After I had played Universal Paperclips for a couple of hours, I thought I understood the game’s message. I put it away and enjoyed being a real person, being outside and not being productive. I then saw an ant colony at my feet. Isn’t it marvelous, how simple ants can create such complex systems?
Worker ants don’t seem to think too much about that, when they’re looking for food. They walk in seemingly arbitrary directions. When they find something edible, they take it home with them. On the way there, they spread their scent, so that when one of their coworkers happens to walk there too, they can follow the path to the food source. With each ant successfully bringing food home, the scent signage gets reinforced, and more ants will follow it.
It’s pretty good to be human, I thought. We don’t run around randomly, we can reflect on what we do and we can come up with new things.
But every time I see CEOs and other leaders mess something up, I think of the ant colony. Some leaders believe they understand the thing they’re leading. But in reality, they’re more like queen ants. Some try to reproduce like queen ants too, but let’s not get into that.
The queen ant is the leader who decides where a colony is settled. She’s cared for by her workers. They bring her food and shovel away her excrement. Although early in her life she gets to have wings for a while, her tasks aren’t more complex than a worker’s. The queen ant doesn’t have to be smarter than a worker and probably isn’t. And like the workers, she doesn’t have a full understanding how the colony works either. She doesn’t need that to do her job well.
Good leaders know they can’t fully understand how their organizations work either. They know that the job of a recruiter is as complex as that person can understand. The job of an engineer can be similarly complex, the designer’s, and the facility manager’s. Good leaders know they can’t possibly know everything the other people in the organisation know. So they want operational decisions to be made by the people who are best situated to make them. And they make sure that there are structures and processes to make and implement these decisions.
Let’s pretend a worker ant could think in abstract terms and has some ideas for how the colony would be better off. Thinking about that doesn’t do it any good though—only if that thinking is turned into action. But a worker ant’s capability to do things is limited to foraging and a few other tasks. And they likely don’t even fully understand how that plays into the bigger functions of the colony. As workers in a corporation, our situation is similar to worker ants’. We may have good ideas for how the organization could do things better. But most of us aren’t in a position where we can act on these ideas.
Thinking without acting on the conclusions is a waste of time and energy. And it leads to frustration. Luckily humans are not ants.
At a management course, I was told that there are more teams of people than people in the world. All kinds of groups: from musical duos to corporations, countries and the United Nations. These many groups can only have overlapping interests.
Where most ant colonies wage war when they meet another colony, human organizations mostly collaborate. Even competitors. Samsung produce iPhone parts, Apple create software that works on Android devices, Google give Android away for free to everyone, including other device makers—like Samsung. Companies of this size are powerful enough to literally sabotage each other and get away with it. Like ant colonies wage wars. But human organizations rarely do that. Because their collaborations are more valuable than taking out competitors completely.
Of course there are countless other ways in which we differ from ants. It must be pretty awesome to have an extra pair of legs and the strength to lift several times my own weight.
But there are two things particularly nice about being human. First, we’re not assigned roles at birth. We can learn to become a worker, or become a queen. In no particular order. Second, often without really thinking about it, we start and join new organizations all the time. Groups of friends, book reading clubs, parents taking care of children, social movements.
And that gives me hope for the future! Sometimes I feel like I’m a replaceable ant in the colony of the capitalist global economy. But that’s only one colony I happen to live in. There are at least 8 billion other colonies I can join. Of which many were started by people who want things to be better for all of us.