How many of us feel that we can be creative in a useful way? That we have the courage to be creative enough to enact change? Creativity isn’t a gift but a skill you can build, and it is important to do so in a sustainable manner.

Loyal to my favorite “couch” sport and to l’Equipe, an omnipotent French newspaper exclusively reporting on sports, I was raised, maybe as much as you were with clichés such as “you don’t fiddle with a winning team” or “the best jams are made in old jars”. However, one day, I listened to a radio interview of Fabien Canu, Brigitte Dédier and Jean-Luc Rougé, top Executives from the French Judo Association responsible for most of France’s Olympic gold medals, and they made clear that the overall believe was that “it was essential that we change everything whilst we win, if we want to even hope to continue to win”. 

Unbelievable! Those field experts then went against tradition and suggested changing a winning team?

As an  academic biologist, I learned about  Darwin’s theory of evolution during my time at the prestigious Henri IV preparatory school. Only those species that adapt to their environments will survive. Wasn’t he too advocating that winning teams must be changed? But Darwin didn’t do it on purpose, we know we have a better chance to survive because we naturally adapt and change to our environments. 

15 years later, as a Director of Sustainability, I discovered Ivan Gavriloff, Kaos Consulting, Ilya Prigogine and an 18-meter ant! I am referring to a practitioner (Ivan) who got his inspiration from a Belgian Nobel Prize Winner (Ilya) with regards to the way ants are able to find the honey jar without knowing how to get there in the first place.

The main lessons were: 

  1. To succeed in the long run, you need to change constantly
  2. There’s at least one simple method to change and innovate

Such a method finds its base in Ilya Prigogine’s famous ant experience. Prigogine observed how (hungry) ants manage to find food, regardless of conditions or terrain.

This reminds me of another famous experience by NASA in the 1990s, illustrating how effective ants can be. Several scientists invented a giant bubble to recreate Earth’s natural ecosystem intended to help humans survive in a self-sufficient manner in space.  The experience failed quickly and volunteers were evacuated in a rush as it seemed that ants managed to enter an environment that was designed to be airtight.

Going back to the food search method. Firstly, ants are always hungry. They know what they are looking for. And when they find food, they are not picky! It’s not easy to change when what you are searching for is abundantly available. It is however necessary to adapt when your environment changes and there is nothing that you can do about it.

Secondly, ants operate in groups. One ant acting alone will fail.

Thirdly, ants behave frantically, communicate excessively, and pay attention. Consider this. 

  • Frantic behaviour: According to biologists, ants move in all directions and they do so quickly. Despite that, they never put themselves at risk or commit suicide; and they often return empty handed. But then they try again. They hardly lose anybody in the process and they  always return to base. This means they consider their environment and context. They explore with focus and a concrete objective in mind. They don’t explore for fun or leisure. Innovation for ants is not about artistic creation.
  • Excessive communication: Ants appear to communicate constanly thanks to pheromones, a chemical substance they produce. With it, they tell their community where they went and the traces they leave in the process serve as clues for further exploration to others. They learn from each other. The more there are, the more efficient they become.
  • Attention: As they pay attention to the messages of other ants, it eventually only takes one ant to find the Eldorado through this organised, yet frantic movement and to bring the information back to the community.

Would you say that this ant is a champion and the others are pathetic losers? Does this ant deserve medals and the Queen’s official gratitude whilst every other is shamed and blamed? Of course not. (Any resemblance of this example to human management methods is a pure coincidence!)

Let’s get back to our ants. After a new source of food is discovered, the route is quickly jammed with well-informed ants. It is rapidly optimised until a new source is found, and this  process gets repeated endlessly.

So, what ultimate and universal lessons are there to be learned from observing ant’s behaviour in looking for food?

It is clear that innovation and creativity is not a gift. I would first and foremost consider innovation to be a system or culture. It is know-how or behavior that is shared by a group. Creative skills are useful (and sometimes very necessary) but they rarely help us in reaching the end goal. It is the collective system that helps us get there. A collective system of innovation and exploration must be set up. If it is a matter of genetics for ants, it is a cultural matter for humans. And it may take time if you start from scratch.

Such a system requires a clear vision and a shared objective. Any relevant objective depends both on who we are, what we need (our “raison d’être”) and what we wish to become. It is predicated on collective wisdom; the belief  that everyone counts and that each and every member that is lost exploring, is theoretically a loss to the system. This wisdom also means that each member adapts to their respective contexts and reacts with their immediate surroundings; and is not directed only by  the pre-established plan of a Grand Master. Lean experts will notice evidence of application but it may be pure blasphemy for adepts of Taylor’s Theorem.

Now, consider the following three concepts enacted by ants and possibly applicable to innovation leadership.

First, Authority no longer dictates action. It might potentially help to explain why; to explain how action may be taken; and ensure the system’s integrity (just like ants) but no ant waits for orders before it starts searching for food.

Secondly, It is powerful to mobilise people. Every brain is useful to the collective quest. The craziest brains (there are more of them than we might think) can express themselves freely unless their ideas are immediately broken by “experts”. If you upset or humiliate an exploratory, you lose a powerful resource for the quest; or worse, you create an opponent. Everything must be stated, especially failures. Our rational education hasn’t prepared us for such a collective, transparent mindset. It can be a major obstacle to sustainable innovation effort.

Thirdly, the system must provide the right conditions for analysis and listening to correct and move forward. You must keep crazy ideas alive in different contexts as the company evolves. Every ant is crazy but none actually wants to walk through a firewall. The collective wisdom helps us find new, more promising ways. Every idea and piece of information must be considered and discussed for everyone to make progress. There is nothing messy about it.

Local coordination is an effective communication tool, ears as much as the mouth, is essential for success. We listen to others’ failures  and we learn to go one step further. And maybe, just maybe, one of the team will find the Holy Grail and share it. 

Now, consider the role and talents of the female leader  in this scenario. The role of the female leader isn’t that of Queen Victoria or Cleopatra anymore! In my experience, both hands-on and academic management styles are applicable as effective female leaders set the company raison d’être straight, she puts forward one or more relevant objectives, and shares them with the many, all the time. Keep in mind that collective wisdom finds its roots in quantity; quality comes there after. 

Then, the female leader writes down (or writes with), embodies and protects the collective wisdom system. Period.

Naturally, in a mature company, the female leader may eventually play the ant role through doing some exploration of her own. Remember that quantity matters! However, the results of her explorations cannot be more important than those of other ants, but it is often the female leader who understands the power of collective effort and collaboration well. 

Finally, consider that a culture of innovation isn’t any different from the culture of a company that proves to be agile, free thinking, or open-minded. The innovation department isn’t a lab for crazy stuff; it’s a school that teaches how to support those who search.

Let’s hope that the search will always be sustainable and green!