Listening to the Ants

CAPITAL ONE STARTED OUT as a small spin-off from a local bank. When I joined the company, in November 1994, the IT group had 150 people.

As we grew, management became an increasing issue -- traditional techniques were becoming untenable. When companies are small, a command-and-control management style is efficient. But the IT organization was growing at a phenomenal rate.

By the end of 1996, I kept struggling with how to assimilate people from different backgrounds and combine culture with the fundamental objectives of IT. I knew that the old days of giving orders were over. Even in Richmond, Va., the IT group was located in five different buildings; the organization as a whole was in five U.S. cities.

I attended a conference sponsored by Ernst and Young's Center for Business Innovation. At the conference, Chris Meyer put this question to me: How do you teach an anthill to fetch? If you put a piece of food down, all the ants form two organized rows to get it and carry it back; but how do they know to do that? Later Eric Bonabeau, from the Santa Fe Institute, and I discussed how social insects operate under fundamental rules that every member of the colony can understand. The ants are only following two rules: If you find food, take it back with you and leave a pheromone trail. If you see another ant with food, follow the pheromone trail back to the food; then follow rule number one.

As I thought about this concept and the idea that Capital One was still growing, I pondered the question of how to integrate that into the IT organization to make sure everyone was working in the company's best interests. During the Apollo project, NASA had a doctrine they presented to all employees. If you asked a janitor what his job was, he would say, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

I wondered how we could do something similar. So I came up with four rules that, if each associate followed, would ensure that they were moving the company forward.

*Always align IT activities with the business. Keep the company's big picture goals in mind.

*Use good economic judgment. Spend the money like it's your own.

*Be flexible. Don't build yourself into one thought pattern.

*Have empathy. If someone asks you to do something you don't agree with, put yourself in his or her shoes.

Then I wondered: How do I communicate that to a wider audience? We came up with the Blue Chip Program. We identified gaming chips of different colors to represent the four rules. I distributed 10,000 chips to our internal customers, starting with senior managers. Every time they caught an IT associate doing something that aligned with any of the four rules, I asked them to present the chip to the associate and thank them. If a customer saw any associate doing something that aligned with all four rules, they nominated that associate for a blue chip. I'd then present the blue chip to him or her myself.

It was amazing how quickly everybody in IT knew the four rules. The program ran for a little over a year. But the rules became so ingrained that they became the mantra for the IT organization.

Fundamentally, people want to be empowered. The old management style is obsolete; the larger the organization, the more command and control tends to stifle creativity and innovation. Now, five years on, there are 1,800 full-time associates, 300 to 400 contractors, and we're in seven U.S. cities and three cities abroad. So, how do I know it's working? The attrition rate in the IT industry is around 20 percent. Ours is less than 4 percent.

This story, "Listening to the Ants" was originally published by CIO.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies