What Scrum Teams Can Learn from Honey Bees

Friday, January 31, 2014 by Rainer Stropek

Self-Organization and Cross-Functional Teams

In their Scrum Guide, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland emphasize that Scrum teams are “self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.” Many of our time cockpit customers are using Scrum. In the context of time cockpit projects, we often do workshops about agile methods in general and Scrum in particular. So we were looking for real experts in self-organization - and we finally found them: our honey bees.

Are You Willing to Break With Old Habits?

In my experience from working with software development teams ranging from small startups to international enterprises, this is much easier said than done. When C-level executives invite me to do Agile or Scrum workshops for existing development teams, one of the first things I ask is whether they are aware of the consequences that e.g. Scrum will have on their organization. Here are some examples:

  • No more separation of a development team and a testing team. Developers and testers will closely work together in cross-functional teams.
  • Freedom of each team to develop or adapt processes as needed instead of following globally defined, strict processes. Self-organization means that “a global order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system” (Wikipedia).
  • No pyramid-like org chart with a separate project management office, a separate development division, a separate IT operations group, etc. Teams will not only be responsible for “getting work done but also for managing themselves” (Wellins, Byham, Wilson: Empowered Teams, page 3, Amazon link, Google Books link).
  • Value collaboration of people over documentation. As an executive, you will spend more time thinking about how to foster collaboration between people than about documentation guidelines (read more about this topic in Maister: Managing the Professional Services Firm, Chapter 30 Creating the Collaborative Firm, page 337ff, Amazon link, Google Books link).

Introducing Scrum in settled organizations often requires the willingness to change accustomed structures. It has to go hand in hand with new management practices. However, forcing agile methods like Scrum into an organization will likely fail. A bottom-up approach with appropriate support and sponsoring by top-level management works best.

Note that Agile and Scrum do not mean hoping that order will magically rises out of chaos. The initial setup and the fundamental rules that every team has to obey have to be well conceived and clearly defined. The previously mentioned Scrum Guide is a good example for that.

Learning from the Best: Honey Bees

One of my hobbies in my private live is beekeeping. A colony of honey bees is a fascinating superorganism. Bees have perfected the principle of self-organization for millions of years (read more about the oldest specimen of a bee). So what can we learn from these masters?

The Servant Leader

Bee queen (photo by Maja Dumat)

You might have heard that a bee colony has a queen. She is the most important individual. Only the queen can lay fertilized eggs from which new female worker bees can emerge. When the population grows and the bee hive is getting too full, she can found a new colony by leaving the hive taking with her approx. half of the population. The result is an impressive bee swarm consisting of up to 40,000 bees.

Losing its queen is a very disruptive event for a bee colony. Honey bees have strategies to replace the queen – but this is a topic for a separate blog article.

However, the queen is not the colony’s “CEO”. You could say that the bee queen is a kind of servant-leader. Although she is the founder of the colony and the most important individual, she is primarily serving, not leading. Her job is not assigning other bees to certain jobs or coordinating the work.

A Scrum Master is a servant-leader, too. A good way to start with Scrum is nominating a Scrum Master first. She is the seed from which the first Scrum team will emerge. She invests time to talk with potential team members and finally forms the Scrum team. The Scrum Master acts like a team mom. She removes impediments.

When I do Scrum workshops, I often hear the following: “Oh, we have something like Scrum Master, too. We call them project managers.” Note that the Scrum Master is not the team’s boss or a project manager. She is a servant-leader holding the team together.

The Specialized Generalist

A bee colony is a perfect example of a cross-functional team. There are guard bees that sit in front of the hive entrance challenging incoming bees and other intruders. Other bees are specialized on leaving the hive collecting nectar and pollen. The colony has nurse bees, too. They feed and take care of developing brood.

The interesting thing about specialization in the bee colony is that each individual bee performs every task in the course of her lifetime. At the beginning of her life, the bee is a nurse. Afterwards, she specializes on building combs. When she gets older, she starts her career as a collector of food outside the hive, and so on. Now who is coordinating this process? Is the bee queen counting the number of nurses telling some bees to switch to building combs? Does the colony develop a “second line management” doing this coordination work?

It turns out that bees are very flexible. They are constantly attentive to what the colony needs. They are open to changing demands. Walking through the bee hive, each bee helps where help is needed. The bee changes its role when the colony needs it. Bees can go back into jobs that they did in the past. A collecting bee might turn back into a nurse. In some cases bees can even change the characteristics of their body so that they can re-specialize on a specific task (e.g. re-developing Hypopharyngeal glands needed to feed brood).

So what can we learn from that? Many times I have heard things like: “We could not create a potentially shippable product increment because our tester had been sick for two weeks and therefore we had nobody to test development results.” These are the sentences that an agile Scrum team should not say in a Sprint Review meeting.

The team has to organize itself instead of waiting for a manager to tell them what to do. The team members have to stay flexible and open for changing roles.

Note that being agile does not mean total chaos. In a complex matter like software development, specialization is inevitable to a certain extent. It is fine if the team members concentrate on certain areas of expertise. This must not mean that they refuse to do other work although the team needs it to fulfill its goals. If you want to fully specialize on a certain topic, become a consultant for multiple Scrum teams in your organizations. You can fill the skill gap between the team and the project (read more in Lacey: The Scrum Field Guide, chapter 3: Using Team Consultants to Optimize Team Performance, Amazon link, Google Books link).

The Common Goal

Bee symbol at Hatshepsut Temple
(photo by Aleksey Gureev)

A honey bee’s life is fully subordinated to one overall goal: the survival of the colony. For example, if a bee becomes seriously sick, she leaves the hive to not pollute the hive when she dies. Honey bees defend the colony even though they die if they sting attackers.

History knows many examples of emperors who used the bee as their insignia (e.g. Napoleon I., Egyptian kings). The bee should symbolize the ideal subject of the monarch: He works for his king, worships him and fights for his land and sovereignty (“pro rege exacuunt”, they sharpen their stings for the king). 

In today’s business, we do not devote our entire life to the companies we work for. However, every team needs a goal worth striving for in order to realize its full potential. The team has to understand the importance of their project.

The cross-functional nature of Scrum teams strongly support this as people do not only see a small portion of the entire picture.

In many Scrum workshops I get asked about planning a product’s roadmap. On the first sight, long-term planning and agile methods are a contradiction. In an agile company, managers have to trust in their teams. If they know that there is an important trade fair in six months, they should describe the importance of this event to the Scrum team. It is the team’s responsibility to self-organize its work so that the company will have a working product with maximum business value when it really matters.

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