Could You Be a 'Defective' Ant?

Here's an example of how blindly following can lead to destruction, both of ourselves and of the system we work within. Cooperation is important in business, but so are clear-thinking individuals looking out for the greater good.

Ants are my favorite insect. This might seem a bit random, but there are compelling reasons why I admire this most common variety of arthropod. For starters, they’re quite capable. Despite being minuscule, they’re one of the strongest creatures relative to their size. Some ants can support up to 100 times their own weight.

Ants are also amazingly cooperative. They work together to build elaborate underground habitats, which are frequently destroyed by other animals and nature itself, but they never give up. They simply pick up the pieces, rebuild and carry on.

But there’s a darker aspect to ant behavior that I also find fascinating, and that is the ant death spiral. This occurs when a colony of ants loses its way due to a disruption in its scent trail. They start marching around each other, with each individual following the one in front of him, until they become locked into a circular mill. Ants involved in a death spiral will continue to circle each other until they all die. Sounds gruesome, but how many times have you witnessed a similar situation (figuratively speaking, of course) in your business? It’s easy to see what can happen when an organization gets so set on a certain way of doing things that change — and improvement — become nearly impossible.

But ants sometimes do escape the death spiral. For this to happen, it takes a couple of brave ants to wander off on their own and break the cycle. When they do, the colony often resets itself and marches off in a new direction together. But it couldn’t happen without those mavericks who were able to see the big picture and break from the system. They know that blindly and doggedly following can be destructive, both to the individual and to the system itself.

Believe it or not, I’m not the only one who’s inspired by the behavior of ants. Jim Dorris, vice president of environmental, health and safety at United Rentals, spoke at the International Powered Access Federation’s U.S. Convention last fall about the challenges of bringing about cultural change within an organization. He brought up the ants’ death spiral and how it takes a few “defective ants” to save the colony from itself. Jim’s point was that change is a necessary part of success. But change can’t happen if those leading an organization aren’t seeing the big picture, and aren’t willing to move in new directions. So if your goal is long-term success, don’t be afraid to be a defective ant.