It is quite fascinating to observe a very complex and coordinated behavior emerge in a group of independent actors that follow just a few simple rules. The phenomenon is called emergence.

There have been books written on the subject. Ants, for example, have been practicing the art for the past 170 million years. Ant colonies survive and thrive due to their efficient organization and collectivism. Yet, every ant in the colony is an independent and self-minded creature that follows just a few simple rules:

  1. Always keep moving.
  2. Before making the next step, smell the pheromone and move in the direction of the strongest signal. Ants perceive smell with their antennae, by the way.
  3. In the absence of a signal, move randomly.
  4. If food is found, carry it back to the nest while leaving a trail of pheromone.

You can see how these simple rules can lead to a rather complex and coordinated collective behavior by pressing the “Start Simulation” button below. Here, ants are represented with red dots, food is yellow, the nest is blue, and pheromone droplets are glowing green. I am sure you will appreciate my game design skills. It took me an hour to build this in JavaScript.

Despite the simplicity, there are a few observations that one can make in this simulation:

  1. Periods of exploration and periods of exploitation alternate. Once a food source is found, the colony literally drops everything and works on carrying it back to the nest.
  2. Sometimes the colony discovers several sources of food but always ends up working on only one at a time. This is called focus. Strangely, there are no meetings or politics involved in choosing the best one.
  3. While the colony is exploring, there is no ant at the top of the hill pointing in the direction of the next big pile of food. Having such an ant would probably be a lot less efficient than letting each ant explore on its own.

There are also several lessons that ants can teach us, fearless business leaders:

  1. Do not sweat over big visions and mission statements. A set of simple rules and the freedom to experiment can produce a very productive and coordinated organization. Culture eats vision for lunch.
  2. Your organization must be able to “smell the pheromone” and move in the direction of the strongest signal. In practical terms, be data-driven. Let the data, not opinions, decide.
  3. Once you find something that gains traction, drop everything, and focus on that one thing. Do less, then obsess. If you lose traction, go back to experimentation.
  4. Peer-to-peer communication is crucial for propagating the signals throughout the organization. If you do not have a virtual water cooler, get one.

These rules worked for ants for 170 million years. Who knows, they might work in your organization.

Ping me if you would like to get a copy of the simulation source code for your presentation.