Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Management Lessons from Ants

If I ask a question, who is good at running large organizations
A. Man
B. Ant.
I bet, Very few would choose option B.

Ant is an incredible species. They walked on the earth with dinosaurs. They survived conditions that the mighty dinosaurs could not. They have conquered every climate condition on the earth - from deserts to rain forests, from savana to swamps, even densely populated urban areas. They have achieved this by running very large organizations - their colonies - successfully. Usually each colony has a few thousand individual ants but scientists have found colony of ants colonies with millions of ants and stretched over 6,000 km.
( http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/animals/news-beware-ants )
Each colony has to gather the food, feed the young, maintain the nest and defend itself against attacks from competition. In short, it has to perform all the functions that a modern organization has to perform.

This is how the organization works. The queen ant is probably the most significant individual ant but she just lays eggs but does not control the nest or colony. Rest of the Ants are divided in 3 categories based on their primary tasks. There are soldier ants who defend the nest, food gatherers whom we usually notice and nest maintenance ants. As a rule, they perform their own function but if the situation changes say a large stock of food is found or nest is attacked or there is an obstruction near the nest, the ants switch the role. The nest maintenance work is stopped to collect the food or food gathering is stopped to defend the nest so on and so forth.

Older the colony better it is at handling uncertain situations. The colony as a group seems to learn and get better at managing themselves in uncertain conditions. The colonies last for years together but what is most amazing is each individual ant except for queen ant lives only for 40 odd days.

The most astonishing part is this is a leaderless management. There is no single individual ant or a committee who asks the ants to do certain tasks. Each ant seems to make her own decision based on her understanding of the external situation. Also there is continuous knowledge transfer happening within the individual ants. Amazingly, they seem to get it right for over few hundred million years.

As a management professional I am awestruck by this phenomenon. Leaving decision making to individuals and hope that the collective goals are achieved is empowerment of the highest order. In human world we can only dream about such a style of management. We also struggle big time to manage our knowledge, share it with the team and ultimately contribute to Organizational wisdom.

Organizational wisdom is of a significantly higher order than knowledge. The organization has to gain its experience under different external conditions, try out many things, accurately judge what worked and why it worked so that next time similar situation arises its easy to overcome. This in short is organizational wisdom. Most of the companies I interact with are still grappling with managing the knowledge. Organizational wisdom is nowhere on the radar. There are no conscious efforts to build or nurture organizational wisdom.

Ants are able to run very large organizations successfully as they have figured out how to empower the frontline, build organizational wisdom based on their experience and use it to build longevity of the organization. We, humans, have a lot to learn from the ants.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Success or Failure - How long!

Everyone wants to be successful. Nobody wants to fail. Research has proven that our fear for failure is higher than burning desire to succeed.
What is success and failure anyway? Who defines them? Should you accept their definition? Why or why not?

There are many aspects to success and failure but perhaps the least considered aspect is time span. History has taught us that failure can be first step to success. Steve Jobs was thrown out the company, he founded himself. He then came back and made it into the most valuable digital company in the world. He went from success to failure to dizzying success. Xerox, blackberry and Michael Jackson were considered very Invincible once. They are no longer considered a success story. They did not stand the test of time.

Both success and failures are transient stages. One leads to another seamlessly very often without sufficient notice. Most importantly there are absolutely no guarantees.
Next time you say, "This is success" or "This is failure", the right question to ask is "how long?"

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Singapore Way Vs Japanese Way

There is a lot you can learn from countries. Every country has a "view of the world" and their policies are designed and governed by them. Nothing right or wrong... Just need to pick­up whatever suits you.

Singapore is famous in the world as "fine" city. Fine is defined for every violations and rules are clearly spelled out everywhere. Even emergency stop for a train comes with a tag of misuse penalty $500. They say as soon as a new rule comes into play people ask, "what is the fine?"
It works very well on most of the occasions. City is well disciplined, clean neat, nice. Over a period of time you get used to "no food or drinks" in public transport so much so that I don't eat or drink even in other cities. But then there are bad times. You often find littering in last train of the day or after a large event like fire works is over. If you sense that you can break the rule and get away, you are tempted.

Singapore's view of the world is to enforce rules, you need to design them well, communicate them well, encourage people to follow and if they don't follow the rules, fine them. Perfectly valid, right?

Even I used to think this is the only way till I travelled around Japan. In Singapore, the onus of enforcing the rule is on police not on people. Japan has a completely different view of the world. Japan runs by norms not by rules. People seek to adhere to socially accepted norms. Thats what runs the society.

In Japan's public trains the norm is you should not speak on mobile phone. There are boards in the train. But no fine is mentioned. Its just a request. And People just follow it. Once I called my colleague and he got down from the train, spoke to me and got into the next train. Even though there was no fine, no police or no camera to catch him.

If you are leading a team of people, you have decide whether to go Japan way or Singapore way. Shifting the onus of setting and following the rules to the team lowers the cost of following the rules. No policing, monitoring required, team norms ensure adherence. You just have to keep reminding people about the norms. If you choose Singapore way, you need to think through every rule, every loop hole, every corner that can be bent. You need strong network of enforcing and monitoring.

Both ways work. Choose the one that suits you view of the world.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Paradox of Power

If you go around office, you will find many colleagues complaining that they don't have power to make the required change happen. They believe power lies high above somewhere in the hierarchy. Therefore keep blaming the status quo, rather than doing something about it.

Taking a step back if you really start looking for powerful people in the society, they can be of 3 different types, politicians, business leaders and spiritual leaders. (I am choosing to ignore negative elements in the society like criminals, gangsters, terrorists etc. )

Now look at what makes the politician powerful. Votes, right? Who gives the vote, people like you and me. The common man, who typically considers himself powerless. Look at business leaders. Their power comes from their successful business. Their customers find their product or service useful and they pay. If their customer is another business, they have to sell their product / service to other businesses till they find an individual customer who will pay for all. Irrespective of what business they are in, their success depends on the success of value chain they are part of and whether the individual customer is ready to pay their value chain. Similarly, power of spiritual leaders come from faith and trust of their followers, without which it would be difficult for them to exert their influence.

Vote, money and faith are the sources of power of a common man, which they often give away without thinking much and later complain that they are powerless.
Similarly, at your workplace, look for your sources of power. It may be your performance, it may be your relationship with customers or suppliers, it may be some special skill you possess, it may be the way you handle crisis or it may simply be your opinion. If you haven't found it so
far most probably it is something which you consider worthless but is secretly valued by your organization.

Those we think are powerful are actually power aggregators, the actual power lies with those who have vote, money or faith or whatever else the power aggregators are looking at.

Power to make change happen lies at every level. Those who complain don't know where the power lies, those who know don't remain powerless.