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21st Century Organizations Behave Like a Drone Swarm

Happy February, everyone. I recently had the pleasure of discussing drone swarms with my daughter for a university project she’s working on. Drone swarms (groups of unmanned autonomous vehicles that coordinate with each other) are coming of age. In 2016, the US military conducted a number of successful tests, and there were some notable commercial applications too, like Intel’s light show with hundreds of drones. I have to admit I felt a few sharp pangs of fear as I imagined 100 self-directed pilotless mini-planes off on a mission, or a swarm of 10,000 insect-size drones with poison payloads coming after me. Part of my fear came from imagining what would happen if there was a bug in their machine intelligence software. (There is always a bug hiding somewhere!) But most of my fear came from envisaging just how effective and unstoppable a drone swarm could be.

Drone swarm

The drone swarm model leads to modular, decentralized business design, and the willingness to run experiments that may fail.

When we envisage our companies and our IT organizations, I think we instinctively see them as an org chart – a hierarchy of business units, teams and individuals. Same for our assets – individual servers in server farms, individual functions in programmes, then in services, all forming part of our architecture. Like a conventional army. Hierarchies have strengths and weaknesses: strengths come from ability to coordinate and scale, weaknesses come from bottlenecks and single points of failure. We all know this, and we find tactical ways to get around the weaknesses. What’s much tougher is changing our mental model.

If we look at the state of the art in drone swarms as a mental model, we see lots of interesting features that we can apply to our organizations: 


  1. Drone swarms are much less fragile than single, monolithic vehicles. Although the intention may be for all drones to survive, individual drones failing or being deliberately destroyed does not compromise the mission. The swarm can adapt. It can even learn from the problems of individual drones, and get better, even mid-mission.

    This characteristic leads to modular, decentralized business design, and the willingness to run experiments that may fail. This is related to the concept of anti-fragility, which LEF is embedding in our 21st Century organization research and will be publishing on shortly.
  2. Drone swarm intelligence comes from the power to co-ordinate in a decentralized way. All drones know the mission, and the coordination software allows drones to communicate with other drones closest to them to achieve the mission.

    This model would lead us to put much more effort into achieving effective collaboration within and between organizational units.
  3. Individual drones take care of their own well-being. Drones seek out mobile charging stations to recharge. In future, they may also seek out 3D printers to repair themselves.

    This is a metaphor for self-managed teams – managing and leading teams based on outcomes, not their work processes or tools.
  4. Individual drones can specialize then change their specialization. Drones peel off to deliver their payloads (e.g. missiles, poison, photos, videos, signal jammers) then they can return to reload and/or play another role.

    This should make us think about the power of teams, and how much ‘team capital’ we destroy when we disband teams.
  5. Drone swarms are awesomely powerful, but raise lots of questions about ethics and policy. The manual sign-off process required for a military plane to go on a mission is too cumbersome to be workable for drone deployments. The consequence of autonomous swarms going wrong means we need to consider the ethics and legislation around what kinds of mission are acceptable, where the liability rests, etc. 


Using drone swarms as a metaphor may give you some powerful ideas.

Platform business models, cloud/everything-as-a-service, big data, and internet-of-things sense and control capabilities all raise similar issues, in terms of risk management, the law, and even sometimes ethics. (What happens to the insurance industry if we know exactly how much of a risk everybody and everything is?)

We suggest that you and your leadership teams read about drone swarms, watch some cool videos of them, and then think about the implications of modelling your business along their lines. Using drone swarms as a metaphor may give you some powerful ideas, but more significantly, as we have more real-time sensing, big data and machine intelligence, our businesses might more literally resemble drone swarms. 

You will see this swarm thinking, and particularly the notion of an anti-fragile organization, appear frequently in LEF research and advisory offerings this year.


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Research Commentary

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