on short-term efficiency

On the dangers of focusing on short-term efficiency

There is a parallel in the behaviour of bees, which do not make the most of the system they have evolved to collect nectar and pollen. Although they have an efficient way of communicating about the direction of reliable food sources, the waggle dance, a significant proportion of the hive seems to ignore it altogether and journeys off at random. In the short term, the hive would be better off if all bees slavishly followed the waggle dance, and for a time this random behaviour baffled scientists, who wondered why 20 million years of bee evolution had not enforced a greater level of behavioural compliance. However, what they discovered was fascinating: with out these rogue bees, the hive would get stuck in what complexity theorists call ‘a local maximum’; they would be so efficient at collection food from known sources that, once these existing sources of food dried up, they wouldn’t know where to go next and the hive would starve to death. So the rogue bees are, in a sense, they hive’s research and development function, and their inefficiency pays off handsomely when they discover afresh source of food. It is precisely because they do not concentrate exclusively on short-term efficiency that bees have survived so many million years.

If you optimise something in one direction, you may be creating a weakness somewhere else.

Excerpt from: Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland

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