Business Lessons From Busy Bees

A self-managed team leverages on every team member's unique skills to get things done. It tends to be resilient and can react to changes rapidly, and outputs of such teams are of higher quality.

 

Social distancing, enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is playing a major role in our lives today. And this has made us take some time to observe the activity around us. We are even trying to pick a few lessons from Mother Nature. In such trying times, a little girl, found a beehive growing on a tree trunk when she looked outside her window, and asked her mother, “Mom, the bees are ever so busy, who tells them what to do?” Seizing the opportunity, the mother, a successful project manager, explained to her how bees are the perfect example of self-managed teams. “The bees keep the common goal of the hive as a priority and work towards it. If one bee is suffering or falling behind, the others step up and do the work, making sure that collective productivity is never reduced”, said the mother. Forced to stay indoors, she apparently had been reading the book, “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive”1 by Mark L. Winston.

 

The lessons to be learnt

 

As we attempt to build sustainable organisations of the future, there are quite a few lessons that can be learnt from the life of bees.

 

Our workplaces provide us with a fair degree of freedom to carry out our duties. And as we grow in our career and learn to take on more responsibilities, this freedom increases. While this is true at the individual level, it is worthwhile to contemplate the outcome when teams are provided with freedom. Perhaps, it would be good if we loosen the strict controls and encourage sharing of ideas. It can be beneficial to allow our teams to take the initiative and organise their work, and accept greater accountability. This is the essence of self-management the outcome of which is seen to be more engaging, and hence a more charged up workforce. A self-managed team does not look for directions, but leverages on each team member’s unique skills to get things done. It tends to be resilient and can react to changes rapidly, and outputs of such teams tend to be of higher quality.

 

An ‘Agile’ way of working

 

The concept of self-managed teams which form the very core of the ‘Agile’ way of working, present multiple benefits. It frees up senior management bandwidth to focus on strategy and long-term issues.

 

It is indeed difficult to build self-managed teams, and hence it cannot happen overnight. And it is an even greater challenge to sustain them to turbo power your business.

 

This, however, is the future of work and hence needs to be mastered. As a term, ‘Self-managed’ may be misleading since it implies that such teams do not need managers. In fact, they do need managers, not to control and direct, but to coach and facilitate. This means that the role of the manager needs to be repurposed. If such a thing is not done, the manager could feel lost and become insecure as the team’s dependence on him comes down. This results into huge expectations from the manager and needs to be contracted and understood clearly. Remember, self management is not about eliminating managers, but about enhancing their contribution to the team.


When it comes to teams, the comfort of having a manager around needs to be replaced by building psychological safety. One way to do this is to define boundaries of action. Boundaries of action tell the team the minimum set of conditions that they need to comply with. To start with, these boundaries can be narrow and gradually expanded as the team matures.

 

 

The role of the manager is to protect the boundary conditions of the team not like a parent as in the case of a hierarchical organisation like a facilitator to support the team members to coordinate their work.

 

 

Further, this change is required to be communicated with clarity. Self-management is effective and sustainable only when each individual in the organisational ecosystem understands its importance and its benefits.

 

Sustainable self-management is not really about breaking down organisation structures, but only blurring the rigid lines of bureaucracy and maintaining it. It is about creating safe spaces for individuals to bring their best selves to work and take accountability to deliver a common goal without being instructed at each step. Here are the key steps for building sustainable self-managed teams –

 

◆ Communicate the intent and provide a clear business direction

 

◆ Design roadmap for teams to grow and mature in practising self-management

 

◆ Define appropriate boundary conditions for free thinking

 

◆ Support mid-managers to assimilate the change and help them champion the change

 

While summarising the book ‘Lessons from the Hive’, Sam Jaroudi, the Canadian life coach, has aptly written, “Colonies have queens, without the bureaucracy or the dictatorship. The queen knows her role and she performs her duties without interfering with the work of her subjects. Bees have an innate sense of responsibility. They are driven by the desire to work, produce, and sustain the colony. Bees are deeply engaged with each other. They keep each other informed about changes in their environment. They never break contact with the group and are constantly passing on information they receive. They are continuously evolving. If relocated from one region to another, they quickly scout the new environment and communicate their findings, then get to work in as little as an hour. They are not discouraged by change. They work hard with unwavering dedication and discipline, but they also get plenty of rest in order to recharge.”

 

If the bees could do it and sustain, can we humans not?

 

References

1. Bee time: Lessons from the Hive, Mark L. Winston (2014)

2. Article by Sam Jaroudi http:// thelogicaloptimist.com/index.php/ 2015/11/28/10-life-lessons-from-ahoneybee

3. What makes self-managing organizations novel? Comparing how Weberian bureaucracy, Mintzberg’s adhocracy, and self-organizing solve six fundamental problems of organizing by Frank Martela, Journal of Organization Design Vol. 8, Article number: 23 (2019)

 

 

    

 

Rajesh Navaneetham an industry veteran with a successful track record of setting and scaling up operational excellence in technology, is an accredited mentor at NSRCEL, IIM - B for social start-ups. He is a Founder Trustee of Young India Educational Trust. Harini Sreenivasan is a Maverick CHRO, popular HR thought leader and columnist and B-School student mentor.

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