THE INC. LIFE

How Teamwork is Like a Beehive (But There’s No Queen Bee)

Don’t give up on flat reporting structures along with the open floor plan. Just look at the bees.

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BY John Brandon - 23 Aug 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Now that we know open floor plans in the office are a terrible idea, it's time to start analyzing flat reporting structures. The two seem to go hand-in-hand, because the companies that embraced open work spaces also seem to prefer not to have any bosses.

Yet, after mentoring in a college setting for the past 18 months or so, and drawing from my previous experience as a director at a large consumer electronics retailer, I've come to see how a flat structure can work, but only if you follow a rigid and even slightly aggressive mantra about how to work as a team.

Let me first explain that, contrary to widely held beliefs, a flat reporting structure is not something to take likely. Without incredibly good communication, the ability to set aside egos, and a host of other factors, flat structures typically descend into chaos and confusion. No one is in charge so no one knows what to do. There's no boss to blame so everyone blames each other.

It's not healthy, and in a college setting like the one I'm used to in recent months, it could easily spin out of control because most of the workers are young and inexperienced. (I like to say that is also their greatest asset, because they have not learned poor habits.)

It's best to view a team as a bit like a beehive. There's a rather singular mission--to make honey. Minus the queen bee, everyone works in wonderful cooperation with one another. The bees all look the same and do roughly the same work. (I'd love to write a book about this topic someday, analyzing beehives in my spare time. For now, I'm basing this understanding about beehives mostly on the Discovery channel.)

Missional work is cooperative work. In my experience, when everyone knows why they are working, and have clearly defined goals, and they don't have to worry about things like the boss getting extra credit for the work they do, it can be a copacetic arrangement. I believe we all have inherent flaws, and one of them is we tend to toot our own horns. But in a beehive, you're just way too busy, you are caught up in the mission, and you don't have time to argue.

In my mentoring, I've seen how people who maybe start out with a personal agenda eventually get caught up in the ultimate goal. In my case, it has to do with marketing. The more the team operates as a cohesive unit, without a lot of hierarchy and layering, the more each individual starts to tune in to the beehive mentality. We need to get this done. Time is short, and the rainy season is fast approaching. If we don't make honey now, we never will.

I love when this all falls into place. It's absolutely amazing to witness a team that is sharing information with each other, over-communicating about tasks, congratulating each other, teaching and training the new folks, and basking in the team success rather than individual success. If you have never seen that before, switch to another job or another company.

Aside from a loving relationship and maybe a few other blessings in life, there's nothing quite so spectacular as humans collaborating in a way that is serendipitous and authentic. It's almost like our DNA is programed to link up with others to build something cool.

Of course, this doesn't always happen.

I blame the queen bee mentality.

Bosses who want don't want to share the credit, who like to make unfair demands--who essentially act like the Queen of Hearts in the Alice in Wonderland books shouting "off with their heads" during every pizza party or monthly status meet-up--those bosses ruin a flat structure, because they can't seem to set aside their own aspirations. Their twisted DNA reacts against the beehive, and they can't cope in that environment.

So what do you do? In my experience, a flat structure only works when absolutely everyone is on board, fully trained and prepared for how it all works--no egos, team first, projects take precedence. One queen bee ruins it for everyone, so you have to go back to an old school hierarchical approach or move the uncooperative ones out of the team somehow.

My advice is to keep trying. Too many layers creates a sticky substance on the floor where you work, and it slows everyone down--even if you all go back to having cubicles.

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