Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups – Learning from Bees

Why Bees?

I have been a beekeeper for much longer than I have been working with teams in organisations. My French teacher first introduced me to beekeeping when I was fourteen and I was hooked from the outset. Collecting my first swarm and putting it in my own hive is something I will never forget.

The mystery of the Bee colony and the symbiotic relationship between man and Bees and Bees and nature fascinates me. But ‘Honey Bee Democracy’ a book by Professor Thomas Seeley makes clear that there is much to be learnt from Bees that is very relevant to decision-making in organisations.

The book is primarily about the democratic decision-making process that a swarm of bees conducts when it has left its mother colony and is looking for a new home. But what is really relevant here are the lessons we can learn from bees about how human groups can organise themselves to improve their decision-making.

As Seeley says there are many examples of groups making very poor decisions and he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche saying ‘Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups…it is the rule’. I have certainly worked with many teams whose decision-making processes have been dysfunctional. Yet I have also experienced the collective wisdom that can emerge from a group. A properly focussed group can achieve far more than individuals on their own and organisations depend on groups to be reliable decision makers.

Seeley has distilled ‘Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups’ from his Bee research and applied them to managing his Cornell University department. The principals can be applied in many different group decision-making contexts and I have found them to be very relevant to my work in organisations.

Lesson 1: Compose the Decision Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

In the workplace the composition of the group may already be predetermined but by definition people working in the same team share interests, however unaware of that fact they sometimes are. Although mutual respect is often present beneath the surface, it may not be in a strongly conflicting team, in which case it is best to resolve conflicting relationships through mediation before seeking to work consensually.

Lesson 2: Minimise the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

Sometimes a leader has to make decisions and give direction but whether you are an external facilitator, mediator or leader within your own team, you need to be careful to facilitate impartially. Don’t influence or dictate, if you want to make use of the power of collective choice. Seeley explains how the gut feelings and partiality of George W. Bush in 2003 influenced his foreign policy advisors to such an extent that they missed an opportunity to use group intelligence and made the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq.

Lesson 3: Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

Don’t just jump on the first solution that comes along and run with that. Get as many diverse options on the table as there are ideas in the room, get input from quieter members. An unusual suggestion can open up a completely different perspective that would be lost if everybody went along with the first thing they could half agree with. If debate is strong you can introduce a rule that no one may speak more than twice on an issue until everyone who wants to has spoken once and get people to speak for their own issue not against other people’s. It is essential that each individual independently evaluates all proposed solutions but this is very different from the negative or adversarial criticism often experienced in organisations and wider society.

Lesson 4: Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge through Debate.

Bees have developed a decision making process that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years. The essence of which is the power of an open, fair competition of ideas and debate about alternative options. Often in organisations people are afraid to ‘open a can of worms’ so suppress debate but the group’s collective intelligence gets suppressed at the same time. This process is easier when there is relational clarity amongst the individuals present and people are intent on making the best collective decision.

Lesson 5: Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Use straw polls periodically during the debate to see how close you are to consensus. If unanimity is far away more debate is required but if a poll shows that you are close to agreement then further debate can be minimised. A quorum of at least 80% should be sufficiently large to ensure accurate decision making and enable those not in the quorum to join the consensus, providing they are able to put ego’s aside and everyone is committed to reaching consensus.

When using this approach it is important to be clear from the outset that reaching a consensus is the goal and that everybody buys into that. Obviously for this to work the group has to have the authority to implement whatever outcomes emerge.

It can also be used to get a clear view of a team’s preferred outcome even if the final decision is in the hands of a higher authority but then that needs to be clearly stated as well.

Either way, it is important to get everyone’s agreement to seek a consensus. Once that has happened it can develop into a whole new way of working.

Let me know what you think.