Lessons on Decision-Making From the Hive

Susan Hall
Slide Show

Six Tips to Improve Collaboration

Six steps you can take to improve collaboration in your company.

After my earlier post today about useless buzzwords on resumes, I'm struggling with the urge to get all punny in this one. (I'll try to resist.)


It seems Thomas Seeley, a professor of biology in Cornell University's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, believes honeybees could teach us a thing or two about collaborative decision-making. In a post on Harvard Business Review, Seeley, author of a book called "Honeybee Democracy," spells out some traits that effective leaders could take from the hive.


He explains that when hives become overcrowded, two-thirds of the bees and the old queen leave the hive and move to a nearby tree branch in a beard-shaped cluster. From there, they send out scout bees to look for a new home. The scout bees go out independently looking for promising sites, then report back to the group with a waggle dance, as do the other scouts. Over a day or so, as scouts check out each other's sites and report back, the group comes to a decision about the best place to relocate. Seeley says that in 90 percent of his experiments, the group did choose the best location.


So how can you use that with your staff? Seeley points to five lessons:

  1. Remind the group's members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively.
    1. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group's likelihood of uncovering an excellent option.
    2. Aggregate the group's knowledge through a frank debate.
    3. Minimize the leader's influence on the group's thinking by being more of a moderator than a proselytizing boss.
    4. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group's members. On that one he writes:
    Only if ideas are shared publicly but evaluated privately will the group be good at exploring its options and making good choices.

    He sums up:

    I've used these methods in running my own groups, and they can be remarkably effective at building consensus and producing good decisions. Let the bees show you that with the right organization, democratic groups can be remarkably intelligent, even smarter than the smartest individuals in them.

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