Imagine for a moment that an organizational leader walks into the company cafeteria and announces that the organization has a challenge that needs to be solved. He describes the problem and walks away. All the employees then start moving. They activate individually and in teams to come up with a solution to the problem. A week later all the employees once again come together in the café to share and compare their solutions. This exchange of ideas eventually results in a solution that will work for the company. The positional leader is present to hear and receive the recommendation from the employees. The leader accepts the idea and starts implementing it. The following week the leader returns with a new challenge to solve, and the process starts again.

Does this sound crazy? If you are having a hard time believing that something like this could happen in your organization, you are probably not alone. However impossible the above example might seem, nature shows us many examples of this dynamic as a normal behavioral practice.

Learning from bees and ants

Thomas Seeley wrote a book titled Honeybee Democracy (2010) where he describes how bees communicate the location of a good source of nectar or a new site for a hive. For example, when a beehive starts to swarm, the colony needs to find a new location for a hive – a problem that is shared and understood. Scout bees proceed to fly out to find new sites. When they return, they engage in a dance of wiggling their bottoms and positioning themselves in the hive to provide directions to others who want to go explore this possibility. This dance of the bee scouts is designed to attract interest in the new possible site so that other bees can assess its appropriateness for the hive. As more bees visit these locations, the dance of the site creates supporters, and they join the dance until a final consensus of destination is reached.

Ants also use a process like this to find food. As they leave the anthill, they drop a pheromone trail that helps them find their way back. If they find food in their foraging, they strengthen their pheromone trail on the return trip. As other ants leave the colony, they seek out pheromone trails that are stronger because strong trails indicate food for the colony. The ants aren’t micromanaged or directed to do specific tasks. Finding food isn’t left to a few “ant positional leaders.” Ants are purpose-driven to find food and unleashed to explore until they are successful. Anyone who has observed an ant trail at a picnic has seen this dynamic.

If nature can do it, why can’t we?

If bees and ants can self-organize to find resources and solve problems, we, too, can unleash this same level of self-organization to serve the higher purpose of our organizations. What are we doing that diminishes this behavior? As human beings, we have consciousness, larger brains and the capacity to care for something bigger. And yet, we create hierarchical structures, supervision, control mechanisms and processes that diminish this active engagement by our staff members. Our need to control others can get in the way of employees’ capacity for self-organization.

Nature gives us living examples of how other species create engagement in efficient and effective ways. These are lessons we can learn and apply to our organizations, assuming we are curious enough to find unseen solutions.