Ants Don’t Satisfice.

I stumbled across a new report on ants that is –not to mix metaphors–getting some buzz. Here it is in a nutshell: researcher’s out of Arizona University (and this source says from Japan) painted tiny dots on ants which were the size of a capital I then used timed cameras to take 5 minute snapshots of ant activity. Turns out that about 3% of the ants were always working, 75% of the ants worked about half the time and a full 25% were never working. Researchers postulate that lazy ants are nature’s way of building in some overflow capacity.

Overflow capacity is something that Emergency Managers often have to grapple with– our jobs are a bit “feast and famine” one minute filled with routine, slow moving projects, and the next filled with urgent 24/7 tasks. How fast we are able to fill the sudden and unpredictable work surge caused by a disaster is directly related to how much suffering our community endures. So looking at how ants handle surges in work could be interesting to both emergency and business managers alike focused on being as efficient as possible. Computer Scientists have known for a little while that machines and mechanical systems work better if they have a little surplus capacity built in. Maybe the same is true for humans and human systems. In fact, the benefits of lazy teammates or what sociologists call “social loafing” is coming into vogue in management literature. One notable book is “Slack” which argues in part that some laziness in the system can prevent burnout.

However, if my time in the workforce is any indication, people who are “lazy” will always be lazy. Work surge doesn’t trickle down to the laziest worker who picks up the slack, instead, the non-lazy workers take on the extra work and begin “satisficing” or using shortcuts to satisfy the need with a solution that is sufficient and satisfactory rather than optimal. This is, in practicality, the corollary of Parkinson’s Law which states “work expands to fill the time allotted to it”.

While researching for this topic, I found an archived Economist report from 1955 when (apparently) Parkinson’s Law was new and cool. The author postulates a mathematical formula which calculates the rate of bureaucratic growth and explains why–despite hiring more people–the work never seems to lessen. In fact, in an era when the British empire was contracting slowly over time with fewer ships and fewer colonies to administrate, the number of workers in Whitehall increased by the same rate year after year. (It’s a bit of a cheeky read; I highly recommend it.) The same is true, anecdotally, in America.

So how do you build surplus capacity in your team without allowing the team’s work to expand to fill it with extra, mundane meetings and mountains of meaningless memos? Maybe you don’t. Maybe time-wasting meetings is the computer equivalent of unused RAM. Or maybe you start by re-evaluating your own workload before hiring another assistant. Do you REALLY need one or are you being a lazy ant?

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*Author’s Note* I want to be sympathetic toward many, many private industry workers who are indeed having to do more work with much less as hours and coworkers are cut. Some blame minimum wage raises, some blame Obamacare, and others blame greedy corporations. But that’s a whole different post.