How honeybees lead themselves

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

A library friend, who knows about my interest in democratic work places, told me about a new book she had recently cataloged: Honeybee Democracy.
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Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist, summarizes much of his own and others’ research – enticingly and engagingly presented - on the honeybee and how the bee manages to “achieve an incredibly harmony of labor without supervision.”

Dr. Seeley explores and explains the puzzling questions of how bee swarms, made up of around 10,000 individual bees, often exposed and dangling from the limb of a tree, choose a new, safe, nest in a timely way out of a dozen possibilities, presented to the swarm by scout bees. (Seeley emphasizes that there is no supreme bee. For the experiments the queen bee was sequestered from the decision-making.) The bees take in the information presented by each scout through a “waggle dance” about the site the scout has found and is promoting.
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From the information in the several dances, the scouts narrow down the choices and locations – some bees favoring one site more than another, and then shifting alliances, until one site remains and becomes the collective decision. (How 10,000 bees get to the new home is another research topic in Seeley's book.)
The bees’ choice –according to Seeley’s metrics of what makes for a happy home - is usually the best spot - sheltered, a small doorway, the interior large enough to contain the swarm and its honey, all the while maintaining a high enough temperature to survive the coldest weather.
Anyone that has gone house hunting knows it is a complicated matter for humans, no less so for bees. And, while we might lose money or a marriage on a poor choice, the swarm faces extinction.

Of special interest to me was Chapter 10, “Swarm Smarts.” Seeley spells our how he applies his bee research results to chairing an academic department. Tongue in cheek, he calls these lessons:
“Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups.”

1. Compose the decision making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect. (If we discover our true, shared interests we probably will have achieved mutual respect. That said, I have taken part in discussions on how to re-invent, how to catch the second upward curve, wherein disparate interests were far afield and cliques were unwilling to surrender their “choices.” Invariably, this was the sticking point when it came time to divvy up resources in new ways. We’d finally compromise and not choose the best option. The bees have us (humans) beat!

2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. As Seeley points out, there is no leader in the beehive. The queen has a genetic role, not a leadership role. We have numerous examples of how a workplace leader can stymie a group’s exploration of best options, and through fear or other intimidation, ram through the leader’s one solution. Seeley seems to be suggesting that in human situations the leader should be more of a facilitator than the decision maker. I’d agree. If you, the leader, have THE solution, then you’ll have to figure out a way to introduce it and allow it to compete with the other ideas, as suggested in steps 3 & 4. Bees illustrate the invaluable role of "effective followers" in reaching the best decisions.

3. Seek diverse solutions to the problem.

4. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate.
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5. Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed.
A quorum response is an antidote to endless debate. Once a threshold number is reached among bees for where to nest, that is a quorum and those bees that have yet to be persuaded, now stop advertising and sign on to the chosen nest. In faculty decisions, ones requiring a unanimous vote like for granting tenure, Seeley takes periodic anonymous straw polls (after each biologist has done his/her version of an information-sharing waggle dance, no doubt). He finds that once 80% of the professors agree with a decision, the 20% that is holding out concedes.

It would be fun to have a venue in which to talk some more about Dr. Seeley’s remarkable research. When I return this November to Latvia, with its ancient, wide and varied apiculture - similar in some ways to what I observe in Lithuania (don't tell the Latvians I said that), I just may bring this up when I do presentations in Riga and in Vilnius!

Competitors or collaborators?

Posted by jlubans on August 25, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Thirty-two years ago pictures of the Yarborough-Allison fight from the 1979 Daytona went national – the pictures, some say, made NASCAR what it is today.
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However much we might like to observe competition – even the road rage exhibited by Messrs. Allison and Yarborough - competition is not always the best way for groups to solve problems. We win or we lose. Losers wait to get even, winners are only as good as their last win. And, we have temper tantrums.

Collaboration – the type espoused in my book - is usually a better way to problem solve – you win, I win. Often, when we genuinely collaborate, we come up with a better answer than either of us might have had to start with. Note that I said genuinely. Collaboration for many is the same as cooperation or consensus. It is not. When we cooperate, we give a little and get a little. We do not try to reach a best solution, we settle for less – we may even accommodate others to get past the problem. Consensus building is even more delusional – everyone agrees to a solution, whether it is best or not. Without rigorous debate among all participants – a feature of genuine collaboration – some agreed upon solutions might not be the best.

I had high hopes that a 2009 film recommended to me by one of my Latvian students might illustrate a group collaborating its way out of a problem. The student saw in this movie the elements I had been stressing in class – collaboration and group dynamics – the forming, storming, norming and performing elements of successful teamwork. That movie, Exam is well done, no question. It’s got suspense, crisp dialogue, a plot and some moments - early in the film - of people reaching out to help each other, but that’s only the beginning. We soon realize this film is about 8 people who are in competition with each other - each of them wants to be the survivor – the one that answers the one question set by the Invigilator – (British for exam proctor) to the group locked in a windowless classroom with a deadline ticking down. Unless I am mistaken, there is no answer to the question, What’s the question? Cerebral, yes.

