Be more bee: how sectoral cross pollination supports positive change

Jim Bowes
CEO of Manifesto

Fact: bees are amazing. You probably already knew that, because of the increasing number of news stories over recent years reporting the decline of honey bee populations around the world. These stories tend to stress the importance of bees’ pollinating behaviour in the production of a huge portion of the food we eat.

But to my mind, even more amazing than their contribution to human agriculture is their contribution to evolution: by carrying genetic material from one variety of plant to another, bees facilitate the emergence of entirely new forms of plant, helping create new species which are better suited to the current state of the ever-changing environments in which they live.

There is even evidence that energy-rich honey from bees helped early humans develop the big brains they needed to go on and develop language, advanced tools, complex social structures and, eventually, civilization. In this sense, the bee is an agent of positive change. Leaders who want to build organisations that do good should take note.

The growing need for adaptation

Arguably, the world has never been changing at a faster rate. The convergence of a host of technologies that have been around for decades is rapidly spawning new ways for people to communicate, work, consume, recreate and pursue loftier goals like doing good. The impacts of artificial intelligence and big data, mere buzz words for such a long time, are now being felt in our everyday lives. The increasing speed and fidelity of communications networks are obliterating the distances that separate us. The devices and interfaces we use are changing our behaviours, psychologies and even physiologies in complex and subtle ways.

My fervent hope, and indeed prediction, is that all this change will lead to a new renaissance where humans, freed by technology from the need to do undesirable work, will benefit from vastly more leisure time and deeper, richer and more meaningful involvement in the creative and strategic work that remains. In this light, the organisations in which most of us work are badly in need of a revolution: one which overturns the rigid hierarchies, outmoded governance structures and process-driven practices which inhibit change, and replaces them with structures and ways of working that promote dynamism, involvement and positive outcomes for both stakeholders and wider society.

Each of the sectors of our economy are struggling with the same set of problems. Each is starting from a slightly different place. But all have produced both successful and less-successful experiments from which the rest of us can learn. Our job, as leaders, like that of the bees, is to take those lessons and apply them to our own organisations, acting as agents of change which produce healthier, fitter businesses that lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Different sectors, different challenges

The private sector is often held up as the paragon of innovation but, while it’s true that Silicon Valley-style tech startups have certainly changed the world, the cliche ignores all the many private sector organisations struggling to adapt to the digital age. High street brands are folding, unable to keep up with the changing habits and expectations of consumers. Big banks are being crushed by the weight of their legacy software systems. Household names are unable to look after our data properly. And stories of large corporates forking out tens of millions for failed digital initiatives are a regular occurence.

The story here is one of the traditional, top-down, command-and-control corporate structures, governed by rules, processes and a focus on shareholder value, being outmaneuvered by a new generation of nimble startups better able to react to the rapidly-evolving needs and behaviours of customers. The dinosaurs that can’t learn the lessons being taught by their younger competitors – those of self-organisation, greater autonomy for workers, shorter feedback cycles between customers and product/service delivery, more focus on purpose and values – will become extinct.

Established organisations in the charity and not-for-profit sector similarly face competition from more agile new entrants, but also from the new breed of purpose-led commercial organisations building the ‘for good’ ethos into their customer offerings and brand stories. Their struggle to invent new structures and ways of working are confounded by legally-mandated governance models from the 19th century which need to be worked around with reimagined charitable purposes, a new approach to recruiting and developing leaders and more collaboration with each other and with purpose-driven corporates.

Public sector organisations, with their government-mandated remits, generally don’t face competition from other agencies, but they still face tremendous pressure to deliver ever-improving service at ever-greater levels of efficiency. The regular failure of large government IT projects indicates an ambition that is not matched by agility, in-house digital expertise or a decision-making apparatus that is fit for such a fast-moving world. And yet the Government Digital Service and the widespread dissemination of user-centred approaches throughout the public sector shows that positive change is possible even amid the sclerotic hierarchies of the mandarins.

Like bees, but smarter

Of course, when bees carry pollen between flowers of different species, giving rise to unexpected new hybrids, they do so unconsciously. In the world of plants, evolution takes place over very long timeframes. As leaders, we have the ability to catalyse the evolution of our organisations consciously, selecting which pollen we take from one flower to another, or which ideas we bring from one sector or organisation to our own, to maximise the chances of driving positive change. But to develop the ability to spot the ideas which have potential, we need to visit other flowers regularly.

To that end, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion at Disruption Summit called The Future Of ‘For Good’: What Can Sectors Learn From Each Other To Support Positive Change. Featuring Bob Barbour, Owner of (previously a charity, reemerging as a for good business), Bryony Wilde, Social Impact Manager at TPXimpact, Kay Boycott, CEO at Asthma UK, Richard Grove of Caution your Blast and myself, we’ll be looking at approaches to driving positive change from across the different sectors and how they can be adapted and remixed for use in different contexts and in response to different challenges.

Join us, and start learning how to be more bee.


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Jim Bowes
CEO of Manifesto