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The Ant Nest Principle

What Ants can teach us about Business In recent years, people have started to think about company hierarchical structure in new and interesting ways. It’s a bit of an inefficient system, if you think about it – with problems, disciplinary procedures, progress reports, and advice flying up and down the hierarchy in your business. This […]

What Ants can teach us about Business

In recent years, people have started to think about company hierarchical structure in new and interesting ways. It’s a bit of an inefficient system, if you think about it – with problems, disciplinary procedures, progress reports, and advice flying up and down the hierarchy in your business. This takes time and can remove the responsibility employees feel for their roles, progress, and decisions. It can also hamper the shared vision and the effectiveness that you might want from your team.

Historically, this worked in the days of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. But it increasingly appears archaic in today’s global, dynamic, business world.

Some people – Claude Jones at WalmartLabs and Matt Shlosberg at Hanna Concern, for example – have looked to the natural world for inspiration on the future of company structure and leadership. And a common source of inspiration – believe it or not! – is ants.

These are nature’s undisputed kings of teamwork and structure. In an Ant Nest there is NO leader, no boss telling everyone what to do. Yet they organise themselves into colonies exceeding 7 million individuals!!

How do they do it?

Role Clarity

For effective teamwork, clarity of roles is key. This is about having every member of your team knowing exactly what their remit is, what their responsibilities are and how their individual project fits into the team’s overall strategy or goal. The goal of each member cannot merely be to make a living: they need to be inspired by and invested in the vision the company as a whole.

Make sure that each employee’s talents are appreciated by the role that they have been given. In ant colonies, the little ones look after the young, whilst the big ones become warriors and the medium-sized ones become workers. Each knows it role: workers don’t try to be warriors. Play to your employees’ strengths, and, as Shlosberg insists, ensure that everyone takes ownership of and responsibility for their role. No micro-management required!

Effective Communication

A critical structure element in your business is communication. As we saw in my post on the ‘Obstacles to Implementation’, poor communication can make a great team fall down, as employees may not be clear on the ‘WHY’ and ‘WHAT’ of a strategy. Be like ants: ensure you clearly communicate progress, opportunities, challenges, and changes throughout the company, so your team can act to deal with them.

Ants use specific pheromones (chemicals released by their bodies) to effectively communicate with each other. Upon detecting a particular pheromone, each knows what the issue is, and they know what they need to do in their role to solve the problem or deal with the challenge. Now, I am not endorsing this form of communication in your business! But this single, uniformly understood form of communication is elegant in its simplicity. There is absolute clarity on what each chemical means. Clarity is key.

Focus on clarity on the policies and systems you have for communication throughout your company. These should be universal and fundamental to all meetings, all forms of digital communication and all technological solutions you implement. Remember elegance and simplicity.

Whilst ants have effective communication genetically wired in their bodies, we poor humans need to think actively about ways to develop this.

Collaboration and Support

The ant nest is based on the principles of collaboration and mutual support. A single ants doesn’t live very long working isolation. They are interdependent. Jones give the real example that they form their bodies into rafts to survive flooding.

The lesson of this is true teamwork. That the individuals in your company will not thrive working in isolation. With all the challenges faced by a business, employees need to work together, support each other and solve problems together for the benefit of the whole.

How best can (human) teams support each other? Firstly, as Shlosberg points out, it is essential that the necessary resources are available and allocated so that team members are supported in executing their tasks. And rather than insisting merely on a responsibility to the one leader, encourage collaboration and mutual support within the team. Promote trust, unity, and a sense of individual achievement through the success of the team.

Conflict Resolution and Peer Review

As Shlosberg notes, the one downside to the ant analogy is that, in moments of conflict, you don’t really want one employee to bite the head off another! But the collaboration between members of the same ant teams prevents this from happening too often.

So, to avoid conflict in the first place, make sure that everyone knows what responsibility they and the other members of the team have towards a particular task or project. Have policies in place to ‘set the standards’ in your business, its ethos and beliefs. Communicate the ways to identify and deal with conflicts fairly and efficiently.

Remember, as in an ant nest, these policies may not involve the ‘boss’. Individuals should have the tools, support network, training, and policies to solve many problems themselves quickly – before they fester into resentment! Your team should try to find ways to promote objective decision-making. I am soon to write and article on a very useful tool you can use in your business to aid effective communication (watch this space!). Rather than an egocentric emphasis on the personal ‘I’, think about what is best for the customer, the company, or the team – just like ants!

Adaptability to Change

It’s known that, if an ant colony’s food source becomes infected or poisoned, they are able to identify it quickly and communicate these findings to the colony. Each team member acts to overcome this challenge and to get the colony back to ‘business as usual’. There’s no drama, the survival of the colony comes first, and there a clear focus a solution.

Remember what we said about agility in my article ‘Obstacles to Execution’? Tasking your team with finding solutions to inevitable challenges promotes personal growth (See more on this topic in my article on the ‘6 Human Needs’), breeds creativity, innovation, and it unites teams. Encourage people to be adaptable to change, and not to get too stuck in their plan, routine, or schedule.

The main recurring themes are the ideas of promoting individual autonomy and ownership of their role. Ensuring there is a clearly defined business mission or ‘Why’ (more on this in my article ‘Start with Why’). Encourage effective communication and conflict resolution. Building a resilient team that can adapt quickly to change.

Seek out inspiration all around – it might be in the most unlikely places! There is much we can learn from these small masters of co-operation and teamwork.

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