Ditch Time-Wasting Meetings By Turning Your Office Into An Ant Colony
Scientists have started applying lessons from how ants operate to the corporate world. The result: fewer meetings, more time working, and tasks completed much more quickly.
Ants may free us from that scourge of modern society: the meeting (and maybe even the overbearing boss).
If that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, know that scientists are serious about recruiting ants to improve human collaboration. Ants pull off remarkable feats of collective cognition and action with no one (not even the queen) running the show. Despite possessing tiny brains, the world’s roughly 11,000 species of ants regularly construct massive colonies, share food, repel intruders, and formulate efficient foraging strategies without the help of a single memo or meeting.
…Scientists at Wayne State University drafted ant-inspired algorithms to find the optimal balance between the time spent on planning and execution when moving a product from concept to market.
You need to find the sweet spot of ‘right amount of communication, at right time,’ and ‘good quality’ to make the whole work together seamlessly,” says Yang by email. Corporate teams waste significant time coordinating among different groups. Managers must always decide (usually sub-optimally) on the tradeoff between time spent in meetings (potentially wasting time) and building something (potentially locking in mistakes).
"Finding the right balance between ‘doing the work’ and ‘communicating with each other’ will achieve wonderful results in job completion time and quality," says Yang. His team’s study, which appears in the International Journal of Production Research, cut project cycle completion times by 17% (158 to 130.5 days), while raising costs by only 8%.
Yang found that it was far more efficient to make normally separate, sequential tasks (such as communication and execution) a parallel process, rather than strive to keep a perfect balance between them. This incurs some extra costs (rework and extra communication), but the system as a whole functions more efficiently.
How will all this fare in the real world? The model was necessarily oversimplified, so there are plenty of ways for it to derail in the wild.
But since humans have only worked in big teams for a few millennia (and have walked the planet for about 200,000 years), ants’ expertise working in tight-knit groups for the last 100 million years might teach us something about collaboration.