Sometimes we find ourselves unwillingly obeying unwritten laws and rules that hinder us from growing our business the way we want to. In this blog, Bengt Järrehult looks at studies done on ant societies and draws different parallels to human organizations. Is stagnation a natural phenomenon after a period of growth?

In her TED talk from February 2003 Deborah Gordon tells about her findings from studying Nevada Seed Ants for 22 years. For instance, she noticed that every year, on a nice and warm day in the spring, young Nevada seed ants of both genders meet up in a gigantic orgy(!).  Afterwards the males die of exhaustion. (What more is there to experience in life anyway?) The females fly away, bite off their wings, dig themselves down into the ground and start to lay eggs.

The first eggs turn to larvae and are fed with the few fat reserves she has until they develop to ants. After this initial hard work, she gets pampered by midwife ants for the rest of her life. She now constantly lays eggs for the coming 15 -20 years, giving rise to an ant community of 10-12,000. When she dies – the community also dies after 1 year, the average longevity of a normal ant.

After 5 years the community for the first time sends away their young males and females for the “annual orgy” – and this coincides with the stagnation of the growth of the society. The cause and effects of this process are still unclear. Does the society stagnate because the youngsters leave or do the young ones leave because things start to get boring? Here she observed the 1st similarity with human societies. The youth wants action! If not so – they leave (..or is it that if there are no young people around – things get boring?)

Other similarities were observed. Everyone knows the saying that ants are always busy. Even the Bible says –Thou shall look at the ants because they are not sluggard. However, Deborah found that 50 % of all ants do absolutely nothing – and it is the same ants that keep on doing …nothing….all the time (she marked them with nail polish to show this). The 2nd similarity observed between ants and human organizations!!

A 3rd similarity was observed. Hierarchy. All ants start becoming scavengers doing maintenance or midden work. Some do military service before further advancement, other ants have a fast track to the top position, being a forager. There is a natural split. But, if something happens outside the young, still growing society, e.g. if a wind has brought a pile of seeds close to their nest, they all temporarily turn to become foragers in order to get the food in before ants from neighboring colonies get hold of it. This does not happen in a mature society, where all ants stick to their original “job-description”.

It seems that stagnating growth and inability to react to a changing world are interrelated. My interpretation is the following; If the young ant society gets a chance to grow faster, to a size where they find it easier to defend themselves, they grab the opportunity. The human similarity is seen in small and agile companies in their growth phase. However, if a mature and stable ant society would take the chance to grow suddenly they tend to be dependent on these serendipitous chances to happen in a repetitive manner, which may or may not happen. If they don’t, these chances mainly disturb the equilibrium and hence this opportunistic behavior is not favored.

Take away:

In both ant and human societies there seems to be a correlation between inability to react to external changes and stagnating growth. In order to have growth in large organizations, still keeping what already is achieved in market shares etc, they need to act in a “bifocal” way. The two seemingly opposing strategies – “Play not to Lose” (i.e. suitable for the mature phase) vs. “Play to Win“(i.e. suitable for the growth phase), both demand their special attention and should not be led into a compromise. Without a deliberate balance between them, we unavoidably slide towards an incremental and defensive focus only. We need to keep these two set-ups within the same company but semi-separated” – as in an Ambidextrous Company. Govindarajan, Tushman and others have noticed the advantages of this set-up. But why is it so hard to make it happen? What factors or phenomena are stopping us?

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 About the author

Bengt Järrehult is Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, a  global hygiene products and paper company. He is also adjunct professor and visiting professor resp. at 2 departments of  Lund University in Sweden. He is an avid reader of and presenter on the topics of innovation, especially on breakthrough innovation and the psychological hurdles that exist to achieve this, hurdles that we may or may not be aware of. He is of the opinion that most companies more or less know what to do to become more innovative. What they don’t know is what really hinders them from doing these measures…