It is mesmerizing to watch the pulsating flocking patterns of starlings, the synchronized shoaling behaviours of schooling fish, or the curios pathways of a foraging ant or bee colony. These colonies share what is known as ‘Swarm Intelligence‘. Groups that exhibit swarm intelligence have no central leader but the members act together, using available information around them, to aggregate as a smart group, doing complicated things by following very simple rules.
According to Deborah Gordon, professor of biology at Stanford, “In an ant colony, there’s nobody in charge. There are no bureaucrats. There are no foremen. There are no managers. There is nobody telling anybody what to do,” and instead, each ant just follows instinctive rules to create an extremely intelligent colony. As the Harvard Business Review writes, “through self-organization, the behaviour of the group emerges from the collective interactions of all the individuals. In fact, a major recurring theme in swam intelligence is even if individuals follow simple rules, the resulting group behaviour can be surprisingly complex – and remarkably effective.” So, individuals that follow the simple rules of the collective can behave as an intelligent, decentralized, self-organizing system.
Business like Southwest Airlines are using the science of swarm intelligence to solve complicated business problems like reducing boarding times on flights. But what if consulting firms could use swarm intelligence to improve the efficiency and profitability of the colony/company?
It turns out, GroupThinq was designed specifically to foster swarm intelligence in consulting firms by creating simple rules that entire teams can follow to improve efficiency, profitability and even personal esteem and confidence. Like the insects, fish or birds, individuals can work together as intelligent swarms with significantly less bureaucracy if they are given the right tools, the right information (at the right time) and the rules of the ‘game’.
In all smart swarms, individuals need the right cues (birds and fish use visual cues under 100 milliseconds for their quick group reaction times, insects use scents or odours for foraging, termites use a range of triggers to help them build their large cathedrals) and a few simple rules that make the group a ‘super-organism’. But what are the simple rules and cues for running a successful consulting practice?
Rule 1: Don’t Exceed the Budgeted Time for a Project
In consulting, most projects have a fixed budget and hence, a fixed number of hours assigned. As simple as it sounds, the most basic rule of consulting is to try to finish the project (or phase of the project) before the number of hours runs out. Ideally, the team must bring the project on or close to the budget that was assigned. To accomplish this, individuals must have ready access to the time remaining on the project, and they must have the freedom to make decisions about how their time is spent to achieve the goal. They must also have a good understanding of what the deliverables or outcomes are for the project. Having a fixed timeline makes people ask questions early about how to achieve the desired outcomes in the time allotted. They will begin to work together as an intelligent group to meet the goals of the project in the least amount of time. This emergent behaviour creates self-organization out of disorder and in a way that requires less oversight and supervision.
This rule only works if people have access to the hours remaining on a project in realtime. If there’s a delay while your controller has to add up everyones hours to present it back to the group weeks later, it causes a lag in the information people need to make smart decisions on a day-to-day basis. So, on top of the simple rule, people need immediate information about the budget remaining (measured in either time or $). This approach requires a connected network to amalgamate people’s time on each phase of the project, and which takes into account variations like people’s different billing rates in consuming the budget.
Ideally, a large project should be broken down into smaller phases so that individuals can be responsible for smaller phase budgets, rather than looking at the totality of the large project. This also allows specialized groups to control their individual budgets. If a phase goes over-budget, it’s easier to pinpoint where the problem was so it can be fixed the next time around. These phases are usually planned by people that have significant experience and who can share their knowledge with the individuals about how to complete the phase with the budget that is allotted.
Teams that work as an intelligent swarm are accountable for their time and their success at following the one simple rule (do not exceed the hours allotted), is easily measurable. Taken across a host of projects, clients, individuals, and managers, it is easy to start seeing patterns where no patterns were visible before. Companies can loose money because of (1) certain project types they are not efficient running, (2) clients that demand more time than was originally budgeted, (3) managers that are not skilled in running certain projects, (4) phases of a job that regularly run over-budget, or (5) individuals who are not accountable for the budgets on projects. In fact, projects can go horribly wrong for any number of reasons, but when you use a collective intelligence tool like GroupThinq, patterns become clearly visible over time and simple rules become very easy for everyone to follow.
Rule 2: Monitoring the Aggregate
While individuals are tasked with following the one simple rule (do not exceed the hours allotted), owners and managers must monitor the aggregate results of all the groups, projects, and managers to effectively manage the company. If one colony is bringing home all the food, and the others are bringing home significantly less, it is incumbent on a senior individual or team to orchestrate improvements in each group. Are there project types (or phases of a project) that regularly loose money? Are there teams or project managers that regularly loose money? Are there clients that regularly cause the company to loose money? The conductor needs to manage the orchestra so everyone is working together in harmony. In GroupThinq, this means that owners or managers should be monitoring the springboard reports at least weekly or monthly to see how the company is performing as a whole. Problem areas need to be identified early and corrective measures need to be taken. In this rule, managers need to be accountable to teams to steer the ship in the right direction and to take corrective actions when unintended consequences knock the ship off-course. Deliverables for the project need to be clearly communicated, and phases of the project need to be clearly defined to every individual working on the project.
While this step sounds like it can take a lot of time, skill and effort, GroupThinq’s springboards are designed to provide monthly data, easily at-a-glance. A couple of hours a month should give you a full snapshot of how the company is running, where your problems are, and how to make corrective actions to improve the situations. Even owners who were no formal education running a business, can pick up these simple skills by monitoring the aggregate reports produced by GroupThinq to improve the company.
The Intelligent Swarm Consultancy
Consulting firms can easily harness the power of swarm intelligence to help improve their consulting practice by following the two simple rules above. (1) Give individuals the tools to see the amount of time remaining on a project and the power to manage their time to bring projects in on-budget, and (2) owners should monitor the aggregate impacts on the company using GroupThinq’s simple reports to provide feedback to the team on their progress.
Self-Organizing systems in nature provide a model for consulting firms to follow to become more efficient, more profitable and more accountable.