Management Lessons from the Birds and the Bees

By Rod Collins

The rapid emergence of the Digital Age is challenging all our assumptions about the ways we work together. As the Internet transforms the world into an interconnected network, we suddenly find ourselves in a world transformed by the unprecedented combination of accelerating change and escalating complexity. While the technology revolution is expanding the power of possibilities, it is also testing the limits of established ways of thinking and acting. Many managers are discovering  that if they want to succeed in the new world of twenty-first-century business, they'll need to master its new rules. If they want to successfully manage great change, they'll need to change how they manage.

The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done by Peter Miller is an important contribution for those who are serious about mastering the unfamiliar challenges of accelerating change and escalating complexity. Miller cogently describes how the power of collective intelligence, as practiced by ants and birds and bees, may very well hold the secret for how we navigate the new rules of our new world.

The need for thinking differently, according to Miller, stems from the fact that the human brain isn’t designed to tackle problems collectively. Thus, there are numerous mental traps that leaders fall into as they attempt to manage everyday challenges. For example, Miller describes the trap of “anchoring,” where we give in to the tendency to overvalue the first thing we hear. The trap of the “status quo,” which permeates hierarchical organizations, keeps us from bringing forward innovative ideas for fear of rocking the boat. Another mental foible of human nature is the “sunk cost” trap, in which we persist in pursuing questionable courses of action to justify our earlier decisions.

While these traps have been troublesome in the relatively slower and simpler world of the last decades of the twentieth century, we have somehow been able to successfully move forward because there has been time to correct our mistakes. Unfortunately, when the pace of change and the degree of complexity suddenly accelerates, there is no time for hubris and these traps can prove fatal. Thus, notwithstanding its past achievements, the continued use of top-down hierarchies, which are designed to leverage the individual knowledge of the supposedly smartest among us, is fast becoming a fatally flawed strategy for organizing the work of large numbers of people.

As we struggle to adapt to the new rules of a new age, Miller points to the smart swarm and its leveraging of collective intelligence as a viable solution. Miller defines a smart swarm as “a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change.” Smart swarms follow four principles that bear no resemblance to the workings of top-down hierarchies: self-organization, diversity of knowledge, indirect collaboration, and adaptive mimicking.

In addition to detailing how these principles enable insects and birds to solve their relatively complex tasks of building hives or journeying thousands of miles, Miller describes how innovative human organizations, such as Wikipedia, are using these principles to create extraordinary performance. By abandoning its original hierarchical expert-driven model and embracing self-organization, Wikipedia has been able to harness the incredible power of the wisdom of the crowd and redefine an industry. Wikipedia’s innovative business model is proof that there are often times when diversity trumps ability by creating a space where the masses can indirectly collaborate as they build upon each other’s work in preparing and updating articles. And finally, Wikipedians are a community of individuals who adaptively mimic each other to create a cohesive product that has become the world’s most widely used reference source.

As we continue to learn how to cope with the twin challenges of accelerating change and escalating complexity, Miller points to two lessons that we can learn from smart swarms. First, by embracing the organizational architecture of smart swarms, we can lesson the impact of uncertainty, complexity and change. And second, because diversity is the fuel that makes smart swarms so powerful, leveraging our collective wisdom does not require us to surrender our individuality. As Miller astutely observes, “the best way to serve the group, it turns out, is to be true to ourselves.”

Rod Collins


Rod has more than 30 years of experience in management positions of increasing responsibility in the healthcare industry. Rod is an innovative executive leader with sustained success in achieving financial, operational, and market growth objectives in challenging environments. He has extensive experience in serving as a catalyst for positive change and in building highly collaborative organizations.

Rod is also a member of our Speakers Bureau.


1600 K Street, Suite 200
20006 Washington , DC
(202) 540.9222 US

Asset 7
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Berlin
  • Los Angeles
  • Minneapolis
  • New England
  • New York