Systems Thinking 3: Can We Learn From Insects?

Studying chaos, complexity, and non-linear systems has taught me that control is an illusion – and sometimes completely unnecessary. Complicated outcomes need not be the result of complicated processes, or tight-fisted control, as Dr. Stephen Wolfram illustrated in his combination door-stop/book “A New Kind of Science” some years ago (available to read for free online). I marvel at the enormous documents and gantt charts that are part of some projects, wondering if anyone reads those besides the person who created them. It has always seemed to me that something extremely complicated to read might also be extremely complicated to do, so I’ve worked hard to make my documents lightweight, readable and easy to follow. I thought I was doing a pretty good job organizing large groups of people around shared objectives, and was pretty impressed with my results . . . until I studied insects.

Insects manage to work together to accomplish the most amazing tasks! Ants, for example, manage to cooperate without any requirements documents or team agreements. Their approach seems to be “Work hard. Leave a trail. Follow a trail.” Examples of sensible division of labor, and communication via scent trails to enable effective individual and group foraging, have earned my admiration. Their collaborative behavior has enabled ants to colonize most of the earth. (Ants probably think that they are the dominant species on the planet, just like we do.) I often wish that a project team could work together as seemingly effortlessly as thousands of ants.

While I’m a big admirer of ants, in my view termites are the be-all-end-all of insect collaborative behavior. Without a single project document, or even a scrum master, they manage to build outrageous structures like this Disney-like castle termite mound. How do they do it? Well, I’m not a termite (in spite of what some of my colleagues may have said about me), but my understanding is that individual termites are all following some very simple operating instructions, but the cumulative effect of their simple actions is a very complex structure. This is an example of emergent behavior – complex patterns emerging from simple individual behaviors.

While studying insects has been fascinating, I eventually was curious to see if humans could achieve similar results, so I did an experiment that I call “Wander-A-B”, but some people call “Predator-Protector”. You can do this experiment, too, and directly observe an example of some of the amazing behavior that can occur when large groups of people follow simple instructions.

Wander A-B Exercise: Assemble at least 15 people, more if you can (20 – 30 would be nice) in a large room or open space where they can all wander around with plenty of room in between them. There are 3 phases to this exercise. Describe all 3 phases before beginning, and then just signal when each new phase begins, perhaps by ringing a chime or making a chimpanzee sound (feel free to go wild here).

Phase 1 – Everyone wanders around aimlessly (that should be easy for most groups of people) and then secretly identifies someone in the crowd to be their “A” person and someone else to be their “B” person.

Phase 2 – Everyone continues wandering, but now moving so that their secret “A” person is always between themselves and their secret “B” person.

Phase 3 – Everyone continues wandering (and by this time perhaps wondering what they heck they are doing!), but now moving so that they are positioned between their secret “A” and “B” people.

Notice what happens during Phase 2 and Phase 3 (which should come to a rather abrupt end).

I’ll tell you what happens if I get some comments asking about it, but it’s more fun just to do it. Without anything more than these simple instructions, two pretty surprising group behaviors manifest. (Phase 2 is a nice demonstration of a self-organizing system where each “agent’s” individual behavior leads to a mess. Phase 3 demonstrates how different agent behavior leads to a well-organized overall result.)

Control vs. Emergence: While I am tempted to try to control situations, my study of ants and termites makes me think “Hey, if insects can do it, maybe humans can, too!” Maybe there are other ways to get large groups of people to cooperate and collaborate without detailed direction or a large amount of control.  What if we could get each of our project “agents” to operate according to individual behavioral principles that would lead to overall project success without excessive control and oversight? What would make that possible? What do you think?


NOTE ABOUT THE PICTURE: Town ant workers following an artificial trail made by drawing a very dilute solution of the ant’s trail pheromone methyl 4-methylpyrrole-2-carboxylate.   Only 0.33 mg of this pheromone would draw a detectable trail around the world.


2 thoughts on “Systems Thinking 3: Can We Learn From Insects?”

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    Fascinating and interesting perspective and analogies. This is the essence of the best form of leadership I’ve ever seen: Give high-level objectives (simple rules) and then get out of the way and let those great people you spent so much time hiring do what they do best.

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