Teaching Your Company to Swarm

Fortnum And Mason Beehives Take Up Residence On The Roof

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. But don’t fret. We are not channelling Cole Porter to talk about falling in love in a business publication.

So, what do birds, bees, and snow fleas do that should be of interest to today’s management professionals? Simple. They swarm—they act collectively, conjoining their efforts in behaviours such as vigilance, migration, and foraging that advance their survival.

Fish do it, too. A good animated example can be found in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which has an escape scene depicting a shoal of netted fish exercising collective action by swimming downward against a trawler’s net, working together to break the boat’s winch and free themselves.

In recent decades, observers from across disciplines have begun to apply the principles of natural swarm behaviour to artificial intelligence systems, humans, and business systems. In 1989, two robotics engineers, Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang, coined the phrase swarm intelligence to describe the collective intelligence of self-organizing, individual technologies, emergent systems, or agents.

More recently, swarm theory has been linked to management and leadership models where centralized control gives way to self-organizing, decentralized agents within complex adaptive systems. It was applied by Southwest Airlines to resolve a problem with cargo operations (for an estimated annual gain of US$10 million), and it has been applied by several other companies to address a myriad of issues, ranging from scheduling factory equipment to organizing people. The strategy has been particularly beneficial in disruptive business environments where quick adaptation is needed in changing environments.

Last year, Gartner researchers concluded swarm intelligence will be one of the major game changers for business in 2019. What has not been broadly considered, however, is the application of swarm theory to the everyday practice of facilitating business gatherings.

Resistance to the principle of self-organization seems to stand in the way of bringing swarm intelligence to face-to-face interventions. Studies such as the 2017 Training Industry Report signify that despite their many limitations, facilitated classroom settings are still the preferred delivery method for business conventions. I suggest that a better approach is to use “swarm facilitation” to engage agents across an organizational hemisphere to work on real commercial issues that advance innovative capacity and collaborative learning.

Swarm facilitators need to focus on fixing structures, not fixing people. Beekeepers focus on the conditions and environment the bees need to thrive. They do not interfere with the bees’ natural ability to make honey.


Organizations are intrinsically tied to external conditions and forces. We are currently navigating through what is considered the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age of new technologies that are melding digital, physical, and biological worlds across disciplines, industries, and economies. This is leading to a world of hyper-connectivity, e-commerce, cognitive tools, and automation, which are shaping our everyday lives and the workplace, turning organizations into integrated ecosystems. As indicated by Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends, internal and external collaboration are increasingly significant.

Companies are adopting swarm theory as a collective organizing framework. Spotify has famously succeeded in a highly competitive, disruptive industry by balancing high autonomy and high alignment in the Spotify model of agile development. Daimler is taking on the changes in the transportation industry with a major restructuring program that involves 20 per cent of its enterprise converting to a swarm organization by 2020. XPRIZE actively fosters swarm collaboration with its incentive competitions that favour multidisciplinary team submissions.

Inspired by Mother Nature, swarm facilitation is emerging as a self-organizing approach to innovation and decision-making that views business conventions, such as meetings and workshops, as complex adaptive systems rather than structured or prescriptive events. Traditionally, there has been an ad hoc use of Open Space Technology (OST) in business group settings, such as voting systems (dotocracy), training and encounter groups (T-groups), “brainswarming,” and world or knowledge cafés. Swarm facilitation seeks to bring such methodologies under one framework supported by the core principles of swarm theory.


Group work has a rich theoretical heritage. Social psychologists Norman Triplett and Floyd Allport were among the first behaviourists to question the great man theory and the prevalence of individual heroism, charisma, and innatism that had dominated pre-twentieth-century thinking in the fields of leadership, intelligence, and decision-making.

Late in the 19th century, Triplett explored the impact of social presence on individual productivity. He observed how cyclists produced faster times when competing with other cyclists rather than racing against the clock. His thesis that people perform optimally in the presence of others was reinforced with a simple experiment involving 40 children reeling a fishing rod: most children reeled the rod faster when in pairs.

Early in the 20th century, Allport conducted a series of experiments using word association. He discovered that people made a higher number of free associations when they worked in groups rather than in isolation. Allport coined the term social facilitation, which he defined as “an increase of response merely from the sight or sound of others making the same movements.”

The idea of social facilitation really took off in the 1970s with the quality circles movement, where groups of networked consultants, calling themselves facilitators, parachuted into organizations and managed group conversations by helping participants focus on goals and outcomes.


Traditional facilitation is grounded by the learning theory of social constructivism, which maintains that knowledge is constructed through interactions with others, systematically building on the learner’s already acquired experiences and knowledge or “scaffolding.” Modern facilitators build collective knowledge based on these principles of social constructivism and educational scaffolding.

There are three major drawbacks to this traditional approach to facilitating groups. It is prescriptive, with central designs and programs shaped by business needs analysis and learning competencies that are managed by a central facilitator. Traditional group facilitation also promotes horizontal or lateral growth, and it encourages groupthink.


