The Ants Have it All Figured Out

How many times have we heard sentences like: “this is how we have always done it” or “everyone else does it this way” ?

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Working in teams has a lot of advantages. We share tasks, ideas, goals and most importantly a sense of belonging. To sustain and maintain a working group structure, the team must form a set of unwritten rules for each member to follow. Any new member joining the group must follow these rules or the group might treat the new member as an outsider. In other words, to be an efficient member of the group — that person has to conform to the group’s rules.

Conformism is a very efficient tool in helping the group reach its common goals. However, with all its advantages, conformism entails one major flaw. These unwritten rules, make it hard for the group members to challenge fundamental concepts and behaviours of their team.

What Do Ants Got to do With it

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When ants go out to gather food for their colony and encounter a large piece of food that they can’t lift by themselves, they form a group of ants in order to combine efforts, and carry the item together. The only problem is, that while carrying large pieces of food, the ants’ sense of smell is impaired due to their close proximity to that piece of food, so much so, that they can’t use that sense in order to find their way back to the colony. Having no smell based compass, each ant starts pulling in a different direction. Eventually, their hard earned catch goes nowhere.

So, how do they find their way after all?

Well, it takes pretty much the whole colony. It turns out that other solo travelling ants from the same colony, that are currently on the hunt for their own catch, when they meet the group of ants currently carrying a piece of food, connect to that group of ants along the way, for a few seconds each, and give them a little tug in the right direction and then leave the group as soon as their own sense of smell starts to be affected by the large piece of food. Each single ant along the way gives the carrying group a little pull in the right direction so that eventually the group carrying the trophy, find their way back to the colony.

From Ants to Teams

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One of the key problems with startups these days, is the fixation and self adoration of the company’s culture and solution. You can almost say, that the different teams within a fast moving and developing startup, loose their sense of smell as they carry their projects or tasks to completion. Keeping a sense of the direction, whilst working hard to show results quickly, the different internal groups have to be very well connected. Maintaining this connection means the group has to work under a specific set of rules. If each member would work completely independent from one another, much like the ants, reaching a common goal would not be a simple task. That’s why working under the group’s rules usually gets the job done. Or at least the illusion of a job done (finding a piece of food is one thing, carrying it home is another).

That said, what usually happens when one of the group’s members wants to initiate a change that impacts one of these unwritten rules, it can becomes challenging, especially in areas where there is no definitive proof that the change is more effective than the current solution. In some cases the group fights fearlessly to keep the rules in focus and in doing so loses the focus on what the goal was in the first place. This notion is very common in the more structured corporates and is best known as the “Corporate Immune System”.

In an attempt to challenge this dilemma, we have initiated the rightfully named “Ants Project”.

The Ants Project

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The Goal

Our goal behind the Ants Project is to try and enjoy the advantages of group work while continuously challenging and validating team consensus around topics of technical and methodological nature.

By being exposed to new concepts from “solo ants” (on their way to find food). Where do we find these solo ants? outside of the four walls of our office. The basis of the Ants Project, is to create short (tug like) sessions with external teams working under their own set of unwritten rules. This will provide the teams with a fresh and different view of things, enabling discussions around areas which previously were considered to be under a false sense of consensus.

A real life analogy if you will: “Growing up in Israel where Falafel is considered a national food, my friends and I were sure that the best Falafel in the country was in Jerusalem where we grew up. When I turned 18 and joined the army, I met people from all over the country and each of them believed their hometown Falafel was king! Following some further taste tests, I realised how wrong I was. (I’ll reveal Israel’s best Falafel in my next post…)”

What Now?

This short post was only meant to introduce our ants-inspired concept for validating our company’s internal assumptions and keeping our corporate immune system in check. We recently started executing this project. So, stay tuned, after we go through a few pulls and tugs in different directions from external (ants with a different sense of smell than ours) we will update you on the value it added to our internal team work, if any!

In addition, we recommend that more companies and teams start thinking about which external groups can help tug and pull them along.

If you find this approach interesting, give us a nudge ;)
We might end up “ant-ing” it!

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This article was written by Moshe Ingber, Edgify’s VP R&D. Moshe is a veteran manager with years of experience in team management. He is also our ants project visionary and creator.

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