What strategic planners can learn from honeybees

New research on how honeybees choose a location for a new hive reveals a decision process that parallels how the most successful companies identify new markets to enter.

There is an ideal size for a new hive, according to an article by Carl Zimmer in the March 2012 issue of The Smithsonian Magazine (The-Secret-Life-of-Bees) It needs to be large enough to support the community of bees over the next few years. It also needs barriers to entry that can be defended from the inevitable competitors. These criteria are exactly the same for a company deciding to enter a new market.

Step one is when the hive decides it’s time to find a new location. That is the signal for some of the worker bees to start scouting potential locations. When a scout returns to the hive it “talks up” the potential location. (Bees communicate via the language of dance.) The better the potential of the new location the more enthusiastic the dance. “Enthusiasm translates into attention. An enthusiastic scout will inspire more bees to go check out her site. And when the second-wave scouts return, they persuade more scouts to investigate the better site.” This is very much like the way people share their enthusiasm for many things, ranging from new markets to new movies. Look, for example, at how people act on social media when they recommend things.

Multiple scouting parties return to the hive from multiple potential locations. Bees follow a natural process where early enthusiasm wanes as better opportunities are identified. This allows a swarm to avoid getting stuck in a bad decision. “Even when a mediocre site has attracted a lot of scouts, a single scout returning from a better one can cause the hive to change its collective mind.”

The more enthusiastic bees take action to squash the other’s dancing. Ultimately, a critical mass of enthusiastic bees ends up promoting the best location. “Once the scouts reach a quorum of 15 bees all dancing for the same location, they start to head-butt one another, silencing their own side so that the swarm can prepare to fly.” Once that critical mass is achieved, the hive “makes the decision,” all dancing stops, and the swarm then moves en masse to build a hive at the new location.

In the strategic planning meetings we facilitate for clients, we ask the team to visualize where they want their organization to be within five years. Quite often, that visualization includes a new market. Perhaps the company’s current market is recognized as not having sufficient growth potential. Perhaps the team anticipates that new technology or competitors will eliminate barriers to entry. If they want to have a thriving new market within five years, they need to start today with an action plan to identify and enter it within the next couple of years.

  • Just like the hive, the team needs to identify the size and defensibility of acceptable market “candidates.”
  • They need to send scouts out to identify potential new market candidates.
  • Each candidate market needs to generate a core of enthusiastic company supporters.
  • Just as important, there has to be a process to dampen enthusiasm for the less-than-optimum potentials.
  • Finally, there has to be a way to make the decision and fully commit, lest you spend the next five years scouting rather than building.

“One of the strengths of honeybees is that they share the same goal: finding a new home. People who come together in a democracy, however, may have competing interests. [Cornell biologist Thomas] Seeley advises that people should be made to feel that they are part of the decision-making group, so that their debates don’t become about destroying the enemy, but about finding a solution for everyone. ‘That sense of belonging can be nurtured,’ Seeley said. The more we fashion our democracies after honeybees, Seeley argues, the better off we’ll be.” The same dynamic comes into play when creating and implementing your strategic plan.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complimentary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and our program is right for you.

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