The Team Approach: With Teamwork Anything Is Possible

Ant farm diagram to explain house and lifecycle of an ant

This is an excerpt from The Team Approach by Steven Stowell.

Have you ever watched ants work?   Watching the ants learn how to operate and adapt to the environment is fascinating. Ants are powerful little creatures. Left unchecked, a colony of ants can cut a fairly large swath through a jungle. Ants seem to subscribe to a specific set of rules, processes, and guidelines that apparently are hard-wired to their biology and allow them to create engineering marvels.

Generally, ants live in large colonies that possess an internal structure of roles that enable them to share their food and their work. Some ants act as housekeepers, picking up trash and depositing it in a trash room; some act like the police and maintain order. Other ants are nursemaids that watch over the nursery room in the colony, and others are tunnel miners, gardeners, and herders. We find that watching the work that goes on in an anthill is the most interesting dynamic in the insect world.

In many ways, ant colonies are similar to human organizations: they work, play, and keep pets. Although small, they are incredibly strong. Often, ants will team up, two or more, to drag a caterpillar that is sev­eral times their weight back to the colony. Female ants do all the work. The males do nothing except mate with the queens (unfortunately, after mating, they die). The workers (females) clean, gather food, nurture the young, and defend the colony against external threats: lizards, toads, spiders, birds, and weather. Without question, the queen is the leader in the ant hierarchy. She starts the organization and calls the shots. Ants are so effective in their work that some scientists believe that without natural predators, there would be far too many ants to deal with on earth.

If an ant stumbles upon a good food source (grubs, sugar, honeydew, a crumb, etc.), it grabs all it can carry and heads back to the colony. Often, the ant will stop a colleague passing by; the two have an ability to com­municate with their feelers. The fortunate ant—the one that has discovered the food source—seems to say, “Hurry up and leverage the opportunity.” The teammate then picks up its pace and joins in.

Other ants are like supervisors: they urge the workers to carry as much food as possible back to the colony in their extra stomachs. These are sometimes called the “social” stomachs because ants are willing to feed others in the colony from their team stomachs. It makes the point that even lower life forms create organizations and teams with roles, structures, and processes for their leaders and members.

The word process means different things to different people. Webster defines process as something that is happening (progress or advancement of some kind). Webster also indicates that a process can be an “organic or natural series of changes lead­ing to a result; in an organization it means actions or operations directed toward a particular outcome.”

A process is a protocol, mechanism, or operation that enables the team to function at peak performance. A team’s processes are help­ful and agreed-upon activities, procedures, or methods that have been incorporated into the team’s way of conducting business. They represent a unique way of accomplishing its work or mission. Processes govern how a team goes about doing team task requirements and how team members collaborate, innovate, and achieve synergy through coordinated effort.

Processes are like the intellectual property of a team. If all the teams in an organization are brought together, along with their processes, the result is the makings of an organization’s unique, competitive advantage.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.