By Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker
Ants are social insects, living in large colonies and all working together to achieve success.
Scaling up requires constant leadership — vision and foresight are at a premium, and you need to keep customers and employees engaged while you stay ahead of the curve. There are endless meetings to attend and people to manage and motivate.
Executives know all too well that per-capita productivity and innovation decline as their companies grow, even as management costs increase and responsiveness slows. Two of every three American workers are disengaged, and employees that once brought energy and ideas to the table are replaced by an endless staircase of short-termers who train and advance, then move on.
Cities and anthills increase in productivity and innovation as they grow — so why don’t our companies? The problem is that we design companies like machines, coaxing efficiency from a series of fragmented “cogs” such as fixed job descriptions, standardized best practices, rigid report lines and siloed departments. Customers are simply demographic categories, and employees interchangeable, made to jump through meaningless stick-and-carrot reviews and bonuses. Their contributions don’t seem to matter very much at the end of the day, and they understandably reserve the best of their passion and creative power for the weekend.
When a machine breaks or conditions change, we repair or replace the broken part, or get a new machine. But people are living things, and companies (much like honeybee hives and ant nests) are the organic products of our collaboration. Living things and the tasks we perform together grow from the bottom up, developing and changing, adapting and evolving, forming productive, dynamic systems that grow in abundance from one generation to the next.
But people are living things, and companies (much like honeybee hives and ant nests) are the organic products of our collaboration.
As an evolutionary biologist and consultant, I’m on a mission to change the way we work by tapping the power of nature — an emerging field called biomimicry, the art and science of innovation inspired by nature. Every creature alive has been shaped by 3.8 billion years of R&D. Any organism that “failed is a fossil today” (Janine Benyus), but the survivors are proven winners. There is so much we can learn from nature — it’s a treasure trove of innovation if we just look. Fortune magazine agrees, calling biomimicry today’s №1 trend in business. GeckSkin’s reusable tape was inspired by sticky gecko feet, while Velcro mimics sticky seed burrs and Michael Phelps’ swimsuits tap the power of sharkskin.
For any challenge, companies can ask, “How does nature do it?” and uncover a bonanza of surprising and inspiring solutions. But Biomimicry can inspire more than just products — it’s also a great way to design organizations themselves. After 10 years working with major companies, even ones known for leading-edge innovation, I’ve been surprised by the level of inertia and frustration around change. Engineers and designers get excited about the work we do, but all too often these game-changing ideas don’t go anywhere, because the companies themselves aren’t designed for change. Creative people disengage and move on.
We know that 70 percent of workers are disengaged at work, exactly when companies need more innovation, nimbler response to change and constant growth. How can we get that from a disengaged workforce? The problems just get worse, because our larger systems — governments, economies and ecosystems — are also stressed. Resources grow scarce, supply chains and pricing volatile, and political and economic conditions unstable.
All these problems — from individual disengagement to systemic failure — are manifestations of the same hierarchical machine mindset. We focus on relentlessly maximizing the efficiency and performance of a fragmented array of standardized “cogs.” Faced with fixed job descriptions and report lines, rigid best practices and standard operating procedures, annual reviews and Scooby-Snack performance incentives that give our lives no compelling meaning, siloed departments and “need to know” secrecy, we grow frustrated and disengaged. At the same time, decisions swell as we move up the chain of command, and the number of people making them shrinks. The most powerful decision-makers are those furthest from the frontlines — overwhelmed with meetings and decisions — but the local information they require to make the big choices has been stripped away. How can one person at the top possibly make all the right decisions? They can’t, and they don’t, because the evidence never reaches them. At every level of the hierarchy, our humanity is dismissed and our creativity stifled. We cede responsibility and initiative (and our creative muscles atrophy), leaving much of our collaborative power to innovate on the table.
All these problems — from individual disengagement to systemic failure — are manifestations of the same hierarchical machine mindset. We focus on relentlessly maximizing the efficiency and performance of a fragmented array of standardized “cogs.”
