What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth

Lesson 1

Protect the Future

The Belgian-born Nobel laureate in literature Maurice Maeterlinck once commented, “The God of the bee is the future.” Everything the bee does employs this orientation as the basis for its actions; what is done today is always in anticipation of tomorrow. Indeed, the tendency for action to be in the context and service of the future is so central that it belongs as our first lesson.

I am almost embarrassed to discuss this lesson since its benefit to business leaders seems self-evident. Nevertheless, it may be a hopeful message for those executives who feel enslaved by quarterly earnings reports. And we could ask the subprime lenders and the lineup of insurers, packagers, and distributors of those mortgages responsible for the most recent banking crisis if they were thinking of the long term when they took on so much risk. Or we could ask auto manufacturers if concentrating on trucks and sport utility vehicles for earnings was truly advisable. Unlike these companies, however, bees are not short-term maximizers. Instead, honeybees’ basic strategy is to maximize returns over a broad geographic area and extended time horizon.

Bees don’t focus exclusively on the most productive flower patches at any given time, and for good reason. Conditions change rapidly for bees and they can ill afford wide swings in pollen and nectar intake. What is best now probably won’t be tomorrow. In the animal kingdom, the “famine” in “feast or famine” is a death sentence. Thus, when a lucrative vein of nectar is discovered, the entire colony doesn’t rush off to mine it no matter how enriching the short-term benefits. The colony has internalized a very important natural rule: someday the nectar in that location will stop flowing and they will need to be prepared to rapidly reallocate resources to other productive sites. In order to do so, they must already know where those sites are and have established operations, however minimal, in those locales. Said succinctly, bees avoid all-or-none scenarios at all costs.

The work of bees is daunting when you consider the fickle ecological conditions they encounter within a territory of a multimile radius. The season, the weather, the time of day, the types of flowers, and the competition for nectar with birds and other insects all are important considerations for successful foraging. Given the highly volatile environment, concentrating inordinate amounts of resources in one place for too long would be a disastrous mistake. Under these conditions, bees give up immediate rewards for longer-term adaptation within an immense terrain where incomplete information is the norm. They harvest and search simultaneously with the purpose of extracting the greatest benefit over a protracted time span. Operationally, this produces a pattern among bees in which they monitor a large area but differentially focus on a limited number of sites at any given time that are the most profitable. In the language of business, bees are heavily invested in research and development, constantly on the lookout for the next best thing while taking in revenues from available sources.

This argues for companies to allocate a percentage of their available resources to new goods and markets, and to concepts at various stages of development to replace aging products or outdated services. This includes maintaining investment levels even when there is the temptation to pull back in times of scarcity. Actually, if you follow what the bees do, you would expand exploration during low-growth periods. The number of scout bees that seek out new sources of wealth for the colony actually increases as available forage declines. As conditions worsen, honeybees ratchet up their search. In fact, that’s what many innovative R&D-dependent companies such as 3M, Intel, Procter & Gamble, and Xerox have done in the past in order to fill their product pipelines and expand into new markets and businesses. Minimally, these companies do all they can to safeguard R&D expenditures using something akin to what Corning calls a “rings of defense” strategy with investment dollars nestled in the protective core.

The problems many companies face are a result of a temporal mirage. Motivated by an extreme thirst for profits, they fail to see that the source of plenty eventually disappears. Quenched by easy money and luscious margins, they overindulge and underexplore, disregarding that it all will pass. Frequently businesses that are enjoying rich harvests in fields of plenty fail to notice the shrinkage and decay around the edges, and the promising, budding sprouts in their neighbor’s yard. If bees settled around the one best food source available within a particular period, the resulting allocation of labor would be too concentrated on a single site. As the profi tability of the site dwindled—which it inevitably would—the time it would take to search for and harvest the next patch would create a period in which there was no yield whatsoever.

More Pollen

The best way to ensure that there will be a short run is to focus on the long run. This may take some  convincing of those who see it the other way around, such as shareholders. However, as the bees clearly advise through their behavior, overexploiting a rich patch just because it is there is a death trap. In this regard, why make it harder on yourself by creating organizational structures such as pay plans that reward short-term feasts?

Good companies are durable over the long run and require continued investment in good times and bad. Coarse reductions in exploratory spending constrict future market options and erode a company’s entrepreneurial edge. Innovation is not like a switch that can be turned off and on at will. It requires experience, knowledge acquisition, and trial and error. In a phrase, innovation requires continuity of learning, which is grossly interrupted when critical initiatives are indefi nitely put on hold. The negative effects of excessive cuts and overexploitation persist well after organizations experience a change of heart and hurriedly attempt to make amends. Regardless of your relative position in the organization, the less people are pressed to experiment, learn, and grow, the less inventive your people will be when eventually called upon to try something new.

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