Leadership: What We Can Learn From Ant Colonies

Many managers think they’re doing the right thing by building controls, metrics, checkpoints, and redundancies. In their view, rules are needed to control human behavior and reduce risk.

But let’s take a lesson from ant colonies. One rule of ants is that everyone but the queen is a multi-tasker. A second rule is: “Do what the ant next to you is doing.” A third is that “outgoing foragers give way to incoming ants carrying food.” These three simple rules enable the colony to communicate and adapt to change very rapidly. One moment you take out the trash; the next you forage for food. Because they operate this way, ant colonies adapt quickly to change and thus survive.

One of the principles of emergent intelligence is that organisms which operate under a few basic rules have an evolutionary advantage. The implications for building a successful organization are profound. It suggests that simple rules might be very powerful when applied to people. Dee Hock applied the principle of emergent intelligence when he engaged a team of bankers to create Visa in the 1970s. Dee understood that banks needed to operate independently within well-understood rules. So his team worked hard for more than a year to define those rules. This was the genius of their process.

From this experience, Dee invented the term “chaordic” organization. It reflects his belief that successful organizations are “chaordic” in nature. By that he means they walk a fine line between chaos and order. Order is represented by top-down decision making. Chaos is represented by bottom-up decision making. Chaordic organizations, in Dee’s eyes, balance the two by having clear values, a well-defined vision, and sound operating principles. They also have clear systems for monitoring performance. Within that framework, people are left to create strategies and devise solutions as they see fit. It is a model that aligns perfectly with building a high-performing organization.

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