I believe we can change all this. My book, “TEEMING: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World,” draws on the simple principles nature’s most ancient and successful organizations rely on to survive and thrive. How do ants and honeybees work together in a changing world? I think we can redesign companies to do the same. Ant and bee teams innovate and grow in value from one generation to the next, with no org chart, meetings, managers or incentives.
Team performance emerges in real time, like a constantly updated film reel of snapshots. These societies have very little top-down plan besides their DNA blueprint. There are no predictions, strategy meetings, targets or bosses. No individual has the whole picture. And yet, they accomplish the same kinds of complex things we do, using far less computing power. Strategy happens organically, all the time, everywhere, with small, imperfect, frequent and local decisions. They adapt to change at the edges, in real time, in little bits of work done by everyone. Individuals just do whatever they think is best in the moment, using their own style and skills. Collective value emerges.
Many of us assume these insects are faceless armies of machine-like clone-drones, but that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Each has its own personality and style — to the point where a researcher can tell insects apart just by watching them. In fact, this individual uniqueness unlocks their collaborative superpowers. Gathering genetic diversity is the queen ant or bee’s first and most important job, and her colony will fail without it. In nature, diversity is the raw feedstock of innovation, and evolution can’t happen without it. The same is true in our own organizations.
The most critical factor behind insect colony success, however, is shared purpose. These individuals are bound together by their drive to nurture and provide for the future and make more with each generation.
Companies can apply these same lessons. It’s easy to re-imagine them as platforms for collective value creation, nurtured and cared for by the tiny, distributed, self-organized contributions of many creative individuals. It’s the way we like to work, and it’s the way we work best. Research shows that having freedom and purpose are our greatest motivation, both individually and collectively. We like to help others and make things of lasting significance, and we like to do it our way. Creativity and innovation are part of human nature, what I refer to as our maker instinct, and humans are actually designed to adapt and collaborate — resistance comes when change and directives are imposed on us by others.
Companies can apply these same lessons. It’s easy to re-imagine them as platforms for collective value creation, nurtured and cared for by the tiny, distributed, self-organized contributions of many creative individuals.
Our task starts with freeing diverse individuals to follow their passions and connect with like-minded people to create them. A single neuron serves a useful purpose only when it connects with other neurons. When diverse cells find one another and connect, exchanging information and resources, unexpected properties emerge. The human brain is one of the most complex and powerful systems we know of, but the same is true for any collaborative endeavor.
Start by helping your people discover their passions: What truly matters to them? What is the unique essence of your company? Who are your customers and employees — not as categories, but as individuals? What are their hopes and dreams and challenges? How can your company make a real difference in their lives? Facilitate a conversation around shared purpose and values, and encourage workers to connect organically and freely around them. Everyone becomes an innovator when they care about the outcome, and powerful solutions are possible when we work together to achieve them. Shared purpose, personal freedom and mutual accountability build social capital — the currency that makes our collaborative efforts possible. Engagement grows, and with it initiative, ownership, innovation and value.
We need to work with our nature, not against it. Like ants, we can focus on building cultures that embrace change as a source of inspiration. We can cultivate diversity and experimentation, encourage individual freedom and initiative, and design rhythms and habits that keep people aligned around our shared purpose. These are regenerative systems, with expanding ripple effects. When our desire to contribute to something greater than ourselves is met, the larger economies, societies and ecologies we are embedded in naturally adapt and grow in value as well.
Our task is to build adventurous business cultures where people are fully awake to the excitement of doing things that never have been done before. By tapping the lessons from nature’s most successful teams, we can design companies that thrive on change, and create unimaginably powerful solutions that grow in value from one generation to the next, just as the ants do. When our work matters and we feel empowered, companies flourish like the growing living things they are meant to be — scaling up comes naturally.
Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an evolutionary biologist, biomimicry consultant and adjunct professor of biomimicry at Arizona State University.