Ants and Systems Thinking

I remember being at school - I think I must have been about six years old - when a friend, David, suggested we follow a line of ants on the ground to see where they led to.

So we started off. I picked one ant and followed it as it slowly wended its way across the terrain, zigging and zagging, bumping into other ants, as ants are prone to do. It was slow progress, watching that ant. But, sure enough, I eventually arrived at a busy hole in the ground where ants were streaming in and out. Ant ground zero.

Meanwhile, David had finished ages ago. He’d been waiting for me as I wandered, head down, following my one ant. He’d simply followed the line.

That insight - following the ant vs. following the line - is something I’ve never forgotten. It took me a while to understand the importance of it. When you follow the ant, you get to understand and appreciate that one individual ant. It’s slow, intimate work. If you ‘zoom out’ to look for the larger system at play, you can see the patterns, and you can predict where the ants will go. 

Both approaches give you insight. Just a different type of insight. I think too often we can get caught up in the minutiae of individual events, and we forget to look for the larger system at play that shapes those events. Culture. Rules. Norms. Policies. Background. History. Those types of things.

For much of my earlier career, I reckon I was an ant-follower. My passion for developing people meant I did a lot of coaching and mentoring of individual leaders and change-makers. Over the years, all of this work has helped me to discern the broader systems at play, the patterns that play out and the conditions that create them. And I’ve become more interested in not only how to shape the ants, but the system that shapes the ants’ behaviour. 

Systemic forces will always overcome individual willpower. If we want to change how we, and others, behave, then we’ll do well to learn to see the systems at play. This is what effective change-makers do.

Here are some questions you can ask to make ‘seeing your system’ easier:

  • What are the forces at play right now that are influencing what people choose to do and say, or not do and say?
  • Under what conditions do things seem to flow easily, where work just gets done? Under what conditions does the opposite happen?
  • What are the rules of the game here? What assumptions or beliefs do people hold that influence their behaviours?
  • What are the “no-go areas” – the lines that shall not be crossed?

Listen for words, look for body language. Notice what you notice. Write it down. Stand back from your thoughts and look for the patterns. Over time, with practice, you’ll develop an instinct for it.

For more like this, check out:

Commitment + Systems = Change

Work with the Patterns

Photo by Radovan Zierik from Pexels

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