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Pamela Whitby catches up with theoretical physicist Joerg Esser who has been drawing inspiration from insect colonies to help businesses act more flexibly

If anything can be learnt from Brexit, Donald Trump’s rise to power and, most recently, the UK’s hung Parliament following a snap general election it is this: humans are complicated.

So what then is the point of trying to apply the highly orchestrated, genetically encoded approach of insect colonies to the complex world of business, and the people that inhabit it?

This is something that many scientists have been working to understand. Theoretical physicist Joerg Esser, who we interviewed back in March, is one. Since leaving Thomas Cook in October last year, he has been drawing inspiration from research into the behaviour of ants and honeybees. From this, he has now extracted five practical rules that can be applied by business leaders today.

“There is so much advice out there – be agile, focus on teams, focus on the network. I look at things from an operational perspective and so I really wanted to answer the question: what exactly do I have to do to counter these ‘fluffy’ challenges of, for example, being more agile…”

Esser’s five rules, coined ‘Simple Smarts’, are the result of these efforts, though he is quick to point out that they differ from the ‘swarm smarts’ that apply to insect colonies.

“We need something different, because we are different. We humans have certain features that ants or honeybees don’t have that we are rightly proud of and cherish.  So, it is more about looking to ants or honeybees for inspiration, rather than simply playing copycat,” he explains.

Joerg Esser speaking on a panel at a recent EyeforTravel event. He will share insights into Simple Smarts later this year in Amsterdam.  

Behind the rules, there is the overarching principle of building towards a network-based organisation, rather than one governed purely by organisational charts.

In essence two principles apply:

  • Less is more – what ants demonstrate, is that rules can be very powerful

  • More is different – change doesn’t come from big bang, change comes from repetitive implementation of those rules

‘Simple smarts’, Esser argues, can be applied today but they are just the starting point. Every business is different and so each will require a bespoke, customised set of business rules based on the bottlenecks that are identified.

Let’s take a closer look at the five rules that are designed for organisations that need to act flexibly.

1. Anchor purpose

Classic businesses are often defined by organisational charts, whichshow the internal structure of an organisation, and highlight various roles and responsibilities and the inter-relationship between them. If the intent is to move to a less rigid operational set up, as Esser believes is necessary for success in turbulent markets, then it is critical to ensure that the organisation doesn’t fall apart.

The ‘anchoring purpose’ rule is, therefore, about spelling out the company’s strategy and the mission. Questions that might be asked include: where is the company going, what are its goals and its purpose?

Though the challenges may be different, this rule applies to both startups and big corporations. Why? Because in startups teams often have plenty of ideas and are torn in multiple directions. On the other hand, big corporations face the challenge of every department rigidly sticking to their knitting.

Esser cites SouthWest Airlines’ decision to position itself as the low cost airline a couple of decades ago as an example of the US carrier spelling out an ambition and a purpose. It doesn’t even need to be comprehensive, he says, but it must be clearly stated and understood by everybody in the organisation.

Booking.com is another example of a company that has successfully anchored purpose. In consistently maintaining focus and simplicity, it has continued to spot opportunities while not deviating from its core goal of planning the customer journey.  

Better that, in today’s market, than being a jack-of-all-trades.

2. Debate and test diverse hypotheses

To apply this rule, you have to start from the position that everything you do is a hypothesis, not that you have an “expert gut feel”.

In many corporations, business has been driven from the inside out, argues Esser. In these environments, the ‘expert’ knows, for example, what is best for the customer, where the customer should go this summer, what colour the website tabs should be and so on. There is no room for debate, the thinking being that if a leader has been made responsible for something then he or she needs to be in control. The assumption is that the expert knows best, or they wouldn’t have been made a leader.

The top-down, expert-knows-best approach is fundamentally flawed in turbulent markets where it’s just not possible to know it all

This top-down, expert-knows-best approach, argues Esser, is “fundamentally flawed in turbulent markets where it’s just not possible to know it all”. Here there is a need for flexibility, which is what the Simple Smarts are for.

Drawing inspiration from the collective action of ants and honeybees, Esser believes the solution lies in crowdsourcing. You only have to watch the marching ant army working together to build a street to an identified food source to see how inherently against top-down leadership this process is. 

On companies applying this trend, Esser cites Expedia, booking.com and Amazon as examples. They start with a hypothesis, which is then A-B tested, and if no decision can be extracted from the data, then they debate. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos puts it, to move things along you need ‘disagree and commit,’ and with an obsessive focus on the customer.

The lesson from this, says Esser, is “if the CEO is the only one who knows what the final decision will be, the organisation will lean back.”

Instead, you need all eyes wide open and bodies ready to work together!

3. Solve problems in flexibly staffed teams

In the ant world, nobody gives orders, and job descriptions are fluid. If a food source is found, for example, an ant acting as a forager may become a bridge builder, or a nest scout a housekeeper. Colonies work for the benefit of the common good and assemble teams accordingly; there is no hierarchy. Even the Queen ant has no control, other to fulfill her role as breeder.

Not so in classic organisations with humans in charge. Here tasks, such as the launch of a new product or service, are allocated to a specific department that is given responsibility to execute. Yes, the team may be asked to realign the decisions taken at some point, but in essence this is where it begins and ends.

In an ideal set up, argues Esser, you would do away with the org chart, establish the goal or problem, identify what skills are needed and from day one flexibly staff teams to meet those needs. It absolutely makes sense, he says, to pool skills from different departments - marketing, finance, distribution, and so on.

This is already happening in certain organisations.  Apple, for example, never had a single department leading the development of the iPhone; instead they work as a ‘network of teams’. At EyeforTravel’s recent European Summit Neal Lathia, Senior Data Scientist, Skyscanner explained how they operate in tribes to deliver on projects quickly and effectively. Voyages-sncf.com’s COO Arnaud Masson also said flexible development teams were a business priority.

This is not to say that organisational charts don’t have a function. “They are useful in that people do need homes, and it’s helpful to know who to go to when you want to go on holiday,” says Esser. But when it comes to solving business problems “they are not much use”.

4. Minimise leaders influence

Aside from her role as reproducer, the Queen ant is totally irrelevant. There is no need for the queen to ‘anchor purpose’ (smart rule 1) because the way ant colonies function as teams is genetically encoded. Even ants operating independently are working for the greater good. However, as we all know, humans are a little more complicated – they have their own agendas.

Esser strongly believes that while the influence of leaders is always significant, they should have minimal involvement in daily operations.

“They need to make use of crowdsourcing and facilitate debate, not stifle it,” he says.

In addition, leaders need to infuse common purpose and strategy, nurture trust, and create safe environments where people are able to speak out.

“Those tasks are huge in themselves, and practically speaking, if they do all that right they should have no time to be fussed about whether a button on a website is red or green,” he says.

5. De-clutter

‘Declutter’ is about reflecting on what the bottlenecks are in a particular organisation, and immediately taking steps to eliminate those.

The purpose of this rule is to ensure that nothing is standing in the way of the company’s overall purpose or goal. It’s about defining what the organisation should and should not do, identifying bottlenecks and creating more specific rules to address these.

In practice, an organisation might, for example, agree to stop following an administrative process unless everybody considered it useful. So, for example, if a two-hour weekly meeting is considered a time waster, then a de-cluttering rule could be that the it will be skipped if there are no clear agenda points, or that it will be immediately stopped if people aren’t prepared.

“This rule is useful in triggering healthy debate and getting people to explain things more clearly,” says Esser.

Want to hear more about becoming more flexible in a turbulent market place? Join us in Amsterdam November 29-30 where Joerg Esser will be sharing more detailed insights

Smart Travel Data Summit 2017

November 2017, Amsterdam

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