Bee Prepared: 10 Project Management Lessons from the Apiary

September 8, 2017

Beekeeping? Project management? They're more similar than you think. Matt Brake, Division Director and certified beekeeper, explains why!

Bees in their honeycombs

Outside of my work at Critical Software, I have been a beekeeper for many years now. It struck me recently how managing a beehive has some interesting parallels with managing a business project. Of course, most project management challenges do not involve looking after some 50,000 plus bodies, but it was still interesting to consider some of the surprising similarities. Here I’ve listed my top ten.

1. Provide the right environment. As a project manager and a beekeeper, your job is not to do the work yourself, but to be an enabler. You therefore need to make sure that your team or bees have the best possible environment you can provide them with in order to maximise their output - whether that is a computer system or frames of honey. You may have to remove barriers in order for progress to be achieved, and protect your team or bees from things that will slow their progress down or harm their ability to deliver. You also have to make sure the working environment is fit for purpose and the resources needed to get the job done are available.

2. Perform regular checks. You must check in on your ‘team’ on a regular basis to ensure everything remains on course and that they still have what they need, especially if there are changes. If the team or colony grows, for example, they might need more space to work, or more resources – working environments are dynamic, and that calls for dynamic project management.

3. Don’t disturb them if you can avoid it. On the other hand, you can check on your team too often or in a way that disturbs them so much that you become the thing that slows production down. Try to find ways that you can perform your checks without disrupting work flows: for example, cracking open a hive will upset the colony and distract bees from the job in hand. You can learn a huge amount about what is going on inside a hive by just watching the entrance. If the bees are flying, then the colony is alive, and you can gauge how strong it is by judging bee numbers. Also, if bees are bringing back pollen to the hive, then it is highly probable that the queen is laying eggs. It is a common problem with new beekeepers and new project managers – they micro-manage a team to the detriment of morale and productivity.

4. Stick to processes that work. Like humans, honeybees get used to working in a certain way and get comfortable with it. By keeping to a certain way of working you can disturb things far less as you go about your business of checking everything is OK. So, have a process in place and stick to it as much as possible once it is proven to work. This will also help you to do your job faster and more efficiently. With bees, you should try to check in on them at the same time of day, wearing the same outfit (something they find acceptable - they don’t like black which is why beekeepers wear white), working through the hive in the same order, with the same tools and at the same speed. With your project team, give them a similar level consistency, so they know what to expect.

5. Keep proper records. Absolutely critical for both jobs: record keeping is a must. Things will go wrong at some point and the quality of your record keeping could be the difference between a cheap and swift solution, an expensive solution, or worse: a cancelled project or deceased colony. Naturally, the hope is that you will not need all of your records tracking the health of your colony or project. But one day it may highlight something that causes you to recognise a pattern that is worrying and you can do something about it before it gets too serious. Alternatively, something might go wrong and you will at least have your records to go back to and check to validate what you think you need to do to fix the problem. And, when it comes to being audited by the client or bee inspector, you can provide historical evidence!

6. Understand risk management. Depending on the size of your operation, this can be simple or quite complex. Either way, it needs proactive thought. What might go wrong, how likely is it to happen and how can you mitigate it in advance at the lowest possible cost? If your honeybee colony grows faster than you expect, do you have spare boxes to add to their hive to give them room? If they run out of food due to prolonged bad weather, do you have something suitable you can feed them? If they unexpectedly swarm, what is your plan? Having solutions to these problems in mind, along with the resources you need to react to these circumstances, will make a world of difference to the success of your operation. Likewise, with projects: know in advance where you can get hold of additional resources if you need them and have plans in place for identified risks, and your project will get back on track much more quickly if and when it runs into difficulties.

7. Prepare for changes. One way or another, change can be costly. The key is to have a transition plan and prepare fully for the before, during and after phases of any change period. Recently, I moved house and took some of my bees with me. It took planning and foresight to ensure that the whole procedure was executed with minimal impact to the bees, that previous work (like the building of their honeycomb) was not damaged in the process and that they had what they needed in their new home in order to quickly re-establish themselves. A period of change is stressful for everyone involved - whether a project team or a bee colony - but the project manager is responsible for the process, so plan ahead. If you execute that plan in a calm way, then your team are likely to feel confident in you and find it much easier themselves – whether they be bees or humans.

8. Listen to your team. Both human and honeybee teams will often communicate their concerns to you in a non-verbal way; you may have to observe their behaviours rather than rely on them speaking to you directly to understand any concerns. Your team will often try to make do with whatever they have, but you should be constantly checking for issues and dealing with them as early as possible to minimise any impacts on production. If your bees are trying to sting and they are buzzing around in an angry tone, they are probably unhappy about something, but if they are calm and getting on with their work whilst you are moving among them doing your job, then they are probably fine. Pick up on the subtle communications from your team.

9. Don’t push too hard. Whether we are talking about humans or honeybees, there is a finite amount of production possible. If you push too hard, your team or bees will quickly become fatigued, demotivated and fail. If you try to extract more than your teams or bees are capable of giving you, without them being able to recover, the consequences can be fatal in project or colony terms. A lot of new beekeepers make this mistake: they take too much honey from their colony and their bees don’t have time to replace their stocks before winter falls and they end up starving – a harsh lesson for the beekeeper, but worse for the bees! You have a responsibility, first and foremost, to ensure your team or bees can undertake what you are asking of them without unsustainable levels of stress.

10. Discuss experiences with peers. Finally, sharing your experience and listening to others who have also managed bees or projects can really help you, your peers and your team. You might come across the phrase ‘if you ask three project managers (or beekeepers) the same question you’ll get five different answers’! It is sometimes good to admit where you failed as you will get comfort from the fact that you are not the only one to have made that mistake and you might also get some positive ideas about how to avoid failing in the future. There are lots of ways, online or in person, where you can do this and for beginners it is a must.

Matt is a qualified beekeeper and programme manager. He keeps bees in the north of the New Forest, in Wiltshire, using British National and Top Bar-style hives. He is also the Division Director for Smart Technology Solutions at Critical Software.