The "Bee"haviors Of Successful Decision Making As A Group

Blog Post created by jgaudin on May 11, 2012

I'm a bit of a sucker for a pun.  I do hope you'll forgive the one in the title of this blog post.  However, as it turns out the decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds, colonies of ants and termites display it as well.  The Secret Life of Bees is an interesting article on the study of swarm intelligence as it relates to honeybees making a decision on a location for a new hive.  Professor Thomas D. Seeley focuses his work on understanding the solving of cognitive problems by a group who pool and process their knowledge through social interactions. 


During his studies of how honeybees determine a new hive location, on page 3 Professor Seeley has defined two main principles:

  1. Enthusiasm- when a scout finds a good location, they return to the hive and do a dance.  Now, I'm not recommending you start breakdancing on the boardroom table at your next meeting, but enthusiasm garners attention and attention toward a good idea garners support.
  2. Flexibility- The first good site found is not always the best option.  The enthusiasm of the bee dance decreases over time and if a new, better location is found by a different scout the enthusiasm shifts in that direction, even the enthusiasm of the previous scout. 


Making decisions as a group can yield tremendous benefits.  When the collective is open and flexible good ideas rise up and bad ones sink down.  The bees in this study are focused on one goal of finding a new location for a hive.  Before Cisco, I worked for a smaller, start-up company and we went through the exact same exercise of finding a new location.  During a company meeting we discussed the requirements in terms of: size, geographical location, proximity to major roads and restaurants, parking, timelines and more.  With these requirements in mind, we'd look for suitable locations during our commute or while out and about.  We'd socialize our prospects over the next couple of weeks.  Not by doing the bee waggle dance, but simply by talking amongst ourselves.  Most people were familiar with the surrounding areas and could easily describe the prospective location without requiring a field trip to explore.  Others would provide feedback from their experiences in that locale, or second-hand from people they knew with experiences in the area.  Sometimes there would be a lot of excitement about a prospective location and other times the objections and concerns would outweigh the benefits.  In the end, we found a new location in a short time period that was ideally suited for the current and future needs of the company.  A great example of how group collaboration yielded a positive result through a focused exercise with a well-defined goal.


In an enterprise environment we're looking for more then just a new location.  We have LOBs and departments and layers and different groups of focus with different agendas.  This is where the power of having a good leader should not be undervalued.  Good leadership sets the direction for the company, defines the goals, communicates how those goals will achieve greatness for the company, but can let the collective groups determine how.  We know employees want to feel involved with the company and in the decision making process.  We've looked at the question of how Can Collaboration Give Employees What They Need Most?  A strong leadership team, one that collaborates effectively, will bring success to their enterprise:

  1. Define goals and priorities.  Something everybody in the company can relate to and drive toward.
  2. Set boundaries.  Maintain focus by communicating areas of non-interest.  Knowing what not to do is just as important as what to do.
  3. Collaborate.  Collect and evaluate ideas, voice objections and agreement, determine value based on collective intelligence.
  4. Act.  Ultimately, somebody needs to be responsible for the decision.  When it's made, execute it.
  5. Learn.  Understand why a particular decision was made, review the results, gain knowledge and wisdom for similar scenarios.


Where are group decisions working in your organization?  Are employees focused on reaching targets that don't conflict with the goals of other groups?  Are you empowered to voice your opinion and play a role in the direction of the company?  Do you prefer a "command and control" structure?  What are the behaviors of successful group making that have been demonstrated in your company?  What were the results of those group decisions?