Of ants and omelettes


David Beckham would find it hard to explain the physics behind his free-kicks. It can be equally difficult to analyse the reasons why some firms are more successful than others

Is David Beckham a physics genius? A winning free kick involves a complex pattern of turbulence and spin which can be modelled in a wind tunnel. This is the basis of the deceptive trajectories achieved by great players such as Beckham.

But he is clearly not a physics genius. And if you ask him how he plays so well, you find he does not really know. Some people have innate talent for football, which can be honed through experience. The process of selecting footballers in schools, at club level and for national teams ensures that top level players have exceptional abilities.

These talented players do not always get it right. England came home early from Japan because David Seaman’s mixture of instinct and calculation went wrong. But top footballers get it right far more often than other people.

It is not just footballers who have instinctive skills. Physicists and physiologists struggle to explain how Greg Rusedski can serve at 140 mph. Madame Poulard cooked for visitors to Mont St Michel for 50 years, and her omelettes were the best in France. Eventually, Elizabeth David reports, she was persuaded to disclose her recipe. “You whisk the eggs, you throw them in the pan, you stir constantly. I hope this recipe gives you pleasure.”

People can be good at doing things without knowing how or why. We keep turning for inspiration to the biographies and autobiographies of business leaders, but we are always disappointed. These heroes chose good people, they motivated them well, they faced reality and they made tough decisions. Their prescriptions are the equivalent of Mme Poulard’s recipe. As Ronaldo explains, you just have to kick the ball exactly right.

That does not mean you cannot learn, or that analysis will not improve your game or your cooking. But you are more likely to learn from Elizabeth David than from Mme Poulard, because the skills of understanding and explanation are not the same as the skills of action.

There is an explanation in physics of a Beckham free kick, yet Beckham scores without any knowledge of that physics. Because we want to believe that we control the environment in which we live, we are reluctant to accept that both these things can be true. Yet birds do not fly well because of their understanding of aerodynamics, and roses are beautiful because selective propagation refined an already beautiful flower into perfect shapes and colours. For centuries, theologians argued that the complexity of nature proved the existence of God, until Darwin demonstrated that natural selection could produce marvels of complexity and efficiency far beyond the scope of any human intelligence.

Business has yet to meet its Darwin. Most business writers will tell you that successful organisations implement the design of their visionary leader. But there are many resemblances between the business world and the biological world. Large modern corporations like GE or Shell are as much the production of evolution as design.

Ant colonies are miracles of social organisation. Ants fetch and carry, they reproduce, they co-operate in doing these things, and they employ a division of labour and an allocation of roles as sophisticated as any complex economy. When Walt Disney makesA Bug’s Life, its writers see the colony in the same way as Michael Eisner sees the Walt Disney company. A queen ant determines the overall strategy and controls a hierarchy of implementation in which supervisor ants give instructions to their workers.

But biologists know otherwise. They watch ants carrying food back to the nest. No one has told the ants to do this. The queen is the biological mother of the colony, but she does not rule it and is not directing it. She is simply waiting to be fed and to breed. The worker ants communicate with each other through chemical signals.

If the ants were to make a film about Disney, they would probably impose an ant’s view of the world on the business just as Disney imposes its view of the world on the ant colony. The ant writers would see myriad workers bustling round Disney’s theme parks and studios, making the organisation hum with their energy, signalling to each other what to do, and constantly delivering food to the nest at Disney HQ. Can we be absolutely sure that the Disney version is right and the ants’ version is wrong? Is Eisner the directing intelligence who presides over all that happens, or the queen who sits below an organisation in which spontaneous order is generated by the co-operative actions of many individuals?

We want to say that Beckham is a physics genius because we cannot handle a Darwinian explanation. We anthropomorphise business organisations – General Electric is Jack Welch or Jeff Immelt, Microsoft is Bill Gates – for the same reasons we anthropomorphise the ant colony. It is hard to accept that good businesses work well because many individual people come together, work out systems of local organisation and adapt to the changing environment as ants do. It is more reassuring to believe that some controlling genius understands and controls the complex whole. But business leaders can no more do that than Beckham can run long computer programmes in his head.

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