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Leadership lessons from bees

Did you know that bee hives think?

A bee hive is a bit like a brain. It is a type of complex adaptive system. Which means a system which can react as a whole to its environment. And bee hives make good decisions.

None of the individual worker bees, nor even the queen bee, is particularly intelligent on their own. But the way they behave collectively - the dances they do when they return from foraging, to inform other bees of what they’ve found - lead to the hive making good choices.

This is called emergent intelligence. The whole is significantly more intelligent than the sum of its parts.

Leadership: Bees vs Armies

Compare this model to the hierarchical intelligence of an army. Army decisions are made by the leadership and cascade down until they reach the soldiers. Their decisions can be slow, out of touch with reality and counterproductive. The whole army’s intelligence is limited by the intelligence of its leaders.

When it comes to your organisation, would you prefer it to be more like a bee hive, or more like an army?

Here’s a hint: we know that even armies are trying to become more like beehives - with decision-making more flexible and distributed. Be more bee-like

There are at least three ways which leaders like you can build an organisation which is wiser than the sum of its parts.

First, you should listen to the people on the front line. Bring subject matter experts or front line team members into the room for the big decisions. Second, you can develop a culture that is strong on communication. It can help to have specific rules – for example 'how to assess new opportunities?' How will we assess how much nectar might come from each new market opportunity? Third, you must listen to divergent views. When bees do their dancing, they actually do a kind of dance off with multiple bees competing with their information dance. There's even a kind of debate with bees headbutting other bees if they disagree. Likewise, you will make better decisions when you deliberately demand and debate different viewpoints. Succeed at speed

As work gets more complex, hierarchical organisations may not be intelligent enough as a whole to navigate the ups and downs of your market. Only by creating an organisation which is more intelligent than the sum of its parts will you succeed at speed. Written by Rob Pyne


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