An interdisciplinary team from the University of Bristol concluded that a species of ant uses chemical communication to inform other ants not to explore the same space multiple times. The ‘rock ant’ leaves behind a ‘negative trail’ to signpost previously explored areas. These findings present an interesting parallel between exploration techniques used by ants, and innovation techniques used by organisations.
If you might dismiss ants as mere insects, remember they have evolved over 130 million years. Our time on earth pales in comparison with our ancient ancestors. The first gorillas appeared a mere 6–8 million years ago. Ants have learned to acquire information much more efficiently than humans do. Their cooperative societies enable them to survive and thrive in conditions that would threaten the most resilient of human civilizations. In our era of societal turbulence, there are some valuable lessons we can learn from our elders, the ants.
Explore And Exploit
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”– Charles Darwin
No individual ant does just one job throughout its entire lifetime. No ant does all jobs too. Ants do not rely on individual expertise because to do so would jeopardise the entire colony. What if the specialists died? Depending on environmental conditions and the needs of the hive, each worker can leave the job it is doing and do something more pressing. Ants are further diversified in that various species have evolved to do specific jobs. This diversification of skills has ensured the survival of the species for over 130 million years.
Ants have developed diverse sets of skills and perform alternative skills throughout their life cycles. They diversify their approach to exploration in the same way. If you drop new data — such as a piece of apple — into an environment occupied by ants. Not all ants will investigate or eat the apple. If they all ate the apple and it was poisonous, the whole species would perish. To ensure the evolution of the species, some ants adopt the role of explorer to investigate more interesting opportunities. This approach has served them well. So what lessons can we learn?
Organisations sometimes place all our eggs in one basket. This is particularly the case when they are successful and become complacent. Consider Research in Motion, makers of the Blackberry phone. RIM placed all their eggs in their successful handsets business. Despite the nascent threat of Apple’s iPhone and the Android operating system, RIM doubled down on their piece of fruit and stopped exploring. The Co-Ceo at the time was Jim Balsillie, who made of virtue of their lack of diversification once saying: “We are a very poorly diversified portfolio. It either goes to the moon or it crashes to the earth.” And crash to the earth Blackberry did.
The individuals who make up organisations can learn from the wisdom of ants, too. People must continue to develop throughout their careers. We all outgrow our strengths, especially amidst such constant change. When change is thrust upon us because of a crisis such as a global pandemic, many of us double down and cling to our area of expertise. Therefore, we need to adopt a growth mindset and learn new skills in permanence. While there is an onus on individuals to want to change, the organisations in which they work must facilitate change.
Just like ants, people within organisations need to live in harmony. We assign some people to exploiting the present. Like ants investigating the apple, we need to assign some people to explore potential futures. Organisations often get it wrong by not mixing these roles. As Alex Osterwalder pointed out on episode 224, we need people to flow between the “explore and exploit” roles. “You might start with a small entrepreneurial team, two to five people, but increasingly once you grow, you might need access to the supply chain. You might need access quickly to marketing, to branding, to the lawyers. Resources need to flow between the two worlds.”
Just like ants, not everybody needs to be an explorer. We need people who want to follow; the worker ants. It is through collaboration that organisations and the individuals within them can survive and thrive.
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