The organisational wisdom of bees

On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.

Sam Hlabati Systems Think

The Wright Flyer III was the third powered aircraft built by the Wright Brothers. Orville Wright made the first flight with it on June 23, 1905.On the basis of observation the flight of birds, the Wright Brothers concluded that birds changed the angle of the ends of their wings to make their bodies roll right or left.

The brothers decided this would also be a good way for a flying machine to turn—to “bank” or “lean” into the turn just like birds. Equally important, they hoped this method would enable recovery when the wind tilted the machine to one side; thus lateral balance.

They puzzled over how to achieve the same effect with man-made wings and eventually discovered wing-warping when Wilbur idly twisted a long inner-tube box at the bicycle shop. The flight of birds helped humans design airplanes. Based on other experiments, the study of fish helped in building better swimming outfits for international competitions.

This concept of humans learning from nature in order to create models that are useful in advancing human ideas is called biomimetics or biomimicry ; which is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problem (The terms biomimetics and biomimicry come from Ancient Greek: bios, life, and mīmēsis, imitation, from mīmeisthai, to imitate, from mimos, actor).

There are numerous models in nature that human beings can relate to to solve their daily problems. In this instalment our discussion will be focused on the activities of bees; yeah that’s right, the very small insect that deliver the infamous sharp sting have a model that could be used to bring efficacy in organisations.

A bee hive is run by the queen bee; which is typically an adult and mated female that lives in a honey bee colony or hive ; she is usually the mother of most, if not all, the bees in the hive. Though the queen bee is the leader of the colony, she cannot possibly run the colony alone.

The decisions about the situation on the ground is made by the bees that are closest to the situation and have all the required information at their “antenna” tips. The decisions about foraging for ingredients to make honey are made by the forgers, thus the bees busy foraging around the environment.

The information, which is regarded by the bee colony as operational in nature, does not have to travel back and forth between the foragers and the queen. The only time foraging information has to be relayed to the queen is in cases of a calamity such as an environmental mishap which destroys the foraging prospecting areas.

Can modern day organisations operate with such a decentralised operational decision making process? The answer is yes decentralisation is very possible. Decentralisation entails empowering the team members closest to the situation to make all day to day decisions.

Leadership literature is awash advice on the benefits of delegation. However, delegation is not one of the easiest things for leaders. The biggest barricade to effective delegation is often the leaders themselves.

It is all about the anxieties that leaders have which include among others; the perception that one does not have enough time to either adequately explain the task or teach team members the skills necessary for a delegated task; fear of giving up control; the egocentric phobia for losing the opportunity of getting credit; fear of losing the opportunity to undertake tasks one enjoys; the illusion by the leader that only themselves can do it better; resisting delegation because one believes they may delegate themselves out of their job; and lastly the notorious classical excuse of having no confidence in the team members.

Leaders should be thinking of shifting greater power away from the organisational core, the centre of control which is the executive; into the field, just like the queen shifts decision making about activities such as foraging to the bees working in the field.

Organisations with spread out outlets should allow the persons running branches to make operational decisions that would suit their environment.

A good example would be that the business trading hours of an outlet have to be in sync with the local environment. It would be senseless to have an outlet that is geographically dispersed from others stick to generic trading hours as practiced in other branches simply to maintain uniformity of working hours; just because the Head Office’s policies stipulate so.

The key to success in delegation is the existence of clear and constant communication. Foragers communicate their floral findings in order to recruit other worker bees of the hive to forage in the same area.

It has long been known through research that successfully foraging honey bees perform a dance on their return to the hive, known as waggle dance, indicating that food is farther away, while the round dance is a short version of the waggle dance, indicating that food is nearby. The dance language observed and described so well by Karl Ritter von Frisch ( an Austrian ethologist ), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973.

The waggle dance of the honey bee is one of many leadership and followership displays that take place in the animal kingdom, from the migration patterns of relatively brainless species, such as fish, to food sharing among our brainier primate cousins, the chimpanzees. The question for leaders is what amount of communication do you have with your team.

Surely delegating work to someone who does not have the full knowledge of the context could be a formula for disaster. The communications among the bee colony are elaborate and consistent and contextualised, which allows the bees being recruited for the foraging task (thus delegation) to get into execution fully informed.

Researchers have been trying to understand the factors that determine recruiting success; though not completely known, there are indications that there is a probability of criteria that includes evaluations of the quality of nectar and or pollen brought in.

The key lesson is that when a leader delegates, they should not abdicate on their role to check the quality of the output; further delegation should be based on the capabilities of the team member’s performance.

The future of a bee as a dedicated forager relies on its performance.

One of the key learnings from the bee colony is that worker bees take on leadership roles as scouts in pointing the group to explore new foraging sites.

How much latitude do leaders give to ordinary workers to influence the direction in which the business should go? The bee hive has a constant supply of pure honey due to the coordinated efforts of the worker bees.

The quality of the honey is determined by the quality of the pollen and the nectar, the quality of these is determined by the decentralised decisions of the foraging bees.

Are you the then surprised when thought leaders advocate the need to empower the team in making decisions? Why then do leaders who are removed from the field, nestled in their offices (just like the queen in the hive) insist on “telling” the people on the ground how things should be run, down to the minuscule of details.

Imagine the queen telling all the bees were to collect the best ingredients; whilst she is nestled in the hive with no information at hand.

Even if you gave the queen access to all the press and the web, the first-hand experience of the forager bees would still not be substitutable.

A bee colony that is headed by a high-quality queen has a more robust worker population and greater honey yield; so it matters a great deal who is at the top of the colony. Consequently, the hive worker population not surprisingly pays close attention to the queen’s ability to procreate and they are sensitive to declines in her performance.

The queen’s ability to lead is determined ultimately by the followers.; this is an actuality regrettably lost in many organisations. The continuity of tenure of leaders in organisations at times has little bearing on the will and acceptance of the followers. Some may point to political organisations and say that the tenure of leaders is by popularity, but we all know of the power clinging persons who hang on by all means possible, popular or not.

In the bee colony, leadership depends on the consent of the people (bees) to follow the leader (queen), the voice of the common bees (people), mainly the workers is loud and clear.

You may think of the ‘Queen Bee’ as the leader of the hive, sitting majestically whilst her workers bring home the nectar; however the queen is the “servant” of the team, laying the eggs to ensure the future survival of the colony. It’s the team behaving as one, in pursuit of a common goal which brings success, not a leader laying down the rules.

Foraging and scouting bees use the front porch of the hive to pass off collected pollen and nectar to worker bees in the hive. This is a good way of looking at responsibility and accountability; every leader and follower has to accept that they cross the “porch” to their own organisation and pass information to others.
Bees only know to make a perfect product.

Their honey stream can contract and expand to meet the honey production needs of the hive in the short time between spring and summer. Honey is the only food that includes all the substances to sustain life (enzymes, vitamins, minerals and water) with zero defects in every batch.

Great leaders put themselves at the centre of the organisation and move openly among the workforce; as they do so they do not usurp the followers’ decision making, they empower decision making closer to the source of information. They identify challenges, bottlenecks and constraints and work with staff to address them every day

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati