How to innovate in learning: Don't follow the waggle dance

October 13th 2019 | By Charlie Kneen

Bees are not just our pollinators and honey producers; they also have much to tell us about the importance of innovation in businesses. In his book '10 Rules of Alchemy' (which I thoroughly recommend - particularly if you believe you only make rational decisions), Rory Sutherland explains how scientists were baffled by what they call the bee 'waggle dance'.

A simple explanation is that it is a way for bees to signal to their comrades (I've always assumed that bees are communists), that there's a good source of food in the area. This enables more bees from the hive to collect a bumper crop, accelerating food production.

But there's a catch. If all bees were to follow the waggle dance soon the resources in that region would be exhausted, and the over-reliant bees might be at risk of dying out having reached the 'local maximum'. And so there are bees - effectively the R&D department - who totally ignore the waggle dance and head off in seemingly random directions, seeking new sources.

Of course many of the pioneering bees return with nothing, probably meeting with a sticky end in your picnic jam jar. But without these renegades the hive would surely perish.

Imagine an organisation where everyone followed the waggle dance. It's what would happen if everyone did exactly what they were told and were totally single-minded in the pursuit of efficiency. After all, as Sutherland explains the most efficient way to collect food would be for all the bees to target the places they can guarantee wouldn't be a wasted bee journey.

In fact, you don't need to imagine a organisation like this, you likely work, or have worked in one. People follow the same processes and ideas over and over and do what has worked in the past. We regularly work with clients where senior individuals say in research groups, 'we tried that once years ago and it didn't work', as a reason not to try something new.

The obsession with consistency, safety and general risk aversion is damaging organisations. The Solvd team have regularly discussed how to create innovation and change big organisations quickly and it seems there are very few options. One is to hire external agents like us to introduce new potential nectar routes, the second is to setup a fully protected, fully sponsored sub-team who are separate from the main business by physical distance, as well as by culture and leadership.

Whatever the solution, the message is clear. If you want to make a difference and change things, then don't follow the waggle dance. Strike out and invent a dance of your own. I recommend the Charleston.

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