Extrapolating Business Lessons from Nature

The ancient instincts of swarming animals and insects are evolutionarily adapted to facilitate collective intelligence, favoring colony survival. Peter Miller, senior editor at National Geographic, believes they can teach us valuable lessons about urban planning, military strategy, and even small business. The author of The Smart Swarm (Avery, August 2010) spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: What do ant colonies and schools of fish have to do with entrepreneurs?

Peter Miller: I think—for a person in the terrifying but challenging position of having his own business—he must know it better than anybody else in the world. But he also has to be able to broaden his perspective and look outside his own area of expertise for tools to handle the unpredictable.

Individual ants, for instance, are not very bright. But an ant colony is very good at self-organizing and managing its resources without any boss being in charge. They figure out how to do tasks from taking care of the little ants to repairing the nest to taking out the garbage and getting food. The organism as a whole is very finely tuned and all the individuals are cross-trained so they can shift resources from one task to another as the need arises. That's a great model to follow with a team of employees.

At one point you owned a small restaurant. How would you extrapolate the ants' behavior into your experience?

In an ant colony or a bee hive, the workers are all sisters. They are all descended from the same queen and they are all female. Each individual is more dedicated to the survival of the hive than to their own survival.

When a restaurant is really humming and the customers are happy and everybody's making money, it's a joy. It's rare when everybody is working in the same direction, especially in a restaurant. There's always tension between the kitchen staff and the wait staff—or in manufacturing, between the sales team and the fulfillment people. I think if you can get employees pulling together, and keep reinforcing the idea that when the business thrives, they all thrive, that really helps.

When you write about bees, you focus on their decisionmaking and how it reflects the wisdom of crowds.

The notion that James Surowiecki writes about in his book The Wisdom of Crowds is that groups of people can be smarter and solve problems better than any one individual. That's because a group pulls together different talents and backgrounds and experience.

Bees use their numbers to make crucial decisions, like where the swarm will relocate in the springtime. Hundreds of scouts go off to look for good real estate, where they'll have room to grow, that faces south and has a small entrance hole. The scouts come back to report their findings using a little waggle dance. The quality of the site is judged by the enthusiasm of the dance.

So the more energetic dancers are reporting on the best hive sites?

Exactly. Other bees will go look at that site and if they like it, they also do the dance. Pretty soon you have twice as many bees dancing and there's an exponential build up of bees flying between the potential nest site and the swarm. The site that gets a critical quorum first is the one that gets picked.

What's the lesson you take from that?

It's interesting that a bee will not start dancing for a site unless she has seen it for herself. There's no buy-in on the word of another scout. A chief executive officer making a crucial decision ought to get many options on the table, but then take her time making a conclusion. You don't want to fall in love with a new idea before it has been proven objectively. We all love a good story like "this business is going to be just fine" or "this employee's going to work out," but we'd better verify that.

In your research, you also studied termites, locusts, schools of fish, and flocks of birds. Is there an overall principle that applies to the business world?

Find out who's good at doing what on your team and allow them to bring different skills and types of knowledge to the table. Depending on the type of problems you're dealing with—and they never stop—you may discover that someone on your team knows how to solve it. In my restaurant I had about 10 employees. If I noticed that one of the wait staff was especially good at organizing, I might get her involved in the planning when we had a chance to do a banquet.

A restaurant is definitely not a democracy. But if you leave all the decision-making up to one person, you're cheating that organization of the resources available to it. People on your staff know stuff that's important to your business, but if they don't feel that you're welcoming their ideas or that you're open to information from them, they won't give it to you.

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