When I am not managing complex projects in a professional capacity or at home “managing” the family I can be found in my apiary where I currently have responsibility for 1 million bees.

The by-product of a hive is honey, ensuring that the product gets to market is a complex and challenging journey. You might be reading this and think “so what?” honey is great but I don’t really care how it’s made as long as I can get some when I want it, read on and you will begin to see that managing bees has parallels to organisational agility and a business’s ability to adapt to the demands of constant change. If nothing else you will get an insight into the biology of the bee and how rewarding and complex it is to produce that first jar of honey of the year that you could be buying at the local market.

A bit about bees

A single colony (hive) consists of one queen (boss), thousands of worker bees (all females by the way!), seasonally some useless male drones, who are forever hopeful of mating (Their sole purpose). The reproduction behaviour is known as swarming and swarming is dependent (but not always!) upon two key factors, space and weather. The former can be gauged by regular inspection and is relatively easily acted upon. However, I live in Britain so predicting the weather is a thankless science that even the experts often fail at. If a bee keeper has failed to prevent a colony from swarming, one can “write off any honey production” from that hive for the year. As the queen, and half the colony has scarpered and set up shop elsewhere.

To complicate matters further, no two colonies behave in the same way; each has its own “mind”. Colonies can and often do behave differently. Having many colonies can feel like you’re managing a group of screaming toddlers! You might be thinking, this is complicated and a lot of hassle for something you do in your spare time, and you would be right but there are benefits. Think of the honey! So with unpredictability rife in bee management how do you influence and control the production of honey?

What's similar to Agile exactly?

Well, a bee keeper uses a similar approach to that used by a good project manager.

Task Bee Keeping Project Management
Forward planning
Risk analysis
Reporting (record keeping)

Recognise some similarities?

According to historical record, humans have been collecting honey for at least 15,000 years so could the bee keepers of yesteryear have created a project methodology without knowing it?

Management of this journey by the bee keeper has parallels to managing the lifecycle of a project. I have 5 colonies each of which are independent “work streams”. The governance to ensure the product comes to market, efficiently and effectively encapsulates all of my work streams. Sound familiar? Deliver on time, within budget and to agreed quality, the 3 objectives of pretty much all projects The ‘Iron Triangle’ of project delivery is the same whether the product is a new piece of software or a jar of luscious honey.

Plan or just react?

But, as you are probably thinking mapping out a plan of activity for a creature that does not play by the rules is pointless and thankless, why not just react when something happens? True, that’s kind of what happens, but by planning ahead you have at least a reasonable idea of when and what to expect. Certain activities you plan on doing can be either time constrained, need resources with limited availability or requiring specialist skills, knowing these activities in advance allows you to prepare and plan.

The challenge that apiarists and Agiliists alike face is that their careful planning counts for little when the weather changes. A bee’s and project’s lifecycle may be predictable at a high-level, but the day to day reality is unpredictable and subject to changes that are dependent on factors outside your control. Customers’ and bees’ demands often change daily so the job of both the project team and bee keeper is to respond and adapt to these as efficiently and effectively as possible.

For a bee keeper, failing to spot and adapt to the signs could result in the death of their colony. When a project manager fails to recognise and adapt to their environment and spot changing requirements the chances are their project will also die. Neither outcomes are welcome, so keeping your eyes and ears wide open for signs of change and learning to adapt to these changing circumstances are critical skills to develop, whether on a project or in a field with 1 million bees.

If nothing else, hopefully you’ve learnt a little about the product development path for honey but I’d like to leave you with a question. How ready, willing and able are you to look for, identify and respond to changes in the weather while managing a project?

If you’re interested in becoming more adaptable as a business or a team then it’s an area Xceed Group is keen to help with. Not all of our approaches relate to bees. Or honey. We can at certainly make sure you don’t get stung.