At some point in your career you’ve probably been through an organizational restructuring. All industries—whether they’re big or small, public or private—seek the ideal structure but rarely settle on it for long. Certainly, the classic hierarchical structure delivers mixed results, and it doesn’t get much support from … the animal kingdom. Design-thinking researchers are turning in part to the natural world to find organizational logic by studying the behaviors of fish and ants.

Justin Ferrell from the Stanford Design School found sense in the organizational structure of a school of fish. What laws of behavior enable often hundreds of fish to move as a single, cohesive, and functional group? With no single leader of the school, how does it seamlessly move about? As Ferrell writes in the online post Hierarchy Is Old school. The New School Is Fish, the school “consists of many small elements, works at all scales, and each fish operates by following simple behaviors.” Instead of instituting leaders who establish a vision and instruct others how to get there, what if we followed cues from fish and brought together individual and diverse experts who discover among themselves solutions to complex challenges. This new and albeit different approach to organizing—known as emergence theory—is just one way we can challenge ourselves and organizations to come up with creative solutions to org structure.  

Ants, those little creatures that can carry 5,000 times their weight and crawl on us at picnics, have something to teach us about organizing. Deborah Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University, studies ant colonies in Arizona to see how these seemingly simple insects organize their armies to construct complex networks and conquer new territories. Ant colonies have no central control; there is no master ant directing the show. In her TED talk, Gordon looks at how ants can provide insights into the organization of complex systems.

Though these nature-inspired structures are far-fetched for large-scale companies, it’s time to start challenging norms with how we organize and lead others. The recently released E Source report Organizational Structures for Utility Marketing Departments: Challenges and Lessons Learned from Reorganizations looks at how several utilities across the US and Canada structure marketing departments and chronicles their journeys through reorganizations. Each one has a different level of centralized control over marketing and a varied past of how it got to the current structure. None of them quite models a school of fish or a colony of ants, but maybe they should.

Leave a comment below to tell us about your org structure and whether it’s working for your organization.