Exam is Darwinist, no holds barred, raw emotion, much of it less than admirable, with some bits of despicable human behavior. However, it does offer a surprise heroine, the observer, coolly detached, who – well I won’t spoil it. In a way, Exam, would help illuminate what collaboration is – the opposite of much of what you see in this film!

Exam echoes Donald Trump’s, The Apprentice. Both offer moments of happy collaboration among aspiring executives, but in the end there’s only one winner. Only the one “best” leader, according to the Donald and the Invigilator, survives. It’s King Bidgood with the Executioner in the wings stropping his axe!

Each of Exam’s 8 - apparently the survivors among hundreds of applicants for a huge job at a mysterious enterprise - can and will be fired. An armed guard oversees the group, as does the Invigilator, off screen. If you mess up, you are escorted out, always ignominiously and sometimes forcefully tossed out the door. Soon the group is down to 4 and it only gets nastier.

It seems, in this exam room, your trusting someone, your behaving decently, may get you expelled. So, the message seems to be “Trust No One” or “Trust Everyone” but verify.

How would I end Exam? Probably with a group effort. Like crossing the finish line holding hands. But is that the way to get the best? If you want only one survivor, only the “best”, probably not, but if you are willing to settle for a different solution, then why not?

Experiential learning – pretty much my pedagogy – offers group activities from which participants can derive principles of collaboration. I have led and been part of groups with given problems to solve, from erecting tents in the dark to emptying out a gallon of nitroglycerine (pretend) to save a city from ruin, all within a deadline with the clock ticking. These are “games” but they have the potential to illustrate just how much or how little people will do to achieve a positive outcome. Some people do more than expected, others do less, and others do what they can to stymie the outcome if it is not going to make them look good.

So, maybe there is something to be said for using Exam since it tears off the mask, tells it all, shows the worst and the best, and finally, the champion who in the movie will get to make God-like decisions.

King Bidgood's in the Bath Tub (AGAIN) and Won't Get Out

Posted by jlubans on August 02, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

20110803-king-bidgoods.jpgA New York friend and I were having lunch in late July somewhere on the East Side. The debt crisis came up – it was still unresolved at the time. She thought my book on Leading from the Middle was highly relevant to what was happening, even encouraging me to write an op-ed for a newspaper.
We both agreed that leadership was largely absent among the politicians. It was a time for assertive leadership by effective followers, from those in the middle. I can surmise many reasons for the failed leadership not the least of which would be the stretched allegiances among competing factions. Oh, to do away with lobby money, with political action group money, etc.
Well, thinking about that op-ed, summoned up in my mind a children’s book – one already mentioned in this blog:
King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Audrey Wood with pictures by Don Wood.
It’s a delightful, sumptuously illustrated book . The king is in the tub and he won’t get out. Think of the king as our government. Lodged and immovable.
Oh, who knows what to do? is the question buzzing among the royals and courtiers. “I do” says the Knight. “Come in” says the King. “Today we battle in the tub.” No luck!
“Oh, who knows what to do?” The Queen knows. Time for lunch says she. Come in says the king “with a yum, yum, yum.” Today we lunch in the tub! In a scene reminiscent of Tom Jones’ erotic picnic albeit with an unwilling lady, the Queen leaves in a wet huff!
A Duke is next. Time to fish, let’s go, your Majesty! We fish in the tub, says the king. Next, the courtiers take a turn: It’s time for a masque’d ball. Dance in the tub! The nude King gets down.
What can be done? wails the court. I know, says the page and pulls the drain plug. Glub, glub – and the bare bottomed King skips off.
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Where’s a page when we need him or her the most – to pull the plug on the bloated debt crisis. If King Bidgood’s was cannily looking for someone to solve his “problem”, he finds him, the least powerful of those present. The page is an effective follower. We ask, who empowered the page? The page did. You see, after all have failed, rank matters less. When things are desperate enough, we will ask others for help and we will accept unusual, and often, very simple actions. Effective followers all have courage, the courage to stand forth and take action. Effective followers often have the most to lose for taking action. The page was incredibly brave; he could have lost his head.
I hope King Bidgood is having frequent, private chats with that page.
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Addendum: I wanted to show you what my Latvian students thought of the King Bidgood book. On the third day of class, I asked* the class to draw posters to represent their “takeaway”; that most important thing they got out of reading selected children’s books in class. 20110817-readingkingbid.jpeg Here is the small group reading King Bidgood. And, this is their poster for reporting out to the class. 20110817-posterkingbid.jpeg They linked the page and his actions to the concept of the effective follower, deeming the heroic page the “Unofficial Boss”! And they saw the courtiers as pretty much YES people, not the most effective followers. What pleasantly surprised me was the students’ opinion that King Bidgood had ulterior motives in his staying in the tub: he was looking for a capable problem-solving follower. He's “The Tricky Boss.”

*My Instructions for using children’s books in management class about the concept of followership:

1. Read out loud to your group (as in story time!) one book.

2. Discuss:
Who are followers in this book? What kinds of following do you see?

What is the learning, the take away, the “So what?” the “Now what?” from this book?

3. Create: a page of your key finding – use crayons and flip chart paper.

4. Present your group drawing to all.