What We Can Learn From Honey Bees About Organizational Efficiency

Today’s blog post is written by Christa Avampato, Director of Product Development, PatronManager.

This is the second in a series of two posts about how lessons from science can inform the work we do in our arts organizations. Check out my first post here.

The parallels between a human-based organization and a honey bee hive are fairly obvious at face value. Arts and non-profit organizations buzz with activity. You can easily imagine that an executive director takes on a similar role to that of a queen bee, the leader of the hive. And those of us underneath that post work hard toward a common end goal. With this framework in mind, I’d like to delve a little deeper into the mechanics of a hive to mine the richer lessons we can learn from honey bees.

Better together

Honey bee hives have three broad categories of individuals: the queen, the worker bees, and the drones. While this appears on the surface to be a hierarchy in the hive, the truth is that all of the bees need one another to survive and thrive. No single individual, nor group of individuals, is more important than any other. A queen without her team is no queen at all. Similarly, without a strong queen, a hive would literally crumble. Bees instinctively understand the importance of their hive members. They all matter as individuals, and as parts of the whole. What they can’t do alone, they can do together.

This lesson has a pretty obvious implication for arts organizations. Inter-departmental collaboration is key! Think of all the various departments within your organization from Development to Marketing to Customer Service. Each have vastly different day to day tasks, but all are equally important to the survival of the organization as a whole. Without our Development people, how would we fundraise to keep our organization afloat? Without our Marketing folks, how would people find out about our offerings? Without our Customer Service representatives, how would we maintain positive relationships with our patrons? And the list goes on.

The point is, everyone at your organization plays an important role. Take the time to recognize this, celebrate accomplishments, lift one another up, and come together to problem solve! If one person succeeds, you all succeed.

Clear and persistent communication

To keep days productive, communication flows between the queen and her bees through pheromones, a chemical substance produced and released into the hive that instructs and affects the behavior of all the bees. In addition to the pheromones, bees also communicate through elaborate dances. That’s right—bees dance and their movements have specific well-known meanings to other bees in their hive. Communication flows in many directions—queen to drones and workers, workers and drones to queen, and workers to drones.

What can arts administrators take away from this? Communicate. And then communicate again. And again. And again. Contrary to how human-based organizations often work, as beehives get larger with more individuals they get more efficient. Communication is their secret weapon, and it can be ours, too. Have a clear and consistent set of guidelines around communication to set your organization up for success. What messages require an email? What would be better served as a G-chat or slack message? What warrants a call or video meeting? Should certain messages be archived for historical purposes? Setting standards and putting the right technological infrastructure (i.e., email, online chat services, etc.) in place will go a long way in ensuring nothing gets lost in communication.

Do what needs to be done

Different bees have different jobs. They include cleaning the hive, managing the temperature of the hive, caring for the queen, feeding younger bees, guarding the hive’s entrance, construction, maintenance, and repair of structures within the hive, gathering food, and more. Often duties are divided up among different bees based upon age and experience, but not always. If a bee notices something that needs to be done that isn’t being done, that bee will take the initiative and do it. It doesn’t wait to be told. It doesn’t ignore the need; that would be to everyone’s eventual peril. If it must be, then it’s up to each and every bee.

For organizations, clear distinct roles and responsibilities are absolutely critical to efficient and effective work. However, circumstances are constantly in flux. We may just happen to be in the right place at the right time to see something that needs to be done. Maybe it isn’t our actual job to do, but it never hurts to ask the question “should this be taken care of now?” or to raise our hand to do the task if it needs someone to volunteer for it. What we can’t do is just walk on by and hope someone else notices it later. If you see something, say something. If you see a better way to do something, put your idea out there. If you see a problem, voice some creative ways you think could solve it. This harkens back to the first lesson; we are all stronger together.

This is only the beginning of what honey bees have to teach us about organization and efficiency. Modern day humans have populated the planet for about 300,000 years. In contrast, the oldest bees in the fossil record are 100 million years old. As our elders, their ability to survive in the natural world 333 times longer than we have offers us a well-tested model of how to grow and prosper in complex, dynamic organizations.

If you’re fascinated by science and the lessons it has to teach us, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below!

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