What lessons can businesses and startups learn from colonies of floating ants that are creating islands to survive flooding? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
In 2011, engineers atpublished their observations in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on how .
A single Solenopsis invicta will struggle in water even if the ant is moderately hydrophobic. But a group of these fire ants will survive by assembling their sole assets (bodies) into a flotation raft capable of keeping each ant alive, even if external forces attempt to submerge the ant raft under water.
At face value, such a "teamwork" phenomenon offers facile lessons for business and management executives:
- United we stand, divided we fall!
- We all have value! No matter how insignificant we seem!
- Teamwork! Teamwork! Teamwork!
Perhaps you have even seen pictures of collective ants in Herculean action, with the TEAMWORK caption blazing.
Not you. You expect more.
If you hope to use this example to motivate your teams, if you harbor great ambition for this to ignitein your organization, you may need to consider the following:
1. Employees are not fire ants.
Okay, too obvious.
Or is it?
Some executives, in their excitement for lean and profit, forget that employees are not ants. Employees in an organization have personalities that cause them to respond differently to problems and crises.
Individuality makes for unpredictable behaviors in response to external forces.
Management lesson: When assessing potential members for a team, look at how each additional member changes the "team personality."
Don't fall in love with the idea that one or two charismatic or strong team members will somehow neutralize what dysfunction or weakness other team members present. Executives don't have enough time to spend developing the best employee behaviors, because they exhaust too much time controlling damage from problematic employee behaviors.
No matter how smart an employee is, if that personality weakens the kind of team personality you need for a project, do not add "the genius that will cause the project to implode."
Only add team members that enhance and strengthen the team personality you need for a task.
2. A Solenopsis invicta raft is not a spontaneous occurrence, but an emergent one.
The visually fantastic cooperative nature of fire ants is a direct response to a life-threatening crisis (flood, or being tossed in the air by curious scientists).
Executives create teams they think will work "best" (functionally optimal) together. But the worst of times is the true test of just how functionally optimal a team is.
Teams that do well when times are good but fall apart when times are bad can sink a company, because it is these "do or die" corporate situations that demand the most coherence (cooperation) from employees.
Unfortunately, employees are not fire ants (see #1), and cannot be forced cooperate when they believe the company is sinking and they need to save themselves with new employment offers.
Management lesson: When developing employees, invest as much time developing their skills in a famine as you would in prosperous times.
I realize not every executive is comfortable holding difficult conversations about how poorly the company is doing, and what this means for employees and themselves. But just because you are not talking about it doesn't mean employees aren't talking about it.
When ominous clouds of possible layoffs hover overhead, ignoring these obvious tensions allows rumors and gossip to emerge as the pervasive behavior. Addressing these tensions head-on, including admitting what you do or do not know, makes room for "how can we remain productive and constructive during these fluxes" behavior to emerge.
Create teams that can survive the worst, not only do the best. You as the executive must also be the executive that can triumph through the worst, not only succeed during the best of times.
3. Cooperation is not as "cooperative" as you assume.
If you were to read the abstract of the original fire ant research study, you may see this (unfortunately not quite explored) key ending statement:
"Central to the construction process is the trapping of ants at the raft edge by their neighbors, suggesting that some 'cooperative' behaviors may rely upon coercion."
Not all is "well and automatic" in the fire ant raft world: ants naturally want to be on top, not on the bottom, and those ants at the EDGE are the ones on the fence between top and bottom.
In order to preserve the optimal structural integrity of an ant raft, based on the number of ants, there is a degree of "force" to keep the ants who are at the hinges (edges) from leaving their position to get to the top of the raft.
Ants moved from the bottom to the top as part of a "self-healing" process when ants on top of the ant raft were picked off, leaving a void. This movement re-configures the ant raft to preserve a particular raft thickness.
Management lesson: This is the hairy part of the big picture--observation of these ants' behaviors caused the researchers to assume the ants were acting as "self-propelled independent agents."
The management lesson here may be a philosophical one: at what point can an organization be built in a way that allows teams to work together harmoniously as "an organism," such that during times of crisis, they continue to function optimally?
This type of organization requires each member to be as competent and willing to be at the bottom of the raft and at the edge of the raft as much as at the top of the raft, depending on where each member happens to find herself during a crisis.
Members who are kept at the edge of raft by other members who exercise "careful coercion" must recognize the purpose of the act for what it is, and not take the act "personally." Members who are doing the careful coercion must know how to keep their neighbors at bay for the greater good without injuring them, knowing that the situation may be flipped and they find themselves at the receiving end of the claws.
Holacracy has gained attention as a "self-organization" system that uses "roles" instead of job titles to allow distribution of authority and performance warranted by a situation. Although this term was introduced into popular management in 2007, the ideas behind holacracy are much, much older.
The late Clare W. Graves first published "Levels of Existence: An Open System Theory of Values" in Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1970 (Vol 10 No 2 p 131-155). His research culminated in a posthumous volume called The Never Ending Quest, edited by Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic. His research may be found on his website:
The type of existence that best supports an organization where individuals' self-interest supports the interest of all is a 1st Being Level existence as systemic existence (or A' N' State -- not to be confused with AN State -- on the current website A' N' designation has changed to G T "Systemic Thinking"), where "express self for what self desires, but never at the expense of others and in a manner that all life, not just my life, will profit." [Source:]
Thus, in such an organization, when each individual is acting in his or her own best interest, that personal interest happens to align and is congruent with the interest of a larger group of people.
An organization of A' N' beings is one where "being selfish becomes an act of benefiting the organization as a whole"; selfishness looks very much like a selfless act and has all the benefits of selflessness.
Think about this type of organization: when an individual acts in the most selfish manner because the individual's primary directive is congruent with the primary directive of everyone else in the organization (or the organization as a collective "super organism"), each selfish act contributes to the positive outcome to the organization/organism. the very expression of one's being becomes an act in the best interest of the organization/organism.
This is the ideal of an organization that is behaving harmoniously as its highest self, and you might even say that this is close to what "holacracy" strives for: the roles take the place of individual titles, such that "emergence" as a phenomenon can be supported by the organization that behaves like an organism.
So, more than a "management lesson" offered, here's the rub:
How do we identify, hire, develop, and retain employees who are at level of existence that can support the creation and sustainability of an organization that behaves like an intelligent adapting organism?
More pointedly, how do we -- who may not even be at this level of existence -- have the capacity or ability to identify, hire, develop, and retain employees at a level of existence beyond our own?
This takes me back to the beginning.
Employees are not fire ants.
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