#E2sday: What Ants Can Teach the Enterprise About Teamwork

|   Jul 19, 2011

Innovators, practitioners and experts will tell you that often the best ideas in their respective fields are inspired by ideas, inventions or practices in other areas. In fact, a recent study showed that 70% of innovators get their best ideas from fields other than their own.1 This will come as no surprise to business leaders who are familiar with the concept of “best practices.” But when it comes to searching for best practices related to collaboration and teaming, we too often hunt for inspiration in obvious places such as adjacent industries or direct competitors. Such shortsighted analysis ignores storehouses of potential benefit as it implicitly precludes learning from some of the world’s most famous and effective teams. Earth’s best teams not only belong to different industries, they belong to entirely different species.


#E2sday: What Ants Can Teach the Enterprise About Teamwork

Enter bioteams. According to Ken Thompson, “bioteaming is about building our organisational teams on the natural principles which underpin the most successful teams in nature.”2 Bioteaming is about distributed intelligence and the ability for the team to use its collective intelligence in a coordinated and optimized fashion. In the case of Argentine ants, a decentralized organization structure with multiple queens allows for rapid expansion and invulnerability to threats. In 2000, researchers discovered an Argentine ant colony that “ranges over 6,000 km from Italy to the Spanish Atlantic coast” and “effectively forms the largest cooperative unit ever recorded.”3 As impressive as this sounds, in 2009 new research confirmed that the Argentine ant supercolonies of Europe, California and Japan comprised one single global “megacolony.”4 Talk about teamwork.

But ants aren’t nature’s only high-functioning teams. Packs of wolfs, pods of dolphins, and prides of lions all share remarkable strategies in terms of leadership, connectivity, execution and organization. For nature’s teams, mission matters most. Bioteams are the physical manifestation of a mission. They organize on the fly, adjust strategies in real-time and redefine membership based on environmental demands. Just Google “unicoloniality” to learn more about how some of nature’s teams inherently understand what many human teams essentially do not: membership is a function of achieving the mission and not the other way around.

So next time, you’re looking for insights into how to better manage your team, maybe look at the tiny trail of ants on your kitchen counter before reaching for the latest management article.

To learn more about bioteams, check out Ken Thompson’s book “Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Most Successful Designs.”

1Berkun, S. (2010). The Myths of Innovation. Sebastopol, Canada: O’Reilly Media, Inc. p. 91.
2Thompson, K. (2005, June 27). Virtual Teams—A new paradigm from nature. Message posted at: http://www.bioteams.com/2005/06/27/virtual_teams.html
3Giraud, T., Pedersen, J., & Kelle, L., (2002). Evolution of supercolonies: The Argentine ants of southern Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(9), 6075-6079. doi: 10.1073/pnas.092694199
4Walker, M. (2009, July 1). Ant-mega colony takes over the world. BBC Earth News. Accessed from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8127000/8127519.stm


  • Fascinating article. And lovely info-graphic as always.

    In general we need to look more to the natural world for clues about how to manage businesses and work.

    The recent explosion of collaborative technology has obscured the fact that good teamwork starts with shared goals. Next, teams need clear roles & responsibilities, then shared processes & expectations.

    Technology is really just part of that latter piece (processes) when it comes to collaboration. The real trick is to get folks committed to a goal larger than any one team member.

    Commented on July 19, 2011 at 8:02 pm
  • Nature has one powerful trait: Balance

    Our Human species are infamous for our imbalance in various factors – pollution for one

    Now looking at our gradual evolution in “information” and “technology”. We’ve come from grunting and pointing to now conferencing and clicking (and touching).

    Agreeably, it’s a long way. But this abundance of tech based information overflow is NOT a result of our brains need to absorb information and most certainly not our preferred way of learning. The power and capacity of our information technology stems from desire, and we of all species should understand that human desires are endless. The imbalance then comes from our ability to manage this information. To manage is to control root factors. How smart are our teenagers today than they were 50 years ago? They certainly have more knowledge available at their finger tips (literally), but so does everyone else. Heard of the saying if everyone’s smart than no one is? Something like that. In fact I would believe it’s getting worse, people today believe knowledge gives them better abilities than without, which is generally true but then the KM factor is too passive by nature to being recognized as a control factor. I’ll add no-brainer quote I heard and really like “She has over 500 HP, but can you drive?” The importance of KM is just as primitive as are protocols in computing. Yet we are not compelled by nature to make decisions with it in our mind.

    This points to a factor of our imbalanced and maybe even comparably underdeveloped ability in managing and improving the management of information we generate.

    We consume more than we can sustain and we generate more than we can manage, all the while calling it progress. Arguably, we need a believe as a species to move forward so perhaps this belief is compulsory regardless of anything.

    All in all, concept of Bioteam seems like the way of the future, problem is the implementation. If the ‘management’ of the implementation is using non-compatible or contradicting concepts, the results are pretty much hot air.

    Commented on July 27, 2011 at 2:52 am
  • Well done socialcast on a good article and an awesome poster – keep up the good work

    Ken Thompson

    Commented on September 24, 2011 at 7:06 am

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