Social Product Development

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bees and Social Product Development...really!

(I know, that's not a honeybee)

I had the great fortune this past weekend to attend a lecture given by Cornell’s Dr. Thomas D. Seeley on decision-making in honeybees. While I am very interested in the bees (yes I am), I couldn’t help but to let me mind wander to comparisons of human behavior.

So what does honeybee decision-making have to do with product development? I promise, it’s not the stretch that it seems. Dr. Seeley explained, with some fascinating experimental examples, how honeybees “discuss” new potential homes when they’ve left the hive. Scout bees report back to the hive with evaluations of potential options, the bees spend a good chunk of time reaching a consensus on which location to pick, and then they all take flight to their new home. Of course, I’m simplifying a bit, but if you don’t want to the cliff notes version, you’ll have to read the book.

The real key to the story is that honeybees don’t make individual decisions. That means there’s none of the behaviors we might see, and value, in human decision-making – no single bee is making a choice, evaluating multiple options, picking a favorite, or trying to persuade other honeybees that they’re right. Each honeybee is only a vessel of information; the group makes the best choice based purely on fact, without a single individual opinion from any bee in the hive. If you want a badly explained version of how a decision is made without any opinions, feel free to ask me to bumble through it (pun intended). But I do think that this scenario is a fascinating opportunity to learn from how the intelligence of groups, not individuals, can lead to good decisions.

Here’s what I think we can learn from honeybees:

There isn’t always a “right” solution – sometimes the “best” solution has to do
So let’s start with the premise. Just because honeybees are looking for a home, doesn’t mean a perfect home is available. Likewise, there typically isn’t a single “right” option when it comes to our product development decisions – that would make innovation a lot less fun, wouldn’t it? And generally each option has an associated degree of risk or cost, no matter how ideal it might seem. Sometimes, no matter your genus or species, you have to choose a path based on the options you have, even if there’s not perfect solution. This makes decision-making hard – if there was a perfect answer, the answers you didn’t choose wouldn’t matter, right?

The decision timeline is finite – so knowing your options up front is crucial
By definition, best is a comparison. To make a comparison, you need options. Let’s also make the reasonably safe assumption that, just like the honeybees, you have a limited amount of time to make your decision…you might not be clinging with your swarm to a tree branch, but in a lot of cases it might feel that way. Combining those last two points – the sooner you know about good options, the more time you have to research and evaluate them before you have to make your decision. As Dr. Seeley described, when honeybees are choosing a new hive location, sometimes the best possible option gets thrown out because it’s discovered too late in the process. So too for human decisions. But while honeybees only have scout bees for discovering options quickly, we have social tools, and the power of the extended community. Social Product Development tools can help us identify subject matter experts with relevant domain expertise, who can both improve our evaluation of known options and suggest new options. We also have the opportunity to make our pending decision visible to our extended community, and let that wider pool of resources proactively offer solutions based on their own experience.

Impartial decisions are made when solutions are compared to the ideal, not each other
Once you have a healthy pool of options, there’s another lesson to be learned from our buzzy friends. As I mentioned earlier, bees don’t have opinions. This can be a hard concept to wrap our heads around when we think about comparing two independently reported options – how do you decide on a best option without bias or subjectivity? Well, honeybees compare a potential nest site not to other nest potential nest sites – but to the gold standard for all nest sites (some combination of entrance size, capacity, and other things bees should worry about). Each potential site gets a rating of sorts based on its comparison to the ideal. What’s the lesson? Know *what* your gold standard is, and *who* thinks so. Your gold standard in the context of the decision and the gold standard of your executive stakeholder in the context of overall business goals may not be the same. You may weigh an option differently or evaluate a different set of risk criteria when you know the big picture as well as your own view. Again, Social Product Development has an impact – by leveraging specific Web 2.0 technology, we can connect the extended enterprise, and create transparency into business drivers, corporate and departmental strategies, and product development decisions. And by creating visibility into ongoing decisions and development progess, you motivate executive stakeholders to communicate when the gold standard has changed.

Visibility is key – with or without the waggle dance
There’s a theme here – in both identifying options and resources, and aligning with corporate goals, visibility is essential. Visibility is also a core tenant of Social Product Development. Because social and the potential of social tools isn’t solely the benefit of connecting more easily with your colleague across the globe – it’s also the promise of connecting more easily with information and resources to enable better group decisions.

Don’t know what the waggle dance is? Well, you’ll have to look that one up. Trust me – you don’t want to be among the folks who have seen me demonstrate it.