IA Summit: Lessons from Slime Mold: How to Survive and Thrive in Ever-Changing Organizational Environments

Posted on: March 28, 2009

slime mold
Slime Mold

Kate Rutter gave a wonderfully passionate, informative, interactive, and engaging talk on what we can learn from slime mold. I loved her use of slime mold as a metaphor for our work environments, and also how she looked to nature to solve very human problems. I have always held the belief that many human breakthrough’s have occurred when we have turned to and learned from nature.

Throughout the talk, Kate recommended a few books:
Evocative Objects: Things We Think With by Sherry Turkle

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Stephen Johnson

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

Here are my notes from the amazing talk:

Kate started out the talk by first telling us that slime mold are amazing because they are in constant conversation with the environment. When the environment is nourishing, the slime mold are thriving as multiple separate organisms. If the environment looses its abundance and is only able to sustain the slime mold, then the slime mold begin to signal each other and cluster. If the environment reaches a critical stage and is starving, then the slime mold form into slugs and attempt to survive.

After explaining this concept, Kate had the audience reenact the slime mold life cycle. A few volunteers were wearing white hotel robes to represent the slime mold, while the rest of the audience was the forest floor. The “forest” floor help up our hand when we were nourishing and the “slime mold” flitted about the room (in a very hilarious way!!). Then the forest floor lowered their hands a bit when there isn’t as much nourishment, and the slime mold began to send out distress signals and find each other. When the forest floor began to starve, the slime mold hunkered down and attempted to survive. This was REALLY FUN.

After the fun demonstration, Kate went on to connect the dots. She mentioned Lewin’s equation B=f(p, e) which states that behavior is a function of the person and the environment. She extended that notion to say that E = f(p, b) that the environment is a function of people and behavior, and by that token B=E, our behavior is our environment.

Now think about your organization/work environment. If you are in tune with your environment, then you can change your behavior accordingly. We can even learn which behaviors are the most appropriate from slime mold:

Environment: Nourishing
Behavior: Exploring, Sensing

Environment: Tough
Behavior: Sensing, signaling, clustering

Environment: Hostile
Behaviors: Sluggish, significant clustering (slime mold form into slugs)
You need to know: what won’t you give up? what can you leave behind? how much will you participate in collective action?

This translates to:
1) Sensing the organizational environment
2) Signaling to others (co-workers) about your senses. You can signal in different ways: great signals are loud and sticky and lead to change. High Volume Signals are memorable, energetic, have a pattern, are reinforced
Visual Signals get ideas through faster, and are able to communicate more information.
Choose the appropriate method of communication (signal) to get your message across
3) Band together as a team to support each other and survive

How does one create a rich work environment?

  • Collective play
  • Simple rules of engagement
  • Shared Standards
  • Always Sensing
  • Always Signaling

Kate recommended the use of a TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zone which is an area outside of social control, a temporary space outside formal structures of control where collective play and creativity can occur. This does not mean that people should not do work, but rather follow the motto of “we are having fun, but we’re not kidding”. Many of the most successful companies have R&D departments which are outside of the formal structure.

Moreover, team members can user multiple platforms to listen for, send, and reinforce signals:
Twitter, RSS, Google Alerts to sense industry, economic, web trends.
Keep all eyes open, use strategy documents and watch the market.
Work Out Loud = post work, notes, and info so that is visible in high-traffic areas. Open the doors to participating in design work. Hold open design sessions.

Happiness Checklist

  • Have satisfying work to do
  • Chance to be good at something
  • Connect with people we truly like
  • Opportunity to be part of something bigger

Kate concluded with 4 simple things – be more like slime mold:

  • Make places and spaces for collective play
  • Work out Loud
  • Sense with intent: signal back what you learn
  • Constantly tune behaviors

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Alla Zollers

I design products and services that just. make. sense.

When products make sense, customers are happy.

If customer are happy, they sign-up, stay on site, engage, share, and buy your product or service.

Happy customers allow companies to profit in both senses of the word.

I provide the following services:

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