For those of you that are familiar with my nine step approach to complex problem solving will know just how seriously I take the subject of decision making, in fact I devote a whole step to it. I place a lot of emphasis on deciding up front how the decision will be made and who exactly should take it. Depending upon the type of decision and its urgency I put forward various possibilities of approach. But this week I learned a new much simpler way and it has got me thinking as to how I could make it work within my client’s organization structures.

Imagine this. Imagine that you are looking to rent an apartment, obviously you will map some specific criteria: location (convenience and safety), price per month, number of bedrooms, oil fired or gas central heating and so on. Once you have your criteria and have viewed a few choices that fit, you then begin the difficult phase of weighing up one option against the other. This process is not so difficult if you are the only person going to live in the apartment, but imagine you were looking for a head office location for a multi-national company with desk space for 2000 administrators. What if I told you there is another way, an easier and more efficient way?

This week Dr. Elva Robinson of Bristol University offered a valid alternative to our clumsy decision making processes. She deducts from her observations that you simply need to elect a scout to go out and find a location and not to bother to compare alternatives at all.

Basically the idea is that you simply look until you find a location that meets all your criteria and move in! But that’s impossible I hear you say, and indeed it probably is for humans, but ants do this all the time. By gluing radio transmitters to the backs of 2000 rock ants Dr. Elva’s students discovered that ants appoint ‘estate agents’ that go out and look for a new nest when the old one gets close to becoming unfit for purpose. The ant agents have the full approval of the colony, they have very specific criteria and when they find something suitable the whole colony moves in and gets on with the required building and alterations. No debates, no board meetings, contracts or lawyers, just simple delegation and logical decision making.

In fact us humans are pretty bad at decision taking. If we are given multiple alternatives we may begin by approaching the topic logically, but more often than not, at the last minute we mess everything up by taking a completely irrational decision based upon instinct or a seemingly completely irrelevant criteria point, always trying to justify it to ourselves afterwards, especially if it turns out to be a bad one.

Now, if you are thinking that an ant colony is a much more straightforward structure than a business, you should look a little closer. It certainly is much more efficient and effective. I think us humans can learn a thing or two about delegation and decision making from Dr. Robinson and her study on ants. After all, she reminds us that there are probably more ants in the world than humans – that has to be some measure of success? After we have screwed up the environment so much that we become extinct, I wouldn’t mind supposing that Rock ants will still be around taking the right decisions for their long term well being and safety.

Now it’s back to advising my clients and guiding them into bringing in the right criteria and methodology to ensure they take the right decisions. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

Have a good week,
Harley