Build teams, insect-style

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Human resources may not be the most glamorous position at any given company. That may be putting it lightly: there’s a reason why the conventional image of an HR representative asking you for a minute of your time can strike fear into the heart of the most seasoned employee, and why the genre of human resources comedy is probably one of the richest in all of workplace humor.

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But with more and more companies outsourcing the work of complying with state and federal employment requirements to companies like Zenefits, we’re seeing, more and more, a redefinition of what HR should look like, and a new emphasis on what it means to get the right people hired and the right teams formed. In the spirit of unconventional thinking, let’s take a look at how teams are formed among the little buggers you’re probably familiar with if you’ve ever left fruit out for too long: ants.

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Ants have a basic hierarchy: the queen, and everybody else. But don’t be fooled. The queen ant has very limited if any control over the behavior of the colony. The brilliance of ants consists of the ways in which they are able to self-organize to complete tasks. As Quanta Magazine says, a colony of garden ants can build an underground complex the size of a skyscraper with nothing but a week and a patch of dirt. But how do they do it, and what can we learn about team-building from their methods?

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1.  Building bridges

Simon Garnier’s research into the ways that ants build bridges across uneven terrain contains some fascinating insights into the lives of these social insects. According to his paper in the open-source computational biology database PLoS, ants collaborate in large-scale ways when they come across problems. When one senses a gap in the road, for instance, it locks arms with another ant, and so on and so forth, until a bridge is built.

As you can see, these bridges are incredibly dense and strong, and can withstand disruptive, changing environmental forces.

Think about it like this: the Great Recession of 2008. Many companies laid off employees, “restructured,” whatever you want to call it. But even among those companies most affected, there were some who handled 2008 differently. Honeywell is one example. By asking its employees to take unpaid leaves instead of letting them go, they were able to position themselves for the future, when economic recovery would allow for the reinstatement of those employees. At Brandeis University, a policy was implemented whereby professors could cede 1% of their paychecks to the school, and $100,000 was subsequently saved, along with the prevented layoffs of several employees. Other companies did things like cut overtime and institute three-day weekends. These ways of dealing with challenges like restructuring are not just good for the few who are spared, but for the organization as a whole: when you extend that olive branch, when you make an effort to keep your human resources close, you will be repaid in kind.

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2.  Trust your best practices

A team led by Guy Theraulaz at the Research Center on Animal Cognition in Toulouse looked into the way that ants build shelters. They examined, in painstaking detail, the process of sand retrieval, taking notes on how quickly the ants moved, where they brought the sand, and how connections formed. They found that ants picked up grains at about 2 per minute, always dropped them near other grains, to form a pillar, and preferred handling grains of sand previously handled by other ants, distinguishable because of a chemical pheromone that ants emit. But the astonishing part is this: after a week’s simulation, the team’s virtual ants built a whole nest, layers and layers of sand stacked up with connections in between them, connections that were never written into any kind of set of rules.

At work, when a team needs to be assembled to solve some kind of problem, it might be smart to remember these kinds of “ant best practices”. For instance, codifying methods of working and setting them in stone may easily be counterproductive, even if based on results achieved before.

Which is way the critical word is “practices”, that is, methods of working: not end results of working.

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3.  Believe in the bottom-up method

Ants have a queen, yes, but as stated earlier, the queen has little actual authority over the behavior of the colony. This is not to say that a boss should refuse to exercise control over his or her team. But there is something intrinsically brilliant in the collective intelligence of ants, something we might very well try to emulate.

Namely, letting change come from the bottom. Ants learn by experience; one ant finds a danger area, and then links arms with the rest of the colony based only on instinct and collaboration. Similarly, colonies have many different kind of ants. Some are bigger and stronger while others, say, are faster. Each takes on a different task, but not one of these is imposed. Roles, rather, emerge organically as a result of a collective body trying to solve problems.

And this is how it could operate in the workplace: because problems that must be faced by an entire team should be solved by that team, in whatever unique way is necessary, and without unhelpful authoritarian direction. Although it might be wise to pick up those old orange peels.

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