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5 ways to learn from a swarm of bees

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We can learn much about decision-making from bees, says Thomas Seeley, a professor of biology at Cornell University and author of Honeybee Democracy.

When a honeybee hive becomes overpopulated and its bees need to find a new place to live, a few scouts set out to scour the world beyond the hive. When they return, they perform a waggle dance to indicate the location and quality of the hive.

After that, the hive must make a decision about which new location to choose. About 90% of the time, in Seeley’s experiments, the swarm chooses the best option.

What works well for bee swarms can work well for human groups. Five guidelines for helping groups make decisions like bees:

1. Shine a spotlight on group members’ shared interests, so they work together productively.

“The scout bees know instinctually that their interests are aligned toward choosing the optimal home site, so they work together as a team,” Seeley says.

2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem. That way, the group is more likely to uncover an excellent option.

When looking for the perfect housing solution, a few hundred scout bees will take off in different directions.

3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate. Fair and open competition will distinguish good options from bad ones.

“The scout bees rely on a turbulent debate to identify a winner,” Seeley says. “Whichever group first attracts sufficient supporters wins.”

4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. Scout bees have no dominating leader, so they can take a broad, deep look at their options.

5. Share ideas publicly; evaluate them privately. Scout bees share the news of their finds in front of the hive, but each member makes its own, independent decision.

Bees show us that with the right organization, democratic groups can be remarkably intelligent, even smarter than the smartest individuals in them.

— Adapted from “The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives,” Thomas Seeley, Harvard Business Review.

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