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What supports teams to make good decisions – and to make them efficiently? What kind of leadership is required to support the quality of collective decision-making? And will that quality be compromised in the absence of a “central guiding authority”?

Tapping the promises of diversity of thought, crowd-sourcing, and of co-created, open innovation hinges on answers to these questions which have been at the center of much fascinating research. One different perspective is presented in “The Smart Swarm” by Peter Miller, a highly fascinating exploration of how animal swarms communicate and “negotiate” to make collective decisions.

What Miller and others find is that swarms do a really fine job at mastering the complex challenges they face. In fact, their strategies are so effective, that approaches to solve highly complex problems such as the optimization of airline networks are modeled on swarm tactics.

To put it provocatively: Bees tend to better than most teams in many ways. One area where bees excel is the friendly competition of ideas.

Researchers investigated how a bee swarm decides where to build their next hive – a question as crucial to survival as it gets. What they found is that highly specialized agents – scouting bees – take on the task of selecting a new site, come to their conclusion, and then advocate for their choice. So far, this looks familiar.

But once conflicting preferences are found, something quite different happens: Before continuing to advocate for “their” choice of location, each scout explores the alternative preferences of their fellow scouts: Literally, all scouting bees visit the sites that other scouting bees suggested for the new hive.

Few teams have such a culture of a friendly competition of ideas. Advocacy is the norm, fierce advocacy rarely an exception. Once the personal preference is established, arguing against alternatives dominates the decision-making process. At worst, this takes the “I am right” form. No visiting of “alternative sites” – neither figuratively nor mentally.

Replacing an advocacy-approach to decision-making with a “friendly competition of ideas”-approach could markedly improve the quality of decision-making for many teams. What could this look like?

  • Make team members responsible for finding options and alternatives – not for looking for “the best choice”
  • Identify and explore strategic alternatives before trying to settle on a one option
  • Create transparency about the value measures that will be used to measure trade-offs and to select among alternatives

A frequently cited leadership insight touches on a core responsibility of a leader: Rather than leading followers, a leader’s job is to cultivate leaders. Could that mean that a core responsibility of a decision-maker is not (just) to make decisions but to cultivate a climate in which decisions can be made?

A recent post (“The Evolution of Cooperation in Teams”) looked into how collaboration can emerge not as a result of someone’s direct effort but due to putting the right culture in place. It turns out that curbing vertical control and encouraging the exploration of competing alternatives helps teams to substantially increase the quality and effectiveness of their decision-making.

Bees can do it and so can ants. Can we?

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