People Skydive–or: We Definitely Aren’t Ants

I’ve read a great deal of literature about self-organizing as the most natural method of organizing.

Writers like Meg Wheatley (Leadership & The New Science), Steven Johnson (Emergence) and Deborah Gordon (Ants at Work) have spent decades studying ants and termites, various herding animals and even groves of trees, and have come to the conclusion that self-organization has long been found in nature. Various insects and other living organisms coordinate, somehow, without any management or leadership whatsoever.

Which poses the question: first, if it’s a natural method of organizing, why is it so rarely seen in organizations? Second, if ants can do it, why is it so difficult for us humans? I mean, ants have a brain the size of…well…an ant brain! They have, comparatively, no intelligence whatsoever. Yet they accomplish SO MUCH without a leader at all. Must be easy, right?


Because people skydive.

The thing is, humans, with all their superior intelligence, also have this thing called “rational thought”. Ask yourself: is it smart to skydive? If you’ve gone skydiving, don’t take that the wrong way; it’s not intended to be critical of skydivers. Rather, it’s intended to point out that, if we are hard-wired as a living species to self-preserve (that is, we’re designed with this internal drive to keep ourselves alive), then why would anyone get in an airplane, fly up a few thousand feet, then jump out—only to land right back at the spot where they started? There’s no real potential benefit associated with jumping out, and a WHOLE LOT of potential downside.

You don’t see ants skydiving, do you? Or termites—or even monkeys. We humans have this incredible ability to override our natural tendency toward self-preservation. We want the “rush” that comes along with skydiving, so we override the natural instinct that says “REALLY DANGEROUS!! DON’T JUMP OUT OF AIRPLANES (unless they’re on fire)”.

And if we’re able to override that instinct for self-preservation because it’s fun, then we must be able to override an instinct for, say, interpersonal conflict—because it’s NOT fun. That’s the hardest part of Self-Management: the responsibility to address inappropriate behavior. And approaching someone that’s doing something inappropriate is most assuredly NOT fun. So we rationalize our way out of it.

And if we can rationalize our way out of interpersonal conflict because it’s not fun, then it stands to reason that we can rationalize our way out of coming to work on time, and working efficiently on a consistent basis, and spending company money judiciously.

Ants can’t do that. They can’t turn off the work ethic; it’s just built in. And they can’t decide to steal or to ignore other slackers. It’s pretty easy to organize when you get rid of rational thought.

But then in the absence of rational thought—which brings with it creativity and innovation, we’d never progress. So I’m not advocating “turning off” the rational part of our minds. But I am making the case that business has traditionally used management as a “police force” to keep employees from mis-applying their ability to think rationally.

The question, though, is this: is there a more effective way? Self-Management makes the case that there is. In fact, one of the fundamental principles of Self-Management is that colleagues in the Self-Managed organization have an obligation to address behavior that detracts from the enterprise mission. In essence, it’s self-regulating.

It means that instead of one pair of eyes charged with safeguarding the enterprise, EVERY eye is charged with safeguarding the enterprise. Seems like it might be an advantageous concept!

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on March 20, 2009.