Facilitated programs are highly controlled activities. The traditional approach to program design is to build content based on learning competencies that have come about through organizational needs assessments. Objectives and outcomes are predetermined and reflect the prejudice and priorities of the design process. The role of the group facilitator in this context, often consulting a scripted facilitator guide, is to oversee the process, provide context and content, and encourage or provoke broad participation.

In one of my first facilitation assignments, I was paired with Ron, a veteran facilitator with 30 years’ experience. One of the participants, sensing there was a rookie facilitator in the room, was being obstreperous. Ron took me to one side and gave me some express coaching about dealing with “difficult participants.” I quickly realized that there was a rigid process and formula to be followed and that participants who drifted from structured discussions were viewed as problems to be managed and muted with non-subtle forms of operant conditioning, such as rewarding compliant behaviours with candy or punishing rulebreakers with humiliating tasks.

Horizontal Growth

Innovation and learning should be expansive, an activity that increases perspective and thinking capacity. Traditionally facilitated group workshops and meetings, however, are so structured and contained that they can impede the flow of ideas. This is known as horizontal growth—a non-expansive and lateral path that is nourished only by existing structures. The organization sets the parameters based on predetermined assessments, frameworks, designs, and competencies. Skills and knowledge are piped into participants in a highly structured and controlling way. While adding knowledge and skills is not, in itself, negative, adding more knowledge and skills to a set framework will not solve problems that originate from outside of the framework.

Groupthink and Group Polarization

Groupthink was defined by social psychologist Irving Janis as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative sources of action.” There are many examples from politics, aerospace, and business where concurrence-seeking has had a dramatic outcome. The disaster with the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 has been attributed to groupthink, where technical concerns raised by contract engineers were ignored by management, who, under pressure to launch, convinced themselves that conditions were safe. This decision, which took place during a conference call, cost lives, reputations, and billions of dollars, and set the U.S. space program back by several years.

Groupthink is more likely to occur when there is a cohesive group of participants from similar backgrounds who are pursuing common goals. This, in essence, is the main feature of in-house facilitated events. Participants are selected principally on their similarities in job grades, roles, and experience. They are generally accepting of the course objectives and program scheduling, creating a ripe environment for group polarization—the tendency of individuals in a group to make joint decisions that are more extreme than members would be inclined to make on their own. An experienced and skilled facilitator should, of course, set about disrupting this. The reality, however, is that these programs are rigorously designed and scheduled, and facilitators are under pressure to deliver the content and objectives of the design and ensure the program runs to schedule and satisfies sponsors.


The theoretical backbone of swarm facilitation is connectivism and not constructivism. Arising from the research of George Siemens and Stephen Downes, connectivism posits that knowledge lies in external systems and that “decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired.” The places value on serendipity, experimentation, open innovation, and networked learning, rather than on structured forms of knowledge transfer. Connectivism promotes vertical growth, where learning is seen as a spiral that increases perspective and thinking capacity.

Swarm facilitation is sustained by six core principles or beliefs:

  1. Belief in collective behaviour and the collective intelligence of the group.
  2. Belief that group work is part of a collaborative and complex adaptive system that is self-organizing and emergent rather than a controlled, prescriptive, and ready-made designed environment.
  3. Belief that ideas collected in the group can contribute directly to organizational improvement or product development, or promote the wider networked learning organization.
  4. Belief that diverse groups of collaborative stakeholders enhance innovation, decision-making, and learning.
  5. Belief that modern technology can support the filtering of information and ideas and enhance decision-making.
  6. Belief that open innovation and collaboration promotes vertical growth.


Appledore Island, off the Maine coastline, is a treeless and barren location, home to Thomas Seeley of Cornell University and his research team, who have been conducting controlled experiments for four decades related to the migratory habits of honeybees. This group’s insights provide a practical sense of how swarm facilitation might work in a business setting.

Two wooden nest boxes, one painted yellow and the other blue, are strategically positioned at different ends of the island. The yellow box is a superior nest in terms of size and location. Scout bees visit the two potential sites and are dabbed with yellow or blue paint depending on which box they visit. What follows is extraordinary. The scout bees return to the main nest and communicate their discoveries by pointing their heads in the direction of the new potential nest and enacting a figure-eight movement known as the waggle dance.

Seeley interprets this behaviour as a recruitment process with the scout bees lobbying for their preferred locations. More scouts go and inspect the recommended nests and, also dabbed with the paint colour of the visited nest, if they too like the proposed nest, they join in the waggle dance. The filmed experiment shows the yellow bees being more animated than the blue bees. Once there is consensus for a nest—the yellow nest being the preferred location—the entire colony of bees, whether stained blue or yellow, swarms instantaneously to the chosen location. The decision is not centrally executed, but is self-organized, emergent, and collective.

Observing the migratory habits of honeybees offers five powerful lessons about what is needed for swarm facilitation to thrive.

Lesson 1: Focus on real issues.

