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    July 10th, 2007

    Oh, oh, listen to the music
    Oh, oh, listen to the music

    All the time…

    Oh, baby, let the music play

    Words and music by Tom Johnson, recorded by The Doobie Brothers.

    Some interesting research is coming out of Cornell University by Thomas Seeley, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, working with University of California-Riverside entomologist Kirk Visscher and Ohio State University engineer Kevin Passino. They have been observing, devising experiments and mathematically modeling honeybee swarms.


    And along the way, they are shedding new light on the problem of decision-making and leadership. Inevitably, they are also throwing a monkey-wrench into the traditional view of running a law firm along the lines of either an authoritarian (i.e. the ‘beneficial despot’) or a traditional committee decision making process.

    What are the bees rules for decision-making? They “seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices”. This method so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.

    “I’ve applied what I’ve learned from the bees to run faculty meetings,” he says. To avoid going into a meeting with his mind made up, hearing only what he wants to hear, and pressuring people to conform, Seeley asks his group to identify all the possibilities, kick their ideas around for a while, then vote by secret ballot. “It’s exactly what the swarm bees do, which gives a group time to let the best ideas emerge and win. People are usually quite amenable to that.”

    The idea is that even in complex decision-making processes, people can form smart groups. The requirements for a ‘smart group’ are that the members are diverse, independent minded and use a mechanism such as voting, auctioning or averaging to reach a collective decision (James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds).

    (“Swarm Theory”, National Geographic, July 2007, p 138).

    This has important implications for any law firm facing decisions such as whether to take on a new client, deciding which business opportunities to pursue or the choice of a software application in the office. Rather than having an individual or small group decide the issue, swarm theory (or the theory of smart groups, which I prefer) indicates that a law firm should involve as many people as possible into the decision (seeking a wide diversity of opinion to achieve collective intelligence), disseminate information about the options to the group, allow time for a diversity of opinions to form, encourage a free competition of ideas (presumably by holding open discussions where people are free to discuss the concepts (ie being hard on the problem and not hard on the person) and then allow a confidential method for the aggregation of opinion around the best option (a secret ballot would be one method that could be used, either by paper ballots or by using an anonymous on-line survey tool such as or

    The implications of ‘smart group’ intelligence is profound. By linking together millions of computers in a world-wide network, we have crafted The Internet, which in turn has spawned Google and Wikipedia, themselves examples of the application of collective thought and aggregated decisions. By tapping into smart group thinking, a law firm taps into the collective intelligence of all of the members (provided that the group isn’t being overly influenced by one member or a small group therein).

    The idea is to create an environment where the best ideas win rather than having decision-making by position (ie the practice group leader decides) or by hierarchy (the management committee decides). Law firms today can take a different approach by letting all voices be heard and in the process, allowing the best ideas to emerge and come forward, and in the process benefiting by listening to the music. I think the application of swarm theory has potential to create a real buzz in law firms today.

    This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 10th, 2007 at 5:50 am and is filed under Firm Governance, Leadership and Strategic Planning. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

    One Response to “Bees Rule!”
    1. pete smith Says:

      Mind boggling. No idea how this will play out in firms if it ever does. Does this kind of thinking even exhibit itself in the business world? I’d be curious to hear more from those on the non-law management side of the house on swarm theory. Truly amazing.

      Thanks again for the post . . . .


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