Saturday, July 7, 2007

Swarm II: The Waggle Dance

A few months ago we analogized the similarity of bee colonies and startup companies (click here to read the post). Beehives, I asserted, are cool. I’m fascinated by their organization, sense of purpose, productivity, and frenetic (but disciplined) characteristics. Bees, like kick-ass entrepreneurs, get shit done.

I am currently immersed in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s a better than expected, noggin-opening page turner. If you have not read it, get it. Surowiecki’s principal argument is that large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, and even predicting the future. The collective wisdom of many trumps the brilliance of a few.

Early on, Surowiecki employs a beehive analogy to support his premise, specifically the destructive and (seemingly) wasteful cycle of new industry creation and innovation. Here’s a verbatim peek:

Bees are remarkably efficient at finding food. According to Thomas Seeley, author of The Wisdom of the Hive, a typical bee colony can search six or more kilometers from the hive, and if there is a flower patch within two kilometers of the hive, the bees have a better-than-half chance of finding it. How do the bees do this? They don’t sit around and have a collective discussion about where foragers should go. Instead, the hive sends out a host of scout bees to search the surrounding area. When a scout bee has found a nectar source that seems strong, he comes back and does a waggle dance, the intensity of which is shaped, in some way, but the excellence of the nectar supply at the site. The waggle dance attracts other forager bees, which follow the first forager, while foragers who have found less-good sites attract fewer flowers and, in some cases, eventually abandon their sites entirely. The result is that bee foragers end up distributing themselves across different nectar sources in an almost perfect fashion, meaning that they get as much food as possible relative to the time and energy they put into searching. It is a collectively brilliant solution to the colony’s food problem.

What’s important, though, is the way the colony gets to that collectively intelligent solution. It does not get there by first rationally considering all the alternatives and then determining an ideal foraging pattern. It can’t do this, because it doesn’t have any idea what the possible alternatives – that is, where the different flower patches – are. So instead, it sends out scouts in many different directions and trusts that at least one of them will find the best patch, return, and do a good dance so that the hive will know where the food source is.
The message for entrepreneurs and innovators: Discovering the source of nectar (the right product for the apt market segment) is a collaborative, curious, speculative, diverse, and diffused process. It’s about acknowledging and solving unknown unknowns. It’s messy and tiring, but then again, so too is the nectar search for waggle-dancing bees.

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