Photo courtesy of bees-on-the-net.com
When I’m as busy as I’ve been this year, there are two things that I miss the most: 1) reading and 2) writing. There just doesn’t seem to be time enough to do either one, at least not particularly well. Fortunately, there are vacations, and my longstanding rule for vacations is that I get to read (and eat) whatever I want. Fortunately that rule usually means that I wind up with some great stuff to write about, fueled by my long overdue reading.
This year’s unexpected source of inspiration is Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley, a book which took my appreciation for honeybees and their approach to both marketing and corporate decision making to an unprecedented level. I’ve written previously about honeybee behavior and the parallel to social networking in the ways that honeybees find and communicate their favorite food sources (see previous post). The Honeybee Democracy focuses on a much more complex and interesting aspect of honeybee survival; how honeybees make decisions on where to live, and how they execute on those decisions once a suitable hive site has been agreed to.
I found this topic particularly fascinating, as in the last year I have heard and witnessed from my e-commerce clients that internal decision making is harder than ever and getting harder still. Even though there’s no lack of enthusiasm for the online channel, budgets are being scrutinized like never before. The consumer’s migration to the web and all things digital has put e-commerce leaders in the hot seat, with more stakeholders in the company wanting a say in the strategy. New channels and access points (like mobile) are disruptive, creating new work streams and considerations in online marketing and site development. Thus, decisions involve more people, take longer, and carry more weight.
We’ve all seen the common pitfalls of corporate decisions making:
- Ambiguity about who makes the decision; over-emphasis on building consensus & unanimity
- Heavy handed influence by the leader or person in the highest level position
- Dominance of one overly-vocal team member (sometimes inexperienced) who wants it “their way”
- Inadequate time to explore viable options; pressure to decide without the confidence of due diligence
- Poor communication & execution once a decision is made; getting everyone moving in the same direction
Fortunately, we need to look no further than our closest honeybee hive to find intelligent, practical approaches to all of the above.
To understand how the bees tackle these tough issues, you need know a little bit about bee behavior when it comes to propagating and house hunting (the author does a much more thorough job that I’ll do here).
To keep the honeybee population alive and growing, new hives need to be formed. So, as an existing honeybee hive becomes crowded, about half of the bees in the hive, along with their precious queen bulk up on honey and leave the hive in search of a new one. The homeless bees find a place to ‘hang’ (literally) for a few days while they search for a new hive site. The picture of the swarm above shows what this hanging out looks like. 15,000 or so bees all huddled together, protecting their queen, badly in need of shelter. So, how to find a new hive site, how to decide which hive site is best, and equally critical, how to get 15,000 bees, plus the queen to a new site efficiently is the order of the day.
A relatively small number of the older and more experienced worker bees in the hive “volunteer” to become scouts. As a scout, a bee must fly (sometimes great distances) to evaluate a potential hive site and fly back to the hanging swarm to report on her findings. She tells the group about her find by “waggle dancing” on the backs of her fellow bees. The duration and strength of the dance indicates her enthusiasm for the hive site she has found. The movements in her dance indicate the distance and direction of the potential site. Her fellow scout bees do the same, each returning back to the hive with a potential new home site, varying in their dance steps based on the quality of the find. (In case you were wondering, bees look for a lot of the same things we do in a new house: secure entrance, warmth, spaciousness).
So, how do the bees ultimately “decide” the best hive site? When a scout bee dances for the site she has found, depending on the strength of her dance, other scout bees will go check it out for themselves. They come back to the swarm and either dance (to confirm the original scout’s judgment) or refrain. The more scouts that ultimately visit and validate the suggested site, the more likely the site will “win” and become the hive site of choice for the swarm. As enthusiasm for one site builds, enthusiasm for other suggested sites dies out, and ultimately, the bees make their choice, buzzing in unison that it’s time to take flight. Since a majority of the 15,000 plus bees, including the queen have never been to the winning site, leader scouts fly above the swarm, guiding the way, assuring everyone arrives quickly and safely to begin ‘moving in’ to the new place. In this process, the bees become, in a sense, a collective decision making body with the interest of survival as their sole focus.
How does all of this apply to corporate culture and decision making? There are many things that we can learn from the honeybees, and Seeley dedicates a late chapter in his book to how he has applied many of the bees’ techniques in running the academic department at his university. Here are the 5 big insights that got me buzzing:
- Bees don’t need a leader to make a critical decision. It’s a common misconception that the queen bee is the leader of the hive. She’s not. In fact, she doesn’t rule or make any decisions at all. She’s just there to fill her essential role in reproduction, and thus, she is pampered and watched over by the other bees. But don’t look to her for strategic guidance or vision. The bees don’t have a leader. What they do have is a unifying goal: to stay alive. If you’re leading an e-commerce team, remember this. It may not always be your job to make the decision or even heavily influence the decision. It may instead be more important and helpful if you clarify the goal and unite the team around it, and then let them reach the right decision.
- Bees rely on their most experienced team members to surface options and perform due diligence. Hive site selection can be a life or death decision. This isn’t the place to let your newborns test their wings. Send your strongest, smartest and most seasoned to do the information gathering. They know what to look for and what questions to ask.
- When a scout bee finds a good hive site, she dances about it to tell the others, then promptly shuts up and lets the other scouts make up their minds. I love this, because I (probably like you) have sat through way too many decision making meetings where one influential and vocal person runs at the mouth, making it hard or impossible for alternative options to be discussed. It’s great to be passionate about your idea, but it’s even better to make your pitch and let a trusted group of colleagues do the necessary research to get on board or raise concerns. This approach can prevent costly mistakes and assure that those that are on board are there because they have validated the quality of the decision.
- Bees balance speed with discipline. Time is critical. Bees can only hang there for so long without a home. Then again, making the right choice for a hive site is critical too. The house hunting process is a remarkable balance of speed and discipline. By deploying their most experienced workers to scout out sites, and by validating each others’ work, the scouts can effectively make a decision for colony without all 15,000 bees having to weigh in. In test after test, this method allowed the bees to choose the highest quality home in a short period of time.
- Once a decision is made, the bee colony acts as one. Nothing is more frustrating than going through a painstaking decision making process only to find the execution poor, the team members scattering off in multiple directions. If this poor execution were to happen to the bees (and it has happened), the bees would lose their queen, and thus their lives. Seeley cites examples in the book where two strong hive sites are found and the bees are competing and/or confused about deciding which is best. The swarm, in rare cases, divides in two, flying in two separate directions, usually causing the queen to become lost and fall out of the swarm. There are also remarkable examples of the bees successfully locating the queen, gathering around her, and “getting their act together” in terms of unifying their flight plan.
Some things you should know about Honeybee Democracy: a) if you have an interest in nature, insect science, social networks, or corporate cultures you will get value out of this book. b) If you are more interested in social networks and corporate cultures than the insect and natural sciences (as I am) you may find parts of this book a bit tedious, especially when the author describes how certain experiment were conducted or how data was gathered. That said, I’m no scientist, but I still found the info intriguing and the methodology remarkably similar to the techniques used in A/B testing on e-commerce sites. Keep in mind; I was sitting in the heavenly sun in a beach chair with a drink in my hand. Even the most banal reading can be easy to take under those circumstances. c) If you read this book on a Kindle (which I did) you will likely be annoyed by the number of typos; something clearly went afoul in the translation, but you’ll be able to figure out the correct words (“of” and “off” get transposed constantly, as do “few” and “flew”) easily enough.
If you’re too busy to read (like I typically am) you might just look up the next time you’re in your back yard. It’s amazing what kind of business advice you might find.