Structures influence behaviour

The importance of the context

One of the most practical learnings of systems theory is that structures influence behaviour. We can consider as structures being whatever influences our decisions. We can refer to the procedures, rules, manuals of operation, the database with one type of inputs and formats and not others, instructions about how to make reports and the kind of information that they contain, and so on. Also the infrastructure, the hardware, the working space or the logistics. Even all those informal or unwritten rules, what we call the company culture, the history, the experience. All are conditioning people to do things one way and not another.

In our day to day life, structures influence our choices. Working in a hierarchical or bureaucratic company will limit our opinions and ideas or being paid with a substantial individual bonus will discourage our collaborative decisions. In contrast, a flat organisation or a balance between individual and team rewards will stimulate us to act differently.

If we want to change the behaviour in an organisation, we must avoid simplistic solutions focused on direct impact and control. The establishment of policies focused directly and exclusively on the goal or, even worse, impositions through direct coercion or external motivation, usually economic, does not work.

We must identify the causes that motivate certain behaviours and seek to change them. A catalyst can stimulate proactivity. Overcoming the limits and constraints can liberate peoples’ energy. Creating space can let others lead.

There is no doubt that a change in the rules will change behaviour immediately and more effectively than if we try to influence it directly.

The Game

There is an instructive game that shows this subject very visually, and it’s worth know about; it is the “Icosystem Game“.

Change on rules influence behaviour

Icosystem uses The Game to illustrate among others, the following points:

  • Simple rules of individual behaviour can lead to surprisingly consistent system-level results.
  • Small changes in rules or in the way they are applied can have a significant impact on the aggregate results.

What is swarm intelligence?

Swarm Intelligence (SI) ‘is the property of a system whereby the collective behaviours of (unsophisticated) agents interacting locally with their environment cause coherent functional global patterns to emerge.’
The abilities of such systems appear to transcend the capabilities of the constituent individuals. It responds to the following characteristics:

  • Flexible: responding to internal perturbations and external challenges.
  • Robust: completing tasks even if some individuals fail.
  • Decentralised: with no central control or controller.
  • Self-organised: paths to solutions are emergent rather than predefined.


The performance of an organisation can be dramatically increased by collective intelligence. Especially in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environments, being agile and adaptive is a must. To attain distributed functioning, it will be necessary to design structures that foster collaborative behaviours. Nevertheless, self-coordination will first need individuals to know what to do. Then, they have to be aligned with organisational strategy. Finally, they need to be empowered to participate and contribute.
Therefore, the Road Map for self-coordination will include:
The first level of collective intelligence is featuring autonomy. Individuals have to reduce the level of uncertainty through acquiring, understanding and interchanging knowledge.
The second level is the emergence of cohesion. Individuals congregate and become teams by social interactions through processes of integration.
The third level is distributed functioning. Teams are finally ready for self-coordination when they have space to perform. They attain a level of awareness of themselves as a new entity.


  • Bonabeau, E., Dorigo, M., & Theraulaz, G. (1999). Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. (Amazon)
  • Zamora Enciso, R. (2018). Cooplexity: A model of collaboration in complexity for management in times of uncertainty and change (Third edit). Barcelona: (Amazon)

Photo by Nik on Unsplash (link)