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.

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