The Balance of Conformity and Disruption

COBIOM & Biomimicry Academy
4 min readJun 12, 2020

A socioeconomic interpretation of biology by Dr. Fabian Feutlinske, CEO of COBIOM

It is all about the right balance. There is no right or wrong, as long as you keep an open eye for your neighbours. We can learn from fish how to balance following the crowd and breaking free — to the right extend.

A recent article in Nature Communications has gotten much attention recently because of its widespread potential implications of how we might balance conformity with disrution. But let’s not jump to conclusions too readily. Science needs a step-wise critical review to give meaningful advise. A notion that has been largely neglected by presidents and influencers lately.

Stickleback Crew in the Salish Sea provided by Oceanus on Vimeo.

The stickleback is a cute little fish omnipresent in healthy local sweet water. It also is a pet animal of scientists from behaviourmental science to genetics. In the present study, Hannah MacGregor and coworkers have researched the difference between disorganised swarms and highly polarised groups — and the continous fluctuation between these two states.

Individuals have different motivations and goals. They need to be balanced with those of all other individuals to create the benefits a swarm offers. It is the classic divergence between personal wishes for egocentric profit and survival instincts of the individual as representatives of a species. Given that we look at a study in fundamental biology not human sociology, we have to be careful in translating the findings one to one; or on the other hand cherrypick our interpretations.

Corporates vs freelancing in stickleback

Comments in Süddeutsche Zeitung and on Social Media pointed out that individuals should break free fromthe swarm in order to include new perspectives. These individuals thus disrupt the previous conformity and consequently open up space for innovation. Translated into the human economic realm, we find ourselves reminded of situations often seen in corporates: We can say that a swarm that continuously swims in a previously determined direction, no matter how fast and efficient, will miss out on new food sources or even disappear into the jaws of a big predator. You can paint your own picture of corporate swarms, economic food sources and market predators.

On the other hand, a stickleback, or professional for that matter, leaving the swarm to experiment, call for change or even freelance is much more prone to end up the same way and disappear into oblivion inthe vasteness of the economic pond.

The study published in Nature Communications has shown, how the trade-off between going rouge and leveraging conformity can work. We can indeed learn a great deal from it about how we balance individual profit with benefits for the whole group, or even society. It just doesn’t come as natural to the homo economicus as it does to the stickleback.

Cooperation is the way to go, but it does not come easy

I will keep on talking about the fish of the study here. The truth is in the data; however, our interpretation always includes our biases, too. Mine, or this of any reader. Socioeconomic considerations, especially based on interpretation of nature, are alway interpretations.

Swarm behaviour is governed by some simple principles as researchers from natural and computer science, like our colleague Prof. Tim Landgraf at Freie Universität Berlin, have shown. They bascially depend on angle, distance, velocity. The Study by MacGregor et al suggests that individuals who are open to change these factors are more likely to act differently than the rest of the swarm. They thus overcome conformity cues and spot food or predators earlier than others. The swarm follows these trail blazers.

However, the individual who spotted the food source first was not necessarily the one who could eat it in the experiments. The group thus benefits from the disruption of conformity by an individual, possibly even more that the individual itself. In organisations or social groups, we will need the change makers, but we will need to support them in order to allow for continuous innovation, and not let them starve of resources or appreciation. The dissidents have to be included in the collective behaviour while giving them the space to breath freely. The answer is hence not freelancing or corporate, it is a combination, a balance.

Cooperation over competition

The stickleback example shows that even if there is situational competition driven by individual wishes, it immerges into an overall cooperation that is visible as swarm behaviour, alternating between polarisation and disorder. No individual stickleback will lead the swarm forever nor profit more than the others.

We are looking at a highly complex system of interactions. And we observe self-organisation in perfection. Organisations that work like this will be successful as a whole while incentivising both conformity and disruption.

Deeply rooted in neuroscience, cellular signalling, systems thinking and cognitive psychology, we use these kind of learnings in an approach we call Biomimicry, to design the system apt to shape the future: A global swarm of experts that balances disruption and cocreation in order to solve the burning challenges of society and businesses — all while beingembedded in the natural environment and the guiding framework of the SDGs. The process of problem solving in our expert swarm is not so different from the search for food by the sticklebacks. Individual contributions are rewarded if they lead to the overall advancement of the solution. This way we drive cooperation over competition. And get the best results for all, client and contributors.

If you want to learn more about how we build the swarm of experts, how you can leverage it already for your business challenges, or how to join the swarm visit, or get in contact with us at

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