An organizational leader is given the task to set up and start a new business. Let’s assume he has got a group of people to work with. There are some elementary tasks that are carried out by the leader. These tasks include organizing the group of people into specialist groups and designating them with tasks, then setting up a goal and working towards achieving the goal and much later enjoying the fruits of their labour. Of course, this is a very simplified outline of what the leader would probably do but talking about this situation leads us to our discussion on Ants. They teach us useful lessons for life, leadership and business.
What about ants
All of us are familiar with ants. We have encountered them, battled them and maybe read and studied about them. Ants are classified into soldier ants, worker ants, fertile males called drones and one or more fertile females called queens. We will see how ants have influenced us through their lifestyle and habits.
About Swarm Intelligence/Swarm theory
Scientists have studied the efficiency and working effectiveness of social insects such as ants and bees for a number of years. Individually, these social insects are not intelligent but as a group or collection, they are very intelligent. “The collective behaviour of these social insects has been dubbed swarm intelligence” (Bonabeau and Meyer,2001).
Advantages of swarm intelligence (Bonabeau and Meyer,2001)
1. Flexibility- the group quickly adapts to the changing environment
2. Robustness- even when one or two individuals fail, the group is still able to perform
3. Self organizing-the group functions without much control or supervision
What We Learn From Ants
A quote from Solomon: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!
We get several lessons from ants. An organizational leader, like in our example above can derive the following lessons from ants and other social insects:
- Teamwork-each ant is aware of their individual duty and does their part. Similarly,a leader should mark out an individual’s role and its accompanying responsibilities.
- Trust- an ant marks a trail leading to food. All other ants follow the trail. They trust the first ant to have set up the right trail. Similarly, a leader should refrain from micro managing and trust each individual to deliver optimum performance.
- Open Communication- an ant goes and fetches food. Marking a trail is akin to transparent and open communication for fellow ants. Similarly, a leader must be honest and open with his/her communication. A well-informed employee is equipped to make a sound decision.
- Focus- ants are focused. They know what they’re after and go get it. Similarly, a leader needs to motivate his team to be hardworking and never lose sight of the goal.
- Same Direction-if you’ve watched a line of ants keenly they diligently follow the ant in front. Similarly, a leader should guide and motivate his/her team to work towards one goal and together move in the same direction if the goal must be achieved.
- The leader-follower relationship-the leader ant sources the food and leads the follower ants to the food source. This is similar to the mentor and mentee relationship in the business world. The leader ants appear to teach and repeatedly nudge the follower ants. Similarly, an effective leader motivates and teaches the inexperienced and junior members of the team. A leader coaches and leads.
Examples: Swarm Intelligence is used by Southwest Airlines and the video game Halo.
- The power of being organized- ants are very organized. They think of winter full summer and stock up while they can.
- Sharing is Caring- the ant that finds the food, returns to the nest to share the information and discovery. The ant does not keep the information selfishly to itself.
- Being busy has meaning- when you see ants marching around you can be sure that they are headed towards their destination to collect food or to deposit food in their nest. They never look busy without reason. Don’t we know many at workplace who often say they are busy when they are simply doing unimportant stuff or sometimes nothing at all??!!
- Never give up- ants are a persistent lot. They never lose faith and keep at it till they get what they want. Like Napoleon said – victory belongs to the persistent!
- Mental strength leads to physical strength- a tiny ant carries a big (compared to its tiny size) object completely defying the rationale that one has to be big to carry big objects.
An Alternate View
Ants work collectively. One ant informs the whole community about the discovery and availability of food. Then, ants march to where the food is, lining up behind the other and march back with food in hand. While working collectively has a positive effect on business outcomes, some believe that a collective group can come crashing down in the one shot, all at the same time.
The ants do teach us some good lessons but according to me, collective consensus does not always lead to effective decisions in the business world and life. As philosopher Immanuel Kant put it “Dare to be wise” and “dare to use your own understanding”.
The next time you see a line of ants watch them keenly before reaching out for the fumigating spray.
What is your opinion on using swarm intelligence in business?
1. Bonabeau and Meyer, Harvard Business Review, May 2001
For more information
1. Read Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
2. Read The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller