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Marginal: Be(e) Innovative

Which brings me to The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency and Growth by Michael O'Malley (Portfolio), which really uses an interesting metaphor to explain organizations and behavior therein.

I fondly remember receiving the Sunday comics section when I was growing up, not simply for the strips, but because running along the bottom was always the "Fun Facts to Know and Tell" sponsored by Wrigley's gum, which always had some unusual fact that I would embrace (I just discovered at the Wrigley's website [wrigley.com/global/about-us/fun-facts.aspx] that whereas Americans chomp on 170 to 180 pieces of gum per year, the Chinese consume just 15 to 20; whereas they may now be ahead of the U.S. in auto sales, we've really got the edge when it comes to chewing gum). I'm sure my parents and siblings were not quite as enchanted as I was with these bits of trivial information, as I am fairly confident I used my new-found knowledge to an annoying degree.

Which brings me to The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency and Growth by Michael O'Malley (Portfolio), which really uses an interesting metaphor to explain organizations and behavior therein. After all, we've all heard the phrase "busy as a bee," right? And we would all like our colleagues to be emulating that buzzing-like behavior, correct? Well, it turns out that the whole "busy like a bee" thing isn't quite accurate. According to O'Malley, "20 to 30 percent of the hive is relatively idle much of the time." That may be a smaller percentage than would be the case in your organization, of course, but still the sort of thing that is fun-factual.

There is plenty more in that vein that I learned from the book. Such as:

  • 15 mph. The speed honeybees fly.
  • 230 beats per second. The frequency at which they flap their wings.
  • Six to eight miles. The distance bees will travel.
  • One million miles and two million flowers. The amount of travel and the number of flowers visited required to produce one gallon of honey.
  • One teaspoon of honey. The lifetime work of a dozen bees.

And there's more. But while astonishing (OK, maybe you're not all that amazed, but maybe you're not a Fun Facts fan), that's not the point of O'Malley's book, and there is much to learn—or at least ponder—on subjects germane to how you earn your daily honey, I mean, bread.

There is one passage that I find particularly telling—and it has nothing explicitly to do with bees--and so I will quote at some length:

"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 indefinitely 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 called upon to try something new."

There is certainly a lot to unpack there, and it has direct meaning for many companies throughout the auto industry—OEMs and suppliers alike—, companies that have, as a result of the recession, made significant cuts both in terms of people and programs. Now, as we are coming out of that deep ditch, as competition heats up with fury, the need for innovation is key. Yet there is that problem that O'Malley identifies: You can't say, "Stop what you're doing. We're not spending any time—or money—on things that won't directly go right to the bottom line tout sweet" one day, then "We need some innovation around here. Our competitors are eating our lunch by coming out with new and exciting products" the next.

You can't have a situation where people have been seemingly underappreciated for months on end and then think that they're going to be smiling and enthusiastic just because company sales are increasing. You can't believe that people who have long been put upon will suddenly rebound just because you say "Things are better! Let's get back to work!" and think that people will respond with joyous alacrity.

There is a lot that people need to work through. And one of the things that leaders need to do is to help them do it. Note help, not make. There needs to be collaboration, not dictation. And to go back to O'Malley's metaphor: it takes all members of the hive to be working collectively at their best in order to accomplish the goals.

That last sentence of that passage is critical. While it will undoubtedly take some time to bring back everyone working at their best, there is one thing that you can do right now to help them along—and in so doing, help the organization. Encourage people to try. Allow people to fail. Tell them that they have the opportunity to do things that they may not have imagined was possible even before the recession. Promote risk-taking without that risk resulting in a pink slip if it doesn't work out as planned.

Be(e) truly better. 

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