The Beekeeper’s Guide to Agility

The Beekeeper’s Guide to Agility

bee on stick up close

You know what is amazing about bees? They form an amazing, efficient system, with tight communication, working towards a common goal. Sound familiar?

Now, a bee’s team is roughly 50,000 members strong – each having a specific role that is shared by the super-system. They are truly T-shaped workers, able to do whatever is needed for the survival of the hive.

But bees have a bad rap.

What does this have to do with agility? I’m asking you to challenge your perceptions and seek out a different point of view, both about bees and about problem solving. We cannot blindly follow a process or dogma and expect it to work in any situation.

That dreaded bee swarm that lands in your backyard and terrorizes your family isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a sign that the hive is doing fantastically! That super-organism is doing so well, in fact, that they have a need to reproduce and form a couple of colonies apart from the original one. This means more pollination of your food, and more honey.

The bees have nothing to protect (no home, nursery or honey stores), so they are fairly docile. They’ve gorged themselves on honey in preparation for their search for a new home to such an extent that they physically can’t bend their butts over to sting you. Ironically, this is one of the safest times to be around thousands of stinging insects.

Human brains are flawed, and constantly give us false information. This causes us to live in an echo chamber, delight in our confirmation bias and blissfully ignore alternate points of view.

I can guarantee that if you identify a problem in your team, business unit or organization, it is likely that viable solutions are not where you immediately expect them to be. If you take the time to uncover your blind spots, you will strengthen your problem-solving skills and challenge others to do the same.

Check out the principles of Integral Agile Theory below for more information. You’ll uncover your comfort zone (how you tend to approach problem-solving) as well as your blind spot (what you are ignoring in that problem-solving).

comfort zones and blind spots

“We Should Do What They Do!”

One of the most common failures in agile transformations is that they ignore internal culture and how it will change the solution. You cannot do what Spotify or Salesforce* does and expect it to work for you, your team or your company. Process dogma does not transfer verbatim to other instances.

*Insert the cool transformation story du jour.

Why is this challenging at work?

  1. “Touchy-feely” (or “woo-woo”) discussions are uncomfortable in a business setting. This is the blind spot in most transformation efforts.
  2. Process changes and improvements (or “do-do”) is the echo chamber of a lot of misinformed solutions, such as requesting more training or implementing another organization’s process framework.

Simply put, if you ignore the human system’s agility (culture) and focus solely on the business agility (hierarchy and processes), you risk dooming your long-term system journey.

Impediments Are Not Generic

If we jump to a conclusion when we are told of an impediment because “the process” tells us to do so, we risk ignoring the uniqueness of our own environment.

I worked in one organization where managers were routinely given the Scrum Master role. This horrified new employees who were familiar with the “standard” role definitions of Scrum.

On deeper reflection, the culture of that company had defined the role of engineering manager as being a true servant leader, with advanced empathy and a goal to coach their teams toward self-management and continuous improvement. These are obviously some of the key responsibilities of a Scrum Master. 

Thus, what initially appears as an impediment is then clearly reframed.  When managers don’t hold these expected cultural traits, that is the true impediment, not the blanket belief that managers should never be Scrum Masters. Such a belief ignores company culture and shared values.

Why Do I Care About This So Much?

I care about this so much because it’s giving agile a bad name. Lazy implementations of the wrong process tarnishes the entire craft with an ugly hue.

I challenge you to embrace your blind spots and look at things differently.

Come say hi at Agile2017 where I’ll be talking about this in more detail. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts about Integral Agile Theory in the comments section below.



Tamsen Mitchell is an agile coach at Salesforce.

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