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Why don't Bees Teleconference while Building a HIVE?

Self Organization in Teams-Learnings from Nature

J. Srinivas, Shilpi Jain, Sitangshu Supakar

SO_1.jpgWhat do pack of wolves, pride of lionesses, bees and ants have in common. What can we learn from them? What is self-organization (SO) and how does it form?

We are exploring different ways to induce this behavioral skill in the team members for greater commitment, motivation and accountability to the work. Many of us think, what is so great about it; we are self-organized and perform our daily course without fail. But, the question is can we perform equally well in a project, during crisis or with reduced resources.

NATURE has tuned the self-organized system. Be it the conduct of animals, insects, or eco-system, nature organizes optimally. What are the attributes of self-organization derived from the nature?  Can project teams organize themselves, the way nature does? Is it meaningful to compare the dynamism of NATURE with the dynamism that organizational teams face?

Before finding answers, let's understand with few examples how self-organization is an adaptive attribute in animals and insects. Imagine how the pack of animals like wolves and lionesses hunt? How honey bees organize their affairs so well in their hive and devote themselves to the welfare and survival of their colony?

Wolves are known for their intelligence and social behavior. They organizeSO_2.jpg themselves for the hunt and care of their group. The motive of the pack is to be as successful as possible, no matter if they are not the strongest one. The whole objective is to make their hunt a success so that every member can get the sufficient food. Each wolf in the pack plays a role. There is always a leader in the herd (pack) but while hunting, it rarely interferes or directs its fellow animals (Michael, Wolf., 1995-2005). Another interesting thing about them is their sense of communication; they follow communication protocol and communicate in many ways (body language, gesture, and expression). The selection of communication mean is highly dependent on the distance between the two wolves. If they are close to each other the communication is non-vocal. Similarly when they are in large group, they do 'Mob-greetings'.

They share a common objective - food for the pack. They have communication protocols and established patterns for hunting, individuals know how to respond to change to meet the objective. Their play mirrors the hunt patterns.

Let's see how bees organize themselves and find the flower nectar. Bees are deaf hence they perform a series of movements called as 'waggle dance'. These dancing steps help to identify the source of nectar and also teach other workers about the location of food source 150 meters away from the hive. The bees have orchestrated movements for communication. Especially when they are hunting for flower nectar, the experienced bees walks straight ahead, vigorously shaking its abdomen and producing a buzzing sound with the beat of its wings (Debbie, 2011). The distance and speed of this movement communicates the distance of the food site to the other bees. Another exciting aspect is the group size, the bees' colony size varies from 20000 to 80000 worker bees and they all work in coordination with each other without much direction and guidance.

The above examples of honey bees too display those benefits of the self-organization concepts discussed above. Adherence to shared objective set of practices, pattern of behavior, and communication. They show the benefits of self-organization, i.e. commitment, efficiency, and achieving self-sufficiency for the community.  Members of the community organize themselves repeatedly and continuously to meet changing requirements.

In a Direct communications with partners, iterative processes helps control conflicting interests and help them to adapt quickly to unpredictable and rapidly changing environments (Monterio et al., 2011).

  • In a research conducted by Hoda et al. (2011), it was proved that "balancing freedom and responsibility, balancing cross-functionality and specialization, balancing continuous learning and iteration pressure uphold the fundamental conditions of self-organization at certain level."

Agile manifesto stresses on self-organizing teams, and we explored what techniques make the teams achieve a sense of teamness and spontaneous adaptability which makes it work in short sprints and what will make it work in the long run. In subsequent blogs we will learn how the concepts of self-organization can be brought in a structured manner and help teams adapt in a changing environment. The resulting framework would help us in recognizing when SO can be formed or in creating the right environment for it.

Our goal is to deconstruct the key concepts of the above examples and apply them in real teams to make it spontaneous and easy to transform into a self-organizing team. Support for the concepts comes from couple of papers we looked at.


Cao, L., & Ramesh, B. (2007). Agile software development: ad hoc practices or sound principles",. IEEE Computer Society.

Debbie, H. (2011). Honey Bees - Communication Within the Honey Bee Colony. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from

Hamdan, K., & Apeldoorn. (1989). How Do Bees Make Honey? Retrieved September 4, 2012, from A. Countryrubes Web site:

Hoda, R., Noble, J., & Marshal, S. (2011). Developing a grounded theory to explain the practices. (S. S. Media, Ed.) Empirical Software Engineering.

Karhatsu, H., Ikonen, M., Kettunen, P., Fagerholm, F., & Abrahamsson, P. (2010). Building blocks for self-organizing software development teams a framework model and empirical pilot study. International Conference on Software Technology and Engineering (ICSTE), (pp. 297-304). Helsinki, Finland.

Michael, Wolf. (1995-2005). What are Wolves. Retrieved September 4, 2012, from Wolf Ranch Foundation:

Monteiro, C. V., da Silva, F. Q., dos Santos, I. R., Felipe, F., Cardozo, E. S., Andre, R. G., et al. (2011). A qualitative study of the determinants of self-managing team effectiveness in a scrum team. Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering (pp. 16-23 ). Communications of ACM.

[1] The image of wolves hunting is taken from the source:

[2] The image 'bees at work' is taken from the source:


Very interesting, good one.

Too good! Interesting.


I was having a discussion with Deepak Gupta (SDM in RCL) about Agile team. He said, “The best example of an agile team would be any of the “Large Pursuit Team” in Infosys. Just imagine a team of 10-15 people have to respond to a 100 m deal in in a span of 20-25 days. Interestingly this team is spread across geography, departments, time zone, technology and what not. How they do it? Being agile.” If we look at carefully,

Team is self sufficient (It is consists of specialists, generalists as well as the team members are multifunctional)
Team is self organized (Team senses where they can contribute and take it up after discussion)
Team does stand up (At least once to figure out where they are)
Team integrates the work (The response document is always updated at the end of day)
Pursuit anchor plays the role of scrum Master (He is not the boss, he removes impediments)

While I was sharing the same example with our scrum masters I asked a question on why it is difficult to replicate the similar mindset in delivery projects? Most of the scrum masters responded to this question saying, the team members in the above example are highly responsible citizen of this company whereas, the team we work with in delivery projects has barely few of those responsible citizen. Whether it is organization policy or how we want to maintain our business profitability, we compromise on this team factor again and again. However, I have observed teams improving a lot over time but it is takes little more time than expected.


I have been playing a role of “scrum master” since more than 6 months. I want to say that all is well, but then the heart beats: there are certain challenges. And the most challenging among those is “human emotion” (may be a chapter in emotional intelligence). It has a whole range of palette including behavior and responsibility.

So to say, you can be responsible but not behave well; and you can behave well but not be responsible.
Nothing will make a project more successful than a team that has understood more of this: as I need so must others, as one so must all.
So essentially “respecting each other and being responsible” forms a “core” of self-organizing team. The rest – technical abilities, communication skills, process skills etc. – will just follow.
ROME WAS NOT BUILT IN A DAY. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY NOT BY ONE MAN. We all must work towards the goal – sharing and enjoying.

So the big question is how do toy get the team to feel like that - as I need so must others, as one so must all and respecting each other and being responsible
It usually does not happen in projects but when it does you know. And in the other examples given it happens naturally ?

Liked the Human emotion idea. Can we flush it out further ? Certainly we can do one blog on that aspect. We need to see how it will fit in to our overall framework.

Interesting read.

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