Unleash your worker bees. The power of swarms and cooperation to attack business problems.
The first time I heard the word "swarming" in a business context, it made me chuckle. I had an instant visual of bees dressed in suits and carrying briefcases, furiously buzzing over, under, and around a conference table. They weren’t accomplishing anything—just making a lot of noise and looking for something to sting.
Then it occurred to me that all worker bees are female. Each bee in my mental image was now wearing a suit with a skirt, and red high heels on all six feet. By this point I was ready to give up on the idea of swarming in business altogether.
However, I am a huge believer in collective intelligence, whether at work or in the wild. I am absolutely intrigued by all the examples of cooperation in nature–for example, ants creating entire cities under ground, wolves hunting cooperatively in packs, and elephants migrating in search of water, with the oldest female passing along her knowledge of what routes to take to all the other elephants in the herd.
Similarly, the human brain is naturally wired for empathy, connectivity, and collaboration. The occasional loner who wants to "get away from it all" is the exception to the rule. Studies show that the rest of us live longer and feel better emotionally when we have a strong support system and are connected to family and community. And as the rate of business speeds up, collaboration is critical.
An important issue may develop in another time zone across the world, or an immediate deadline may be set. Decisions cannot wait until next Wednesday's scheduled meeting. Companies need to be agile and act fast—yet an immediate executive decision from the top is not necessarily the best call. To address these sudden problems or opportunities, swarms will assemble quickly, and then disperse as quickly as they formed.
Progress will depend on your ability to bring together highly functioning groups of diverse people. Executives and employees as well as consultants, vendors, customers, and others from outside the company—anyone who can conceivably add value—will all have a role to play in generating ideas and offering crucial feedback.
As meetings become more diverse, people who do not know each other will come together to accomplish difficult work. In a perfect world, different people representing the different thinking and behavioral attributes will become part of that swarm.
Moreover, in this perfect world, each participant will have an Emergenetics "profile" that outlines his or her individual thinking and behavioral attributes, and share them with everybody else. A swarm does not have time for all the usual steps that lead to good team cooperation, and sharing profiles will be the fastest way I know to get to know people. You can immediately see the strengths of others as well as their possible blind spots. Sharing profiles leads to mutual respect right away, and is also an efficient way to eliminate misunderstandings before they even occur.
So as a leader, how do you bring out your team’s collective intelligence—and avoid becoming an example of collective stupidity?
To satisfy people with analytical brains, state the objectives of your meeting up front. Analytical types want to be assured their time is not being wasted.
For the practical brain types, hand out an agenda, and stick to the beginning and ending times. These people appreciate knowing other practical information, too, like the timing of breaks, where to get a drink of water, and everything that needs to be accomplished each day.
To speak to the social brains, make sure everyone is wearing a name tag (or has an online identity if your meeting is virtual). Start your meeting by briefly explaining who the other members of the team are, and why they are present.
And to address the attendees with conceptual brains, allow time for brainstorming. Welcome all ideas, even if they are not ultimately used. Innovative thinkers hate having everything explained in detail, so engage their interest immediately, and try not to lose their attention.
Those who are very expressive will not need to be prodded to speak! If they are particularly energetic, give them a chance to move around the room.
Those who are more reserved will need quiet time for reflection so they can think. Include opportunities for this in your agenda. Also, encourage these individuals to speak up, because they are not comfortable expressing their views in a group.
Assertive people will naturally communicate without any help from you. Make sure they don't dominate the entire discussion, though, and that other individuals don't have to fight to be heard.
Natural peacekeepers will want to come to consensus after ideas have been presented. Get to this point of closure to appeal to this crowd.
People who are very flexible see value in all different kinds of ideas and points of view, so they may keep the discussion going in circles. Lead them to choose between options.
Focused participants may be impatient with all the "extra" ideas circulating and may try to zero in on a solution—theirs—right away. Make sure everyone has a chance to offer input before choosing one direction.
To cross-pollinate your meeting, have everyone do something different after a break. If you're all in the same place, changing seats, to literally help people see from a new point of view. If you are tele-conferencing from individual computers, have everyone get up and move! Physical movement is good for brain circulation and helps people remember what they just heard.
Expect the best of your swarm and they will live up to your expectations. As you meet the future, your company will be a hive of activity.
GEIL BROWNING is founder of Emergenetics International, an organizational development firm in the U.S., Singapore, and the Netherlands. She co-created the Emergenetics Profile, a psychometric thinking and behavioral workplace assessment. @Emergenetics_