The Decision of the Crowd

This essay covers the dilemma of making a timely decision while considering enough options for the essence of your business concept.

If you are in the early stages of a new venture, I can only hope you find yourself in a roller coaster, land of confusion – too much certainty at the onset would personally make me nervous.  “What’s the right strategic foundation of what we’re building?  What’s the customer value proposition? How big is the market? What’s the business model?  How do we ‘explode’ out of the gates” – I trust these are all questions you’re still heavily debating amongst your team, and soon, if not already, with mentors and subject matter expert advisors.

But eventually, you do have to narrow down your list of strategic options and key attributes of your business.    So how do you do that as a team with so many opinions floating around?  I don’t have a perfect answer for you – but I can give you an example of what goes on in nature – how a swarm of Bees would approach your problem.

Bees truly embody the Wisdom of the Crowd

While us humans continue to struggle, bees offer an amazing example of how to solve the age-old dilemma of group decision-making – how to accommodate the preferences of many individuals into a single choice for the group as a whole. The secret to the bee’s effective decision-making process lies in their strange ‘waggle dance’.

“Long Live The New Queen!”

Every bee colony must eventually make room for a new queen bee. During late spring or early summer, a portion of the swarm flies off with the old queen to form a new colony. The migrant bees convene on a nearby branch as a temporary house. From there, they have a limited number of hours to find their new permanent home or they will perish.

 Scouts Honor

The bees send out scouts that look for ideal places for the colony, usually a hollow tree with the right size and shading conditions. Each scout then comes back to the temporary home and performs a ‘waggle dance’, indicating to those who will listen the attractiveness of the potential new home – the more attractive the home to the scout, the more waggle runs – the more waggle runs, the more followers are attracted to go check out the potential new home.

 Natural Selection To The Rescue

The secret in the waggle dance method is that each time the scout returns to the potential site and back, it performs progressively less waggle runs – about 15 less runs each trip. This allows for the more attractive sites to have a much higher total of runs than less attractive sites (e.g. 90+75+60+45+30+15+0 = 315 vs. 30+15+0=45). Scientists have tested the effects of changing the waggle run algorithm – it turns out that the bees have perfected their algorithm through natural selection such that they find an ideal home – not too quickly, so that they don’t settle for inferior home sites, but not too slowly either, so that they don’t risk the ultimate well-being of the colony.

Not Consensus

imagesIt is tempting to conclude that the bee’s decision-making process is akin to consensus building. But bees don’t hold meetings to poll everyone’s opinion until everyone agrees on a compromised solution. In fact bees form quorums – Through the waggle dance algorithm, the number of scouts at the most attractive sites eventually snowballs, outnumbering scouts at inferior sites – This eventually triggers some scouts at the popular site to make a decision – they proceed to warm up the rest of the bees on the branch to take off in flight towards the new home – and everybody (usually) follows along – sometimes two quorums are formed and it’s back to work.

 Lessons Learned

Experiments prove bees are good at collective judgment – they find their ideal home among various choices. So what guidance can the bees provide on collective intelligence for humans? There are a few main lessons one can take from the bees’ decision-making process:

  • For each deliberation, promote an open competition of ideas (bees allow the decision making process enough time to consider several options and not settle on the first good option too quickly, creating a healthy competition among possible courses of action)
  • Promote diversity of opinions and independent thinking within the group (several bee scouts search for and promote their sites independently, not just a select few. Furthermore, bees don’t obsequiously conform to other’s opinions – they corroborate information for themselves)
  • Balance accuracy vs. speed (bees use the quorum method to aggregate opinion and reach a balanced course of action in a reasonable time frame, minimizing inaccurate solutions, while exploiting the span of expertise in the group)

You can read more about group decision-making in honey bee swarms by consulting this issue of American Scientist online, my source for this article.

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