Collective Action and the Secret Life of Ants

Are Collaborations the Next Big Thing in Business?

I have been thinking a lot about collaborations in our business model. In today’s economy, every business leader should be. But I think what’s interesting lies beyond the economic conditions in which we find ourselves. For example, how and why does collective action work? What are the cultural, organizational, and structural antecedents to a successful collective action? Equally as importantly, why do collaborative efforts so often fail?

Ostrom, in Governing the Commons, tries to discover the characteristics of organizations that collaborate to provide for the collective good. By contrast, in The Logic of Collective Action, the seminal work on collective action, Olson asks about the conditions under which people contribute sufficiently enough for the collective good to materialize. He ponders why we so often design organizations that discourage the achievement of the collective good.

Olson (1965) writes, “The idea that groups tend to act in support of their group interests is supposed to follow logically from this widely accepted premise of rational, self-interested behavior. In other words, if the members of some group have a common interest or object, and if they would all be better off if that objective were achieved, it has been thought to follow logically that the individuals in that group would, if they were rational and self-interested, act to achieve that objective.” This is a notion Olson vigorously challenges, citing numerous circumstances where individuals do not act to achieve the objective of the common good.

A fairly recent conceptualization of this is known as co-opetition, is discussed in detail by authors Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff in their best-selling book Co-opetition: A Revolution Mindset That Combines Competition and Cooperation. In it they provide examples of competitor alliances such as Bell Atlantic, Merck, Proctor & Gamble, and Xerox, each of which has partnered its way to enormous success.

In addition, Dr. Debra Gordon of Stanford provides a look at collective action from the complexity in the lives of ant communities on TED. It’s a fascinating talk.

As you take a listen to Dr. Gordon, you might think about whether you are using the logic of collective action in your leadership lives. Are you leveraging relationships for the greater good, or is every move designed for self-interest alone? Have you intentionally sought out collaborative action in your neighborhoods and organizations to proactively rebuke the Tragedy of the Commons, or are “the commons” just not your problem?

In your innovative leadership model, what will be your collective action legacy?

About the Author:

Rachel Y. Talton is the CEO of Synergy Marketing Strategy & Research, Inc. Synergy has been designing data-driven strategies that build trusted brands for over seven years. Working with Fortune 500 companies, government entities, universities, and mid-sized businesses, Synergy uses its proprietary Five Pillars of Brand Trust to help clients extend brand reach, increase customer loyalty, leverage employee passions, and maximize stakeholder relationships.

Rachel completes her doctorate at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in May 2010. Her research interests include brand and organizational trust. Her dissertation examines antecedents to perceived brand trustworthiness.


Perhaps Rachel and the team at Synergy can help build your organization’s brand power. Please visit or to find out more.


Share this post with others ...