Thoughts from KMC

You do Agile? Well, termites are better at it than you are

Makaziwe Qobo

01 Oct 2019

You do Agile? Well, termites are better at it than you are

What you’re seeing above is an image of an adult lady standing in awe of ~17 foot termite mound in Okonjima, Namibia. The imposing structure easily dwarfs the height of the woman, but yet has been built by insects the size of a grain of rice. Despite the harsh conditions of the Namibian nature reserve, this army of termites has managed to build a structure so sophisticated that it self-ventilates, stores food, draws underground water and regulates its own temperature throughout the year.

“How does something so small build something so big and complex”, I hear you ask. Well, as it turns out, the ½ inch engineers use principles that would make any Agile Coach proud…

Self-organized teams

Like many other insect colonies, termites also have a queen who lays eggs. But unlike other queens, this one isn’t the boss that’s protected and provided for by its subjects. The termite queen works just as hard and efficiently as the rest of the colony. Whether it’s adjusting vents for temperature control; or sealing up breaches in the mound wall; or finding and communicating the shortest routes to food; each termite diligently completes its task without being directed by hierarchy. Each individual termite instinctively knows what’s expected and contributes to making the colony better. Internationally recognized leadership advisor Paul Plsek sums it up well when he says:

“Termites build the largest structures on earth when compared with the height of the builders, yet there is no CEO termite”

One of the 12 principles from the Agile Manifesto is that “the best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. Just like an army of termites, self-organizing Agile teams don’t depend on instructions from managers to accomplish and assign work. They proactively take responsibility and determine the best way to achieve their goal.

No boss? No problem.

Adapting to change

There’s a reason why termites have survived 250 million years on earth. In order to be that successful you have to have the ability to adapt to change and volatility. Termites are built for just that - adaptation.

How do you ensure that the climate is perfectly controlled so that you can farm fungus for food? Easy! You build an air conditioning system that constantly regulates airflow, humidity, temperature and even carbon dioxide intake.

How do you ensure your colony is defended when ants attack? A piece of cake - you send out soldier termites to fight and then you seal the holes left behind.

What happens when the colony gets separated? A new colony is created by using supplementary reproductives. Duh.

How do I ensure the house I build won’t be scorched by the unrelenting Namibian sun? You instinctively build your mound in a direction that minimizes the heat from the sunrays.

What about winter? Simple - you simply grow wings and take to the air to start a new colony.

And what if you suddenly encounter any danger? You bang your head against the mould wall to alert your termite comrades. Obviously.

Similarly, the typical Agile team will face many challenges that threaten to derail their original goals and plans. Product and business requirements can change at the drop of a hat. Feedback from your users might result in a need for a product strategy overhaul. Technology is cutting edge today and made redundant tomorrow. Being truly Agile requires us to welcome change and respond to it accordingly - just like our termite friends.

Incremental improvements

Rome wasn’t built in a day and a 17 foot termite skyscraper wasn’t either. Termite nests are an ever-evolving product engineered over a lifetime. The work never stops.

It all begins with each builder mixing a single grain of soil with saliva, water and dung. This becomes a form of cement that, when combined with the soil grains of other termites, eventually becomes a wall structure. Once the wall is established (or at the same time it’s being built), the builders begin designing a complex maze of chambers, tunnels and storage compartments.

As the build continues and the wall gets higher, it becomes necessary to make the structure more porous as it gets taller. This is to ensure that air flow is consistently facilitated.

Their innovation is the result of tiny incremental improvements which start with a single soil particle. Achieving big things in small steps. Sunnie Giles describes the termites’ process as:

“Perfection not being nearly as important as the incremental snowball effect of frequent, iterative feedback”

Our termite friends don’t go through a 5-year cycle of building the perfect mound before any of the termites can move in. They start small and consistently improve based on what they learn. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In the same way, as Agile professionals we ought to iteratively and incrementally deliver value to our customers.

Collaboration & collective ownership

Individually, termites are small, frail and have limited intelligence. In isolation, their individual contributions don’t amount to much. The magic, however, happens when they collaborate and communicate in order to achieve a shared goal - protect the colony and ensure it expands. Each individual part sums up to a majestic whole.

When a part of the wall is breached, thousands of termites instinctively rush to repair the damage. When they find food they leave a pheromone trail that acts as navigational device for the rest of the colony. Termites lose and win as a team.

A highly motivated and self-organizing Agile team should operate in the same fashion. For this to truly work, Rachaelle Lynn rightly comments that:

“[Agile] teams must have a high sense of ownership and responsibility. Equally as important, they need to communicate often and trust in the capabilities of everyone in the team”

The biggest lessons can often come from the unlikeliest of sources. Observing how termites thrive, our Agile teams can learn a thing or two about adapting to change in a volatile world; innovating with what you have; collaboration & communication; and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Cheers to the highest performing Agile team of them all 🍻

Makaziwe Qobo