The honeybees concentrate on meaningful issues that impact their colony. Swarm facilitation likewise needs to focus on authentic issues that have everyday relevance to the success and survival of the enterprise. A University of Michigan study validates the importance of real and authentic issues in learning and problem-solving environments to stimulate participant motivation. Daimler’s restructuring program is driven to succeed because participants work on live issues where ideas are developed and tested for market readiness before a final roll-out phase; participants’ efforts will have a significant commercial impact.

Lesson 2: Split into teams.

Honeybees split into autonomous working teams that are aligned with the larger colony. This approach is being successfully replicated in business. Spotify has an agile engineering culture that uses “scrums” and “squads.” The autonomous squads are cross-functional, self-organizing teams with end-to-end responsibility for their innovation and product but are aligned with the overall organizational ecosystem. This allows the teams to be agile and avoids the problem of decreasing individual contributions as the group grows.

Lesson 3: Exercise collective leadership.

Honeybees have a collective leadership model. It is a common misunderstanding that the queen bee has executive decision-making authority. This is far from the case; rather, the role of the queen bee is exclusively to reproduce and nurture the colony. Similarly, in swarm facilitation, ideas and decisions are not routed through ego-leaders or a centralized authority, but through self-organizing agents who make shared decisions. A rich theoretical heritage of shared and distributed leadership models supports the effectiveness of this model (See “The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work” and “Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research”).

Lesson 4: Embrace diversity.

Honeybees accept different ideas and incorporate them into their general decision-making and working habits. Swarm facilitation also thrives on diverse perspectives and plural decision-making that promote a cross-functional environment where different fields, disciplines, and cultures intersect to produce diverse thinking and intersectional ideas. Swarm facilitation benefits from the input of multiple stakeholders, including employees, customers, vendors, suppliers, and competitors.

Businesses such as Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, Lufthansa, Dell EMC, and Volkswagen are all successfully using this “collective impact” through open innovation platforms to design and innovate. Starbucks, for example, has “My Starbucks Idea,” a collaborative network and innovation platform, launched in 2008 and open to employees and customers to discuss brand-based ideas that relate to the coffee chain. In 2017, Volkswagen launched “One.Konzern,” a business platform that has over 300,000 users and 40,000 partnerships linking internal business units from Volkswagen with external partners.

Lesson 5: Use mechanisms to filter information.

Honeybees use the waggle dance as a means to filter ideas and achieve concurrence. Traditionally, creating group consensus was a somewhat involved task that required high levels of organization and dedicated administrative time to gather and process data. But today, collaborative tools using AI algorithms are used to filter and make sense of the data. The AI algorithms are, in turn, also inspired by the natural world. For example, researchers have studied the collective reactions of ants and developed sets of algorithms that replicate the way ant colonies respond to their environment.

A great example of the use of cognitive tools in a business setting to filter ideas and decisions occurred at XPRIZE’s Visioneering Summit in 2017, where 250 mentors collaborated in formed swarms using AI technology to filter and shape ideas and decisions in real time. These tools should never drive the solution, but they are a practical way of harvesting and filtering data generated through open innovation.

What the lessons signify is that preparing for, running, and following up business engagements is very different under swarm facilitation. Where traditional facilitation typically relies on designing prescriptive programs that encourage individual development and lateral thinking, and that risk groupthink, swarm facilitation focuses on creating the right environment, fostering swarm participation and collaborative filtering, and exploring routes to market for swarm output ideas.


The term “swarm facilitator” has been used throughout this article to describe the process of group work using swarm theory. There is also a specific role for an individual or group of individuals with the core mindsets needed to be an effective swarm facilitator:

  • Swarm facilitators need to focus on fixing structures, not fixing people. Looking again at the world of bees, beekeepers focus on the conditions and environment the bees need to thrive. The beekeepers do not interfere with the bees’ natural ability to make honey. Swarm facilitators should focus on building the right conditions for participants to innovate and not do their innovating for them.
  • Swarm facilitators need to help cultivate networks and choreograph authentic challenges that have relevance to the organization. The facilitators should be connectors who harvest the ideas that are generated from the collaborative group and steer them from ideation to commercialization. This requires a certain degree of digital quotient, resourcefulness, and multiple intelligences.
  • Finally, swarm facilitators should be guided by the energy of the group and not by agendas and timetables. Swarm facilitators need to believe in the basic principle of emergence and self-organization.

Swarm theory approaches innovation and group decision-making in a way that is fundamentally different from traditional methods. Swarm theory is an organizing framework, inspired by the natural world, that promotes group collaboration and helps us navigate through complex adaptive systems. As we advance through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, swarm intelligence provides a powerful set of conditions for self-organized innovation to flourish. Business leaders who struggle with disengagement in the workplace or the general ineffectiveness of business meetings and workshops to produce meaningful and fresh ideas may view swarm facilitation as a practical way to engage agents across the organizational hemisphere, so that they can work on real commercial issues that advance innovative capacity and collaborative learning.