Knowing the rules is valuable. If you don’t know the rules they can’t help you with short-cuts to what is already known. Rules contain knowledge. Rules are made of experience, and much of that experience is useful but knowing when to mess with the rules is critical to successful adaptability.
Rules may include prejudice or mistaken beliefs. Behaviour learned in one set of circumstances may be ill-suited to new challenges. Even when tradition works, human history suggests a desire to find a better way, and the ability of some of us to actually find a better way. We can create better rules.
Rules allow us to work together effectively. The 90% of behaviour we share is what allows us to communicate and collaborate; while, crucially, the other 10% is what allows us to adapt successfully to new challenges and opportunities.
Like us, ants have routines for dealing with the day to day of existence. Like us, they create complex systems with simple rules. And like us, to thrive they must break those rules when faced with disturbances and threats.
If ants only have seconds to adapt, then the adaptation may happen at the individual level. There is no time for other ants to change what they are doing. But if there’s a little more time or the teams that work with the ant are very responsive, they try to adapt as a group.
If ants have days or months to adapt they may allocate tasks differently in response to differences in the environment. Each new generation receives a role when young and these roles can change so that new ants learn new rules for dealing with new situations or with existing situations in better ways.
With more time, adaptation can take place at the level of the colony which institutionalises the new behaviours and roles. There may be changes in the direction of production and prioritisation of reproduction, recruitment, and on-the-job training. Older ants coach - and mentor - younger ants.
These changes may spread to other colonies leading to community (market or market) changes. And finally over generations there can be genetic changes that include the new ways of behaving and new skills for thriving in the semi-permanent traits of individuals, groups, and the organization.
Consider your own efforts: How can you get people ready, able and willing to adapt in the very short term? How can an individual get colleagues and resources involved in flexible ways to deal with short or medium term threats? And what can you start, or stop, doing that will put you in a better position to win in the longer term?
Max Mckeown is the author of The Strategy Book, The Innovation Book & Adaptability.