Bee-inspired Teamwork: Lessons for Organizational Success

Marc-Peter Pijper
Written by Marc-Peter Pijper July 09, 2023

As a young parent, I often find myself watching the "Maya the Bee" cartoon with my three children. It's actually quite an enjoyable program featuring Maya, who never listens to her fellow bees and does her own thing. She befriends a grasshopper named Flip and always goes left when others say right. However, sometimes my thoughts shift from this bee colony to the world of work. Specifically, I reflect on how companies are organized nowadays and how people in teams often accept things simply because they're accustomed to them or because they have been raised with a certain view of what is normal.

The Waggle Dance

It all begins with raising children with assumptions akin to Maya the Bee. In the show, the Queen Bee waves her scepter as if she, the CEO with her overarching vision and leadership, is the main reason the bee company produces top-notch honey. However, that's far from the truth. The Queen Bee is not actually in charge. In reality, she has only one role: laying eggs. The rest of the bee colony operates in self-organizing teams. Let's consider the task of finding new food sources; the Queen Bee is not involved in that process. Worker bees inform each other about new flower fields through a dance known as the waggle dance. You can witness this dance in a video by my great hero, David Attenborough.

If a bee colony becomes too successful, meaning it grows too large for the bee nest, several hundred worker bees transform into nest scouts. These scouts choose a suitable new queen and take her, along with up to a few thousand worker bees, elsewhere, in a phenomenon called swarming. Through a fascinating combination of their bee dance and democratic decision-making, they find the best new nest location in 95 percent of cases. Just imagine your team making the best decision in 95 percent of cases...

Crystal-Clear Shared Purpose

Where does this wisdom come from? It stems from Thomas D. Seeley's book "Honeybee Democracy," which I highly recommend if you're not in the mood for all those books on HR, leadership, and organization. Seeley explores how evolution has perfected the decision-making processes of honeybees over millions of years. He concludes that what works well for bees may also work for professional teams.

First and foremost, teams need to consist of individuals with a crystal-clear shared purpose. In a bee colony, that purpose is simple: survival. At Viisi, as a company, we have a pretty clear purpose too. We even have a dual purpose: Change Finance & Change Work. However, defining the sub-purpose within teams can sometimes be a challenge.

How do you align operationally with that purpose? How do you incorporate it into your daily work? What we've learned is that you don't have to have the perfect purpose right from the start, as long as it's a step forward, no matter how small. It can also be dynamic, adapting to what society needs (especially in these times). Pair it with a flexible organizational structure and flexible individuals. Bees set a good example: worker bees seamlessly transform into nest scouts when needed.

The Queen Bee is not actually in charge. In reality, she has only one role: laying eggs. The rest of the bee colony operates in self-organizing teams.
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Open Debate

The key factors for successful decision-making in "bee teams" are the availability and reliability of information. According to Seeley, the same applies to "human teams," combined with mutual trust and respect. These elements foster an open, equitable debate where the traditional leader's influence is minimal. This radical transparency can be quite challenging for companies. It was also a challenge for Viisi to make almost everything public for everyone, from liquidity data to salaries. Much is also externally transparent, such as the Holacratic organizational structure.

The result? Over 150 companies, including most major Dutch banks, have visited us in recent years to see how we're organized during a Viisi Insights Safari. Is it bragging? It all depends on how you look at it: Viisi is still a small company, operating in the relatively small Dutch financial sector. And perhaps, by being so transparent, we can collectively change the financial world faster than if everything happens behind closed doors (something the industry unfortunately has a reputation for).

In conclusion, here's an interesting fact from Seeley: 5 percent of a bee colony doesn't pay much attention to the waggle dance of their fellow bees. That small group actually flies to the left when the others say right. And guess what? The survival of the entire bee colony depends on that 5 percent. It's a bit like Maya the Bee... Let's strive to be part of that 5 percent :)

Written by Marc-Peter Pijper
Marc-Peter Pijper
I work at Viisi. With our philosophy ‘People First, Customers Second, Shareholders Last’, we offer a workplace that enables everyone to work on the best version of themselves.
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