Monday, September 14, 2015

Leadership Lessons from Ants

A single ant is not particularly smart.  However, an ant colony is.  A colony can solve problems together that would have its individual members stymied.

  • finding the shortest path to the best food source
  • allocating workers to different tasks
  • defending their territory from others
As a group (colony) they respond quickly and effectively to their environment.  No leadership is required.  Even complex behaviour can be coordinated by relatively simple interactions, using Swarm Intelligence.  Swam Theory (or swarm intelligence) is described as the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems.  In nature we see this swarm behaviour in...
  • ants quickly determining the shortest route to their nearest food source
  • bees deciding on a new hive location
  • bird flocks diving and swirling through the air, instantaneously and seemingly effortlessly changing directions
  • schools of fish avoiding the rush of a predator, even though most don't even see the attack
The study of swarms and their associated behaviours have helped shape the mathematical procedures for solving relatively complex problems like routing trucks, scheduling airlines or even guiding military drones.  Many systems we are familiar with take advantage of the collective intelligence of swarms in helping us to form our judgments and make decisions.  Checking in with Yelp results or following the racing odds to place a horse bet all rely on the input of a 'swarm'.  

Certainly decentralized problem solving works better on some problems than it does others; in particular problems that require discovery, testing, and comparing results seem to work best.  But computerized systems are helping businesses to control costs by leveraging the volume of input and data, allowing organizations to act upon complex and rapidly changing sets of data.  Southwest Airlines has used swarming principles to help them streamline their cargo operations, Telecom companies have used it to help them manage their phone call routing systems instantly and shipping companies are containing their costs by programming computers to determine trucking routes that factor in current energy and manufacturing costs, developing new routes daily.

It seems that we still have much that we can learn from Mother Nature. 

Despite the fact that swarm intelligence is all about the non-existence of formal leadership, there are still some lessons that we, as leaders, can take and apply that may enhance the strength and productivity of our teams.
  • Maintain a flexible structure.  In assigning specific roles to individuals, organizations often inadvertently create silos within which teams and individuals operate.  However, swarm behaviour clearly shows us that we must allow our talent to cross the functional lines more readily.  We must allow our talent to flow in and throughout the organization if we are to continue to take advantage of the most current and best information that we have available to us.
  • Pay attention to the allocation of labour.  We may have people that perform very specialized tasks for us, but all need to understand that the allocation of work is flexible.  In times of crisis or in the face of a unique problem, all must come together to solve it, requiring each to let go of the 'its not my job' mentality.  A 'nurse' bee will shift to a 'forager' when food is scarce.  It doesn't make sense to refuse to bail when the ship is sinking, simply because that wasn't the job you were hired to do.  All must understand that the survival of the 'whole' is a function of all.
  • Seek Diversity.  When developing your problem solving teams work to ensure that you have a breadth of knowledge at the table.  Your best solutions may come from unexpected sources.
  • Listen to everything, not just what you want to hear.  The beauty of the swarm systems is that there is a constant flow of 'new' information. As they hear a 'new' piece of information from a variety of sources they immediately shift to take advantage of it.  If you are hearing something from more than once source it is something you need to deal with, now, whether it was in your 'plan' for the year or not.  Maintain your responsiveness to stay current and competitive.
Just like an ant, you don't have to be the smartest out there to be highly effective.  Follow the lessons of the ants and take advantage of the collective of your colony to help make solid decisions.  You might not have the best solution on your own, but odds are that together, the colony will determine the best direction to take.  

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