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Flies are Better Than Bees

By July 9, 2014 March 31st, 2020 No Comments

The way for any organization to stay adaptive is to manage its own evolution.

Leadership theories abound. We have all learned about closed and open systems, Theory X, Theory Y, loosely and tightly coupled systems, etc. I once had a boss who asked me if I was familiar with the blind squirrel theory. “Even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while,” he said. I assumed at the time my leadership style reminded him of that anecdote.

In Search of Excellence, the standard-bearer of organizational success and leadership by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, argue that theories that drive leadership and organizations are neither tight enough nor loose enough. A tightly-coupled organization must be so to ensure that values and culture are shared by all. Conversely, the lack of structure necessary to foster new logic and innovation in organizations requires a more loosely-coupled system, one in which evolution of ideas is embraced.

Organizations are complex organisms and determining the appropriate theory to guide organization even more murkey. As the new language of organizations permeates action (temporary structures, ad hoc committees, fluid organization, product champions, etc.) we are left with the implication that no one theory is best suited for any particular organization.

James Marsh, however, suggests that we as leaders “supplement the technology of reason with a technology of foolishness. Individuals and organizations need ways of doing things for which they have no good reason.” (In Search of Excellence, p.107).

Karl Weick, in arguing for an adaptation of a loosely coupled system, however says it best: “No one is ever free to do something he can’t think of.” He uses the following experiment to support his idea.

“If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass [closest to the light]; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side…It is their (the bees) love of light, it is their very intelligence, that is their undoing in this experiment. Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic as of the enigma of crystal, and meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation there where the wider will perish, necessarily end by discovering the friendly opening that restores their liberty to them.”

In several leadership roles I have posted the drawing of the bees and flies and used this experiment to allow individuals within the organization to reflect on the need to understand that trial and error, confusion, fear and randomness are all involved in coping with change. The flies with their inherent “looseness” figure out a way to escape their doom. The bees, with their intelligence and inherent logic do not.

Every organization wants to grow and evolve. Every organization experiences periods of growth. The danger lies in assuming growth will continue. The idea of an organization that buzzes around until it finds a solution, disregarding failure, confusion and fear, will stand the best chance of growth and success.

So the question is: are you a bee or a fly?

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