Murmuration: A Metaphor for Collaboration

We are at once individuals and part of something bigger than the self.

Posted Mar 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Gordon Johnson/Pixabay
Birds in flight; murmuration.
Source: Gordon Johnson/Pixabay

Twenty years ago, I attended a teaching conference at a beach-front resort in St. Pete’s Beach, Florida. (Ahhh, the good old days when professional development budgets and the absence of travel restrictions allowed for such adventures!) The conference program was amazing, the conversations engaging, and the vistas stunning. Yet, the most salient memory I have of that conference ties to an unplanned interstitial moment, something I could never have planned nor could possibly recreate.

My friend and I were in our room, getting ready for an evening out. We had opened the door onto the tiny third-floor balcony, just big enough for a hard plastic beach chair and pair of flip flops. As I tidied my hair, we heard a cacophony outside, as if an excited freight train (can freight trains be excited?) had whirred by the balcony and then retreated. What the heck?

We were awestruck by what we witnessed. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of birds were flying with the most graceful synchronicity I had ever seen. In one breath they would bunch together heading west, swiftly dropping altitude. And, in the next, they would ooze apart as they turned south and swooped upward, the whole while giving the impression that individuals were tightly aligned in where they were heading and how they were going to get there. I was mesmerized. Dinner reservations could wait.

I only recently learned this behavior is called murmuration. Software engineer George Young and his colleagues describe this behavior, exhibited by starlings, as a "remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information." NPR later said this is “a nice description of what goes on in a murmuration.”

I dare say this is also a nice description of what goes on in collaboration. In a well-functioning collaboration, we pay attention to our collaborators’ current positions, genuinely caring about their needs and goals, knowing they may shift over time. We go with the flow, remaining both present and flexible amid uncertainty and noise. Accountable for our own well-being and supporting the well-being of the flock, we are at once individuals with identities, needs, and goals – and part of something bigger than the self.