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.


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