Caterpillar Death March or Metamorphosis

Updated: Jan 18

Agile Teams Transformative

Certain species of caterpillars rely on pheromone trails to find food and shelter. Jean-Henri Fabre, a French entomologist, observed and documented these patterns. He once tricked a line of caterpillars into forming a circular trail on top of a ceramic palm vase to see how the caterpillars would behave. To his amazement, the caterpillars walked in circles for more than a week, dutifully following the pheromones in one another’s silk. They marched through stifling heat. They huddled together through freezing nights. Despite the hardship, they kept marching around and around, becoming more famished and more bewildered, never thinking to break rank and explore a different path that might lead to the abundant pile of food that lay just at the bottom of the vase.

Fabre expected them to only go around for an hour and was both surprised and disappointed when they went much longer than that, stating, "I was expecting too much of them when I accorded them that faint gleam of intelligence which the tribulations of a distressful stomach ought, one would think, to have aroused." He concludes: "Experience and reflection are not in their province. The ordeal of a five hundred yards' march and three to four hundred turns teach them nothing.”

When we refuse to veer from a plan, or to stop and take stock of our situation, we are not unlike those bewildered caterpