Organisational Decision Making Patterns: Lessons from Bees?

Organisational decision-making processes take many forms or different patterns.


I enjoy playing with analogies and metaphors in terms of organisational life and experiences and what has resonated with me this week is the ways by which bees have a pattern to their organisational life. You will recall that it is a well established figure of eight. This caught our team’s imagination in a recent daily ‘stand-up’ that I was with this week… and we/I got to thinking: How does this metaphor speak to us? What can we learn from it? Does it have any resonance? Or insights?

I have decided to pick this up and in action research style explore this further to see where this might take us. I framed this inquiry from a strengths-based analysis whilst drawing from a Jungian perspective to see what might I/we learn? And, it turns out to  be quite a fascinating metaphor.

Firstly, Burroughs (1907) notes that to the ancient Egyptians (who were among the first to raise bees); the bee signified transformation. This is fascinating as the project/programme that we are working in is transformational. The Egyptians saw that the life-giving sun-rays were transformed into golden sweetness and that this honey was both delicious to the taste and very desirable for food and wider health benefits too.

Thus, the bees have a genetic advantage in their decision-making pattern in that it maximises their survival probabilities. In other words, it makes them ‘fit for purpose’ for their ecological environment. On the flip side, however, we might also suggest that it does not provide much adaptability unless, of course, there is a future genetic mutation with a variation that results in an even better environmental ‘fit’ or advantage. Reminding us, I guess, that we should always be open to the possibility that we might need to adapt, change and improve; including the ways by which we make, take and confirm decisions?

Andrews (2000) notes that honey was both potentially blessedness or madness. A real ambivalence! Consequently, ancient bee keepers would test the new honey by holding a handful in the palm of their hands. If it tingled this was a bad sign as this signified that the honey was toxic. He cites historical records that note that if such honey was indeed ingested then this could lead to madness and/or even death! In other words continuous behaviour testing is not something new to Agile! We must test our product developments/code at incremental points!


Next Burroughs (1907) shares that it takes over 20,000 trips between the hive and the flowers to create approximately a pound of beautiful honey. One metaphorical way of applying this to any transformational programme is by appreciating and recognising all the hard work, effort and dedication that creates the organisational ‘honey’. The products, outcomes and wider benefits are without doubt ‘sweet’… but the hard work also needs to be recognised such as  in Sprint retrospectives and Demos etc.

On any modern bee farm it is usual to have a number of hives that can be likened to individual projects; each with a ‘Queen’ signifying senior leadership I would imagine? Hubbell (1988) has this to say of the Queen “Her chemical, aromatic pheromones, spread by contact with the worker bees give its hive its distinctive identity” (p.20). In business psychology there is a well established body of knowledge and evidence linking between key leadership behaviours that resonate with Hubbell.

  • Firstly, that ‘contact’ between senior leaders and worker bees is important for a range of tangible outcomes such as: job satisfaction, engagement, sense of purpose/meaning and individual and team motivation.
  • A strong ‘contact’ is a pre-requisite for a strong psychological ‘contract’ is one of my maxims to senior leaders.

Lastly, Tashen (2010) notes that the Egyptians identified the honey making process as linked to wisdom even going so far in their Archetype to suggest that the sweet touch of the golden product on the individual’s tongue could “inspire poetry, truth-saying and prophecy...”(p.230).

From an Agile team and programme portfolio we could liken this to effective Roadmap planning; strategic risk assessments, etc. that each that have that embodied wisdom and necessary skill of foresight (or strategic scanning); as well as a wider organisational culture; wherein teams are empowered to have the courage to speak-up; share the project reality, and collaborate across and between teams.

It is fair to say, that at our organisational ‘best’ I have witnessed these behaviours and organisational characteristics. So in many ways, if not all the ways, the metaphor of the honey bee does indeed resonate in fresh ways. It can and does speak to us! Evidently, we need to continue to create that sweet, delicious honey as well as celebrate the hard work of the worker bees in so doing! And whilst recognising that we all need the ‘Queen’ roles too.

Take care, Jason.


Agile working: Celebrating the Puer but ensuring we don’t become puerile?


One of the most fascinating insights from Carl Jung is the idea of opposites as a necessary set. This can hold true in terms of time; spatial proximity, concepts, physical realities and many, many others. One set of opposites that I have been experimenting with over the last few months is in terms of planning/control and emergence/freedom. I have a professional interest in this set of opposites in terms of Agile working. This is my learning to date.

The Collective Unconscious 

The collective unconscious is one of the ways Jung’s originality is best expressed for me. I won’t go into the details here as that is material for another blog at a future time. For those of you unfamiliar with this idea stated simply, Jung noted that human beings universally share unconscious material. This material and characters, what Jung referred to as archetypal are found in all cultures, and historical periods as far back as we can trace human history and thought. They are often expressed by way of cultural myths, fairy tales, stories, poems and legends, for example.

The Male Youth and the Old Man.

Jung noted two archetypes that I’d like to examine in a bit more detail and relevance and this is the old man and the male youth/adolescent. Jung used the Latin terms and referred to them as the Senex Type and the Puer Type.  It is important not to see these are personality types in our external worlds, but rather as characters. These are characters in ‘The Theatre’ of our unconscious.

The Senex embodies the notion we have for wisdom, experience and is underscored by a sense of veneration and respect as opposed to the ways in which in the West we have tended to become more disrespectful of the elderly sometimes even going too far as a see them as some kind of ‘burden’. Thus, when compared to the adolescent the Senex has strengths or virtues in that they are more likely to be grounded, realistic, cautious, forward-looking and careful. However, the shadow side of this type is that they can be resistant to change, express a more pessimistic attitude, and even a depressive tone that finds it more difficult to find the expression of comedy and humor. When taken too far with a lack of self integration the Senex can start to quite literally ‘squeeze’ joy from life, work teams and other social interactions.

The Puer Type is the Latin term for ‘child’. Thus puerile expresses the notion that a given action or behaviour is something that would be considered foolish, silly or immature for an adult. However, there are strengths to the Puer type and this is best expressed as playfulness. The sense that creativity is linked to, and of course key ideas around innovation, originality, and fresh approaches can be traced to this type. In contrast to the Senex the Puer is open to new ideas with a sense of spontaneous openness and fun-loving joy. Play for Jung is a quintessential activity that can foster learning, growth and personal development and of course personality integration of our ‘parts’. For most adults, it is fair to say that it is a genuine challenging process to recapture this fresh, beginner’s mind.

Of course, as the Senex can be unbalanced so can the Puer too. The adult that is constantly in ‘play mode’ can lack responsibility; be weak-willed morally; reluctant to fully commit their effort, time and ideas to projects. They can also lack the necessary tenacity and determination to ‘see things through’. One can see quickly the hedonistic drum of me, me, me associated with the accompanying drum of now, now, now!

A question of balance.  

If you imagine a spectrum or a continuum between the Senex and the Puer then one of the key insights from Jung is that for individual living at the extreme Senex end of the senex-puer spectrum is living a life out of balance. It is worth noting that both Archetypes should be active in our unconscious lives- and found expression in our lived realities. We all need ‘access’ as well as acceptance and integration of our inner Puer as much as our inner Senex.

The Agile Project: Celebrating Senex and Puer.

In my experience most large organisations tend to be more Senex in their cultural assumptions and guiding values- but not all. That is they tend to have a business operating model that values control, planning and forward-looking and are cautious around notions of Puer playfulness. Seeing this as a creative tension between these necessary set of opposites has added value as a Scrum Master seeking to develop more Agile way of working.

In a future Blog I’ll unpack some of the practical ways this has been successful framed by Appreciative Inquiry. For the time being, it is fair to say that Jung’s insights has been added value as a working framework in practical ways.

Take care Jason