Best Practice: 4 Things Project Teams Can Learn from Honey Bees

Linh Tran, Wednesday 13 July 2016 | Reading time: unknown

Bees play an extremely important role in the ecosystem, as they’re responsible for pollinating flowers and plants. Most people probably associate bees with honey, they also offer us important project management lessons.

One of our developers here at InLoox recently started to keep bees. He told us all about the moving process of the swarm to their new hive. The whole process was a small project of its own, but it was completed successfully. The bees are now settled in well and the colony is thriving - with a little human help.

Naturally, a lot of our lunch conversations nowadays are revolving around bees, their habits and benefits. This got us thinking about how incredibly efficiently bees work, how effective their organizational structures are, and how much project managers and teams can learn from them.

1. Organization

Bees are social creatures who live and organize themselves in colonies. The bigger the colony, which can consist of up to 60,000 bees, the more efficient it becomes. This is completely contrary to what companies usually experience. The bigger an organization gets, the higher the risk of inefficient processes and communication. Why do bees get more efficient? Because they’re masters of self-organization. They have a clear organizational structure, and every bee knows and understands their role. But they are also flexible enough to switch roles and pitch in whenever and wherever they are needed.

It’s important to note that while everything is centered on the queen bee, she is not the one who gives the orders or makes decisions. The queen functions more as the focal point that holds everything together and creates the right environment for the colony to thrive (she does so by exuding certain pheromones). Many would call the queen a ‘servant leader’ (x).

What project managers and teams can learn from bees is that the project manager should give the team enough freedom to organize themselves and their work independently, but they should also provide the team with a positive project environment that facilitates teamwork and collaboration.

2. Teamwork

Each bee has their pre-determined role and responsibilities: The queen lays eggs, the worker bees build the hive and provide food, and the drones are there to make sure that the hive keeps on growing. These stable roles make sure that every bee knows exactly what they have to do and where they have to be at each moment. The jobs complement each other perfectly, and each job plays a vital part in strengthening and growing the hive. This is a great example of how cross-functional teams can work together effectively and how a diverse team with different skill sets can contribute to the success of a project.

However, while this system seems very rigid, it’s not. At least in case of the worker bees. What is fascinating is that every worker bee does every job during the course of her life. Which means that she can switch jobs depending on the needs of the colony. Bees understand that they can only ensure the survival of the colony if they work together, failure to do so can be fatal for the whole hive.

While it’s not that drastic for project teams, inefficient collaboration can lead a project to fail. So project teams need to realize the same: Only if they work together will they be able to complete the project successfully. It’s important that the project manager communicate to the team what their roles and responsibilities are, but it’s also important to stay flexible and change roles if necessary.

3. Making decisions

Making decisions is difficult. Making informed decisions as a group is even more difficult. Bees have developed a very complex, but very effective way of communicating via pheromones and ‘dances’. The dances are particularly important for the decision making process, which is a surprisingly complex process. Bees will send out scouts to look for a potential location for the new hive and the scouts will assess the quality of these spots. After that, they scouts will return and perform a ‘dance’ to describe the sites and its advantages. Then the whole swarm will visit the sites that the scouts recommended until they come to a consensus. How do the bees know when there’s a consensus? Every bee will perform the same dance (x).

This method is very effective because the bees don’t just rely on coincidence to find a new site for the hive, but they also don’t just blindly follow the opinions of the scouts, thus avoiding the dreaded groupthink phenomenon. Project teams can follow the bees’ example to make more informed group decisions and increase creativity and productivity.

4. Anticipating risks and adapting to change

Bees have developed a sophisticated system to deal and mitigate risks. They can easily adapt to changes in the weather and other unforeseeable events. They also know how to work with constraints in place. They will work tirelessly during spring and summer to produce enough food for the winter months, during which they obviously won’t be able to collect anything. And in the event of losing their queen, they immediately assign some worker bees with the task to produce eggs, until they have a new queen.

Project teams need to be aware of risks and have processes in place that help them avoid these risks entirely, or if that’s not possible, mitigate their effects. Situations can change very quickly, so you always need to have contingency plans in place.

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