“How can you optimize a system that’s error-prone?”
As humans, we are fallable. In our efforts to achieve, produce, and progress, we make mistakes, we misjudge, we stumble.
Any enterprise that involves humans will, by definition, be imperfect. But is that really such a bad thing? When it comes to optimization and effiency, there are five surprising but critical lessons we can learn from the humble ant.
Richard Feynman had an ant problem. They had infested his home in Pasadena, California. He noticed them one day walking in a straight line around the rim of his bath tub. A naturally curious person, he wondered to himself why they were able to walk in such a straight line.
So instead of reaching for a can of Raid, he went and got a lump of sugar. He put the sugar on the far edge of the bath tub and then waited for the ants to find it. After a few hours, one stumbled upon the prize, grabbed a chunk, and headed for home.
As it did so, Feynman marked the route it traveled with a colored pencil. The path he traced was anything but straight; he described it as being “quite wiggly” and full of errors.
Before long, a second ant appeared, following the ragged trail to the sugar. Once he found it, he too raced back to the colony with his prize. Feynman traced its path with a different colored pencil, and noted something remarkable.
In its haste to return, this second ant repeatedly lost and re-found the trail of the first. Many of this second ant’s new pathways turned out to be shortcuts, straightening the path of the first ant.
More ants appeared, and Feynman traced their paths with new colored pencils, and each time the trail became straighter and more direct.
Robert Moor presents this story in his excellent book On Trails, an absorbing look at how paths form, why some grow while others fade, and what makes us follow them or decide to strike out on our own.
But what I found intriguing is what we can learn about optimization from our little friends. Teamwork and error combine to make a batter path. Here is what I think we can learn from our ant friends.
Lessons in Optimization
Always be seeking. You won’t find the sugar if you’re not out looking for it. And not just you, but your whole team. The more of you out there looking, the better your chances of finding something worth finding.
Seeking as an individual means developing yourself personally, reading widely, and exposing yourself to the new and the different. And within your team, be intentional – do you have anyone doing some experimenting? Trying different paths, looking for something new? Maybe it’s time to get out of the rut.
Every ant matters. The optimized path the ants ultimately developed did not come as a result of a centrally directed master plan dictated by an all-knowing ant-king. It came incrementally over time, crafted bit by bit by very common, ordinary ants just trying to do their job.
The best leaders are able to do the same by leveraging the minds and skills of everyone on the team. The greatest folly is to believe that the best solutions can only come from the leader. If everything depends on you, it might be time to rethink your leadership approach.
It’s the goal, not the path. The ant paths straightened because the ants had the right focus. The goal was not to follow a certain path, it was to get the sugar back to the colony. When they stumbled upon a new, better path, they were quick to follow it. This rapid adaptation allowed more ants to move more sugar more quickly.
When your team has a clear and common understanding of the vision and goals, you can give them the flexibilty to try new ways of getting there.
Errors can be good. The ant trail only became more efficient because of the errors and corrections of the ants traveling on it in the effort to fulfill their mission.
When teammates make errors, don’t be too hasty to discipline and correct. First, consider why. If their effort was aligned with the vision and goal, think of the error as a useful signpost, “Detour” or “Road Closed.” Reflect on what you can learn from the error, and use that knowledge to point you in the direction of the straighter paths.
Share the knowledge. Ants that find food leave a pheromone trail behind them as they head back to the nest. This glowing scent path not only signals that they found something good, but also shows the others how to find it.
A high-performing team will do the same. It can be tempting to hoard information to preserve position or power, but those are not the actions of a true teammate. When all share equally for the benefit of all, the whole team reaps the reward.
Optimization – The Takeaway
The ant method for blazing a trail is error-prone. But it’s error-prone by design. Through those errors, the path becomes straighter, more efficient. Without those errors, their path would never optimize, and they would waste time and effort bringing food back to the colony.
Writing about those ants, Richard Feynman likened what he saw to the idea of sketching. You draw a line, but it’s not quite right, so you go over it again and again, refining it until it begins to resemble what you were trying to draw.
It’s the process of error and constant refinement that results in the greatest efficiency.
Feynman went on to win the Nobel Prize, not in entomology, but in Physics. Maybe we can take a hint from the way his mind seems to work.
Pay attention to little things, be curious, and try to learn from the seemingly ordinary all around us.
And as leaders, encourage curiosity in others, make well-intentioned errors, and always look for a better path.