#E2sday: What Ants Can Teach the Enterprise About Teamwork
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.
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