There is big talk these days about how large businesses are adjusting to stay nimble in the market. There is at least one group of 10,000 member organizations that are succeeding… seed-eating ant colonies – studied by Deborah Gordon. And what’s more, they are winning.
In Gordon’s 20-year study of the highly functional and adaptive insects she unearthed (sometimes literally) many astonishing facts about how simple and non-cerebral the complexities of their system manifest in one of nature’s most successful biological systems.
And all ant colonies have in common that there’s no central control. Nobody tells anybody what to do. The queen just lays the eggs. There’s no management. No ant directs the behavior of any other ant. – Gordon
Gordon shows that ants use a simple form of social communication – a combination of scent and tactile frequency to perform every task, job change and promotion that supports biological systems of 10,000 members and more. As it happens, effective interpersonal communication accounts for the success of a colony for 15-20 years (the lifespan of the queen) all without the assistance of managers; just a set of agreed upon, albeit genetically innate, rules of engagement.
The correlation to business organization is striking. What a grand undertaking it would be to structure a company like an ant colony. Strip title and ego (even the queen is beholden only to her job function – not issuing orders or commands to assist the flow of the colony). Implicitly enable employees with proactive and reactive tasks based on their skills with the ability to assist where they observe it necessary and valuable (ubiquitous leadership). Reap rewards on an equivocal basis. (payment via profit share) In essence, eliminate the hierarchical structure of a business and replace it with a fluid, task-centric organization.
Perhaps the most challenging hurdle to the experiment is the human-ant disparity in worker incubation. The ant “mentality” arrives with the larvae transmuting into ants. A similar on-boarding program for business necessitates a design processes. Where ants had a 400 million year darwinistic R&D experiment, human counterparts would have to leap-frog to a moderately functional model for deployment with the auspice of self -correction and adaptation inherent in the system.
The future of the corporate landscape is trending toward flatter organizations. The cost of bloated middle management structures is taking it’s toll on profitability and the flexibility to achieve business goals. The interpersonal trust and accountability exhibited by ants shows a functional model for one of the flattest (and largest) natural biological systems. Are we not of nature? What stands in our way? And more pointedly, what would it take to get the same elegantly simple form for us?