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What can bee keeping teach you about creating a movement?

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Bees are generally speaking pretty cool, and they have over the past few years received a lot of attention from management theorists.  They, along with ants, have been looked to for insights into how organizations can better self-organize and taken on emergent forms without management diktat.

Whilst that’s no doubt interesting, what I’d like to talk about today is not directly related to bees, but rather the I Love Bees project that was created around the launch of the Halo video game back in 2004.

If you’re not a fan of video gaming, then it’s quite possible you missed it, but it’s a telling insight into the way people can self organize around particular tasks, and often on a mass scale.  In that sense, the parallels with actual bee hives is quite interesting.

Anyway, lets start at the beginning.  To advertise the launch of Halo 2, a number of advertisements were created to air in cinemas throughout the land.  At the end of each advert, the url www.ilovebees.com flashed onto the screen briefly.

The interest of gamers was instantly piqued, and when they visited the website, they found the blog of an amateur bee keeper called Margaret.  Except, Margaret had apparently disappeared.

When you explored her honey based recipes, you found instead 210 distinct GPS co-ordinates.  Each co-ordinate also contained a time and a date, with an ominous sounding warning that ‘the system’ was in danger.

What did it all mean?  The bottom of the page had a link to another blog, written by Margaret’s niece Dana.  So Halo fans flooded to her site and began asking questions about what all of this was.  She did her best to provide some insight, before she too vanished.

And so was set the puzzle, for you see this was a game designed by gaming company 42 Entertainment as part of the promo work for Halo 2.  The results were striking.

Over the next few months, something like 600,000 people began trawling through the clues to try and make sense of this puzzle before the dates attached to the GPS were triggered.

They began to self-organize, creating online communities to share their thoughts and theories.  There were attempts to co-ordinate what was going on and collate the various information from within the community.

All of this occured spontaneously.  No one was in charge, no one was paid to chase the puzzle.

Interestingly, during the course of the challenge, the game designers would release subtle clues into the community.  They were relying on swift and accurate communication throughout the ‘hive’ in order to raise the collective intelligence of the community, which is exactly what happened.

Eventually, the hive figured out that the GPS co-ordinates were for pay phones located around the world, and players gathered around each phone when the time came to try and find the next piece of the puzzle.

When each phone rang, a question was asked of the player, and if it was answered correctly, they were given an extra clue about the whereabouts of Margaret.

These clues then had to be pooled together from around the world, to form the next piece of the puzzle.  Over the coming weeks, more puzzles of this sort were posed by the makers until the climax, which would really test the limit of their co-ordination.

The makers called one pay-phone to request five words from the listener.  They would call another 1,000 pay phones throughout the country in the next hour, and expected to hear the exact same five words.  In other words, the community had to distribute the five words throughout the group in super quick time.

Every single one of them succeeded.  It’s a fascinating example of how designers created the right conditions to harness the energies and insights of the 600,000 players that participated in the challenge.

How can you do likewise amongst your community of advocates and stakeholders?

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