How can teams be as smart as the bees

How can teams be as smart as the bees

Ever since I started keeping honey bees, I am very intrigued by hives and how they are similar to organizations. You probably know that bees work together as a swarm, but what does it mean? They have a queen bee. However, they do not wait for orders from the queen. Her primary job is to lay eggs. Every colony has a few scout bees that find food sources or a new place to move into. Based on signals from the scouts and some simple triggers, the group decides on actions that follow. They are smarter, more powerful and can get more done when there are more of them.

We know from strong teams at Google, Facebook, Microsoft & eBay that the best teams work autonomously. The organization establishes the purpose and the principles that let smart, intelligent teams innovate. As I was checking my hive, I was intrigued by how much we can learn about teamwork and shipping complex products by thinking like a bee.

Image credits: kaibara

I always see continuous activity while standing in front of a beehive. It’s like observing a bazaar, and it is very meditative to watch the patterns. Every morning, several scouts go out and come back with information about both direction and distance of food. They then dance to tell others about it. Then all the foraging bees follow. I do not understand everything about how they work, but I know they come back with lots of nectar and pollen. Bees are excellent at working together with minimal conflict.

We all know bees work hard. They start early in the morning, and I see them working in the garden until it gets to sunset. They tend to their hive and maintain it at a constant temperature. The queen on the other hand, just lays eggs and a lot of them every day. There are queen attendants that groom and feed the queen. They also value productivity and push out their unproductive members. Worker bees will throw the drones out when there are too many of them spending time getting drunk on honey and winter is approaching. Bees don’t just work hard; they work smart.

What you might not know is that solitary bees don’t try to chase and sting you. Bees only defend their honey. When they feel that their honey is about to be stolen, they sting and let out an odor that tells the other bees where to attack. There are guard bees in each colony whose sole job is to sting anything that does not belong to the hive. They get their job done and then they die. The bee’s life is a resource for the colony and the cost of a sting is high, you will seldom get stung by a bee in the garden. Bees do not waste resources.

It is amazing to see these little insects from the era of the dinosaurs work together with simple principles for survival! Over the years, technology companies have given more and more autonomy to its employees. This freedom has allowed some of them to innovate at a scale like never before. The ones that have failed have not been able to focus their workforce on the most meaningful explorations. Healthy organizations need well-thought-out and simple principles. They help make better decisions faster, allow for flexibility and reduce organizational stress.

  1. Simple principles make decisions easier and better.
    People know the why for every action; there are fewer data points to collect and the rules are easier to remember. Focusing on engagement helped the Facebook startup team make quick decisions and succeed where other social networks failed.
  2. Simple principles foster flexibility and innovation.
    When a team knows the goal, they can be creative about how they get there. It makes space for the most effective (and efficient) solution. It also allows for innovation. Twitter is probably one of the best examples of a company’s product with simple rules. Be nice and communicate with each other in 140 characters! The flexibility allowed for the addition of the #tag to the creation of several Twitter clones.
  3. Lower organizational stress.
    Teams with simple principles (a clear articulated purpose) have more success with lower churn. Think Microsoft during its heydays of a computer on every desk in every home.

So what are your principles?

Thanks to Andrew Harder, annettemboyer and Maya Bisineer for reading early drafts.