By Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker
Have you ever seen a lone ant dreaming around, aimlessly hoping to stumble on a crumb? It seems an iffy way to catch a snack. But not five minutes later, your kitchen is so crowded you wonder if the new antPhone just went on sale by the recycling bin. How did that little ant get the word out so fast? Yes, pheromone trails alert the rest of the colony to the catch. But this tiny ant search engine is far more efficient than Google. A recent computer model shows why. Ants switch from a “maximize likelihood of finding” to a “maximize speed of getting” strategy as soon as someone finds food. All the random ant walks suddenly coalesce, laser-like, into a single-file line. How do they do it? And how do they decide who hunts and who gathers? Do they have a business plan? If they don’t, why should we? Can their six-legged math help us improve our transportation and delivery systems, crisis management, and internet search patterns? Can they help us make business as usual a sustainable brand?
A single scout ant might appear adrift, but not all who wander are lost. Put a whole colony of them out there, and they are unbelievably good at bringing home the bacon. Each scout lays a trail of pheromone as she drifts, helping her sisters refine their own searches. The best routes are repeated, amplifying the successful trails into highways. The shortest foraging path becomes an orderly line. No plan, it just happens.
We call it ‘emergence’ when order mysteriously appears from a lot of seemingly random actions: a plague of locusts, a school of fish, a flock of seagulls. When everyone does their own thing, with a few simple rules and a single shared goal, there is a moment, a turning point. Chaos becomes order, and something new and unexpected emerges. Revolution can happen in an instant.
But if the rest of nature doesn’t have a plan, and they are so great at adapting to change, maybe we should scrap our business plans too? Maybe we should we grow our solutions from the bottom-up, like ants, instead of imposing them from the top down?
The answer, as usual, is it depends. Ants do have an overall strategy. It’s built it into their DNA. Everyone in the colony gets the memo: Find food and bring it home! And they follow some simple rules. Each day, every ant makes a personal decision to be a scout or a gatherer. She evaluates her future worth to her nestmates, and makes a choice. A young ant has more work left in her, so she should stay close to home and keep herself safe. She also considers her ability to contribute now: Older ants make better scouts. But her foraging skills will improve if she explores, increasing her value in the future. All these variables go into her daily hunting or gathering equation. Imagine if we ran our own organizations this way. Should we reassign me? Fire me? How much should we pay me? Let’s ask me! Nobody knows me better than me, and I want what’s best for us! The difference, of course, is that we are not ants in a colony: We are not all sisters, and our goals only overlap so much. At some point, we are all looking out for Number One. On average though, with shared goals and good information, a well-networked and diverse group of ants- or people- can make change happen on a dime.
Every organization wants to leave the competition in the dust. The C-suite tries to leverage opportunities and shut down threats, to reach the goals they agreed on last year. That’s strategy. It’s pre-planned, consistent, and comes from the top. How good it is depends on the quality of the forecasts and how wide a swath management is scanning. They better see it coming or you won’t know what hit you.
These yearly business plans work great, when the past predicts the future. But nowadays, things aren’t so easy. Surprises are guaranteed, plans fail. Supply chains are vulnerable; prices are volatile. Good strategy is as dynamic as life itself. Think fast, grab the ring, jump over the banana peels.
Companies that expect the unexpected and leverage it have what we call ‘emergent strategy.’ It’s not about brilliant leadership, so much as sharing a vision and some simple rules, cultivating diverse and interconnected long-term stakeholders, providing a measure of transparency (a reliable pheromone trail), and trusting the wisdom of the crowd. It’s a collaborative learning process, where everyone senses and responds to current conditions, and strategy shifts on the fly.
Purely emergent strategies are as rare as purely intended ones, in nature or in the boardroom. The balance must be finely tuned. Intentional strategy brings focus and control, getting things done, bringing food back to the nest when you know it’s there. Emerging strategy maximizes the likelihood of finding it before someone else does. The trick is devising ways to trigger the right amount of each when you need it.
Biology is littered with the accidents of history. Adaptations are not always the simplest, or the most obvious, or even the best; they are simply good enough at the right time. Which is to say, they are better than the competition. The human foot and spine are hacked from our tree-swinging ancestors. I’m certain an engineer starting from scratch would make us better, but we work with what we've got. Back problems, ankle sprains, and arthritis have plagued us for at least 3 million years. Evolution isn't perfect, and it doesn't have to be.
Natural selection takes out the worst performers, and sex scrambles up new combinations in search of the best. Every living thing on Earth is a jerry-rigged contraption of duct-tape and paper-clips, but only the best designs make it to the next round. After 3.8 billion years, the survivors are pretty fantastic, and that includes us.
Our disruptive innovations - walking upright, taming other species, settling in huge groups, awesome BBQs -- allowed us to spread into nearly every niche and nook imaginable. I mean, what kind of ape can swim like Michael Phelps, fly in a squirrel-suit, ride a unicycle, ski down a mountain slope, surf like Laird, sing like Mary J., and do ballet? We must be doing something right, even if the ants have us beat at Google. Human frailty aside, we do okay, because nobody else does it like we do.
Our game-changer is what I like to call 'what-if-erousness.' Humans ask “what if…?” and imagine how things could be. We plan and predict, play out alternate scenarios. We step back and ask, could things be different? We tell stories, we make art, we envision other worlds, other spiritual dimensions. And once we imagine, we want to make. We reverse-engineer. We work backwards from where we want to be and we try to make it so. Next thing you know, you’re in Vegas watching Cirque du Soleil. Or driving a solar powered car that looks like a sea lettuce.
Humans invented the ‘what if’ niche, and we can claim first-mover advantage. But only if we use it well. This week, I find myself at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. I’m joined by influencers at the top of some of the world’s largest companies. All of us are hoping to make the change we wish to see in the world, in the biggest way possible. The theme is “what if…?” What if business ran on sunlight? What if manufacture was carbon negative? What if our waste was no worse than a fallen tree, feeding the next generation of insects and fungus? What if human consumption was good for the planet?
When all kinds of people do their own thing together, with a shared goal and a few simple rules, there is a moment, a turning point. Order appears from the seemingly insignificant actions of many, and something new and unexpected emerges. Revolution just happens. You never know when.
Dr. Woolley-Barker is a contracted ‘Biologist at the Design Table’ for Biomimicry 3.8, and owner of biomimicry consulting firm BioInspired Ink, helping organizations create innovation and brands inspired by nature. She is working on a book about transformative social evolution in other species.