective movement of order emerging from chaos – may lie a key to business growth.

Because murmurations exist in the lives of humans too. Take, for example, three disparate events which are alive in our culture right this moment. 

– The sudden broad agreement among consumers that plastic straws are best avoided (a decision making waves in the catering industry, of course, and with profound implications for packaging in general). This was triggered by dramatic photos of the damage straws can do to marine life, leading to #stopsucking, an invitation that young people actually felt empowered to call their own

– The sudden agreement among Western governments that Saudi Arabia is a bad actor in the Middle East region and puppet-master of the Yemeni food crisis. The consensus has arisen directly from the bizarre Kashoggi murder in Turkey, an act so callow and ghoulish that it has galvanised an opinion which has long since been apparent to anyone interested in the facts

– The explosive and collective refusal of Western women to tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace, now known by the moniker #metoo, and brought to animated life by the exposure of an individual man’s crimes, (the formerly untouchable Weinstein), by a stream of individual actresses 

In each case, a build-up of pressure may have been evident for those who listened carefully. But exactly what such murmurings were saying was less clear. And what their resolution might be, even less so still. For a long time, many individuals said the same thing, but none was strong enough for the issue to take flight. Until the moment of murmuration.

[Note that I am not here talking about ‘the tipping point’, that now hackneyed term we use to describe how something small builds to become mainstream. The essence of ‘the tipping point’ is that small changes will accumulate until that moment when a bigger change is clear. The essence of ‘the murmuration’ is that a collective decision to act is taken in a spontaneous surge, and with agreed purpose. The former is inevitable, the latter far less predictable.]

But what is it that signals lift-off in a murmuration? Be it for plastic straws, or for our view of Saudis, or for our tolerance of sexual harassment or for starlings, what is the thing that drives a large group towards an agreed action?

The French language is, for the most part, beautiful but loquacious. On rare occasion, however, it offers le mot juste. 

The verb déclencher means to trigger action. But perhaps a more exact translation is ‘to provoke with speed the beginning of something new’. 

That’s the essence of murmuration: the provocation of a new direction, with speed. 

Bird blogger Julia Trafford explains its mechanism in nature like this:

‘Starling murmurations generally come into existence when a predator is in close proximity; it’s usually a hawk or a falcon that starts off the starlings, and as a reaction to this threat a murmuration is a handy evasive movement for defence of individuals within the larger group. By sticking together closely, starlings can successfully ward off these quite serious threats. In other words, a collective response to threat yields a significant survival advantage.’

In summary, murmurations tend to be triggered by three things:

– A specific enemy (or problem) is identified

– A threat to the collective is clear

– Survival is perceived to be at stake

What if we saw all innovation as the act of understanding group behaviour, pre-empting ‘the murmuration’, and then being part of the collective change towards progress?

Our job in marketing is to identify the problem, deeply understand it and then help solve it. Brands, after all, solve problems for real people. This can be anything – as trivial as sourdough (soggy bread tastes crap), as fundamental as plastics (I’m participating in choking my own planet), as urgent as Saudi involvement in Yemen (famines are calamitous political events, not ecological ones).

For innovators, I offer three considerations from my Innovation Murmurations Handbook:

Listen carefully to the problems in your category, because they are there and they are being talked about – at least by some

Respond thoughtfully to those whispers for change, solving a specific problem with great specificity 

Sound the drum of change when the time is right, making your solution known, and with urgency


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