Ants & man

In the purpose to see whether we can learn anything from nature, Deborah Gordon started to study Nevada Seed Ants in the 90’s. It all starts every year, in a nice and warm day in the spring when young Nevada seed ants of both sexes, meet up in a gigantic orgy. Afterwards the males die of exhaustion. What is more to experience in life anyway? The females fly away, get rid of their wings, dig them self down in the ground and start to lay eggs.

The first eggs turn to larvae and are fed with the fat reserves of the mother…..until they turn to ants…and after this while she will get pampered, protected from the sun down to 150 cm down in the ground she will continue to lay eggs for 15-20 years that gives rise to an ant community of 10-12,000 ants. When she dies – the community dies after some few months.

After 5 years the community will for the first time send away their young males and females for the annual orgy – and this coincides with the leveling off of the growth of the community. What is the cause and effect is still unclear. Does it level of because the young ones go away or do the young ones leave because the growth has level off? There are some extraordinary observations done. Everybody knows the say that the ants are always busy. The Bible says – Thou shalt look at the ants because they are not sluggard. However , by marking the lazy ones with nail polish Deborah found that 50% of all ants do absolutely nothing – and it is the same ants that keep on doing …nothing….all the time. We do not know why.

There is a hierarchy of the ants in terms of their work. Best is to be a forager, ( a “food-searcher”) but all ants start doing cleaning work. If something outside the young, still growing society happens though, as if a wind has brought a pile of seeds that are easy accessible, they all turn to be foragers in order to get the food in before competition, the ants from other communities, gets it. This does not happen in a mature society though. They stick to their rules that a certain portion are truly midden workers, another portion foragers etc. although this rule is not told by the queen. She is 5 feet down, out of communication range.

It seems to be a rule, written invisibly in the walls, that a mature ant society is not able to react to a changed environment. It seems that stagnating growth and inability to react to a changing world, are interrelated. Now, Mother Nature usually does things in a logical way and my interpretation is that if something, like if a pile of seeds suddenly occurs in front of nest, in the growth phase favors the ants that the ants to grow to a size where they may find it easier to defend themselves in e.g. an ant war, they grab the opportunity. The similarity in our world is a small company in its growth phase. However, IF a mature society would take the chance to suddenly grow by getting the ability to feed more larvae, they tend to be dependent of these chances to happen in a repetitive manner, happening 4-5 times a year or so. This obviously disturbs the equilibrium and hence is not favored.

Take away: There isa similarity between ants & man. There also seems to be a correlation between inability to react to external changes and stagnating growth. In order to have growth still keeping what we have achieved in market shares etc, large companies need to act in a “bifocal” way. The two seemingly opposing strategies – “Play not to Lose” vs. “Play toWin”, both demand their special attention. If you do not take a deliberate decision on what balance to keep between these two strategies, you unavoidably slide towards an incremental and defensive focus only. You need to keep these two set-ups within the same company but semi-separated” – and this could be in what is called the Ambidextrous Company. More of that later.

-Bengt Järrehult, Googol

(source: TED Talks)


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