We don’t hear that from manufacturers who consider their representatives to be their partners, but companies with a top-down management philosophy sometimes complain that representatives push back when they are told exactly how to accomplish that principal’s goals.
A character flaw on the part of representatives? Or a virtue that protects overly top-down managers from undermining their own companies’ success?
A popular problem-solving computer algorithm called Ant Colony Optimization that takes its name and principles from nature may give us the answer as to whether day-to-day operations are best guided from headquarters or from the field.
When ants leave the colony to search in the field for food, they start their journey randomly, leaving behind a trail of pheromones that slowly evaporates. And when ants come across the trails of pheromones from other ants they follow the trail that is strongest and therefore the most recent.
As ants find food and carry it back to the colony, they double back on their own trails, leaving behind even more pheromones. And, of course, the shorter the round trip, the less the pheromones dissipate.
That strong pheromone trail attracts even more ants, which bring back more food and further reinforce the pheromone trail. (See Figure 1.)
Note that the queen of the ant colony has no role in telling ants where to go look for food in the field. That’s a job for the ants that actually spend time in the field.
The most impressive aspect of this self-organizing, field-driven system is demonstrated when ants encounter a fresh obstacle. (See Figure 2.)
Ants then randomly turn left or right to bypass the obstacle. (See Figure 3.)
The pheromone trail of ants that took the shortest path is refreshed more quickly than the trail of ants who took the longest path, so the shortest path is the most attractive and ants quickly abandon the longer path. (See Figure 4.)
The only instructions the ants receive is “bring food.” No step-by-step instructions from headquarters are required; it is up to the ants to sniff out the most efficient path to quickly bring the most food back to the colony. And the queen never tells them to go look under the third shrub from the left and report back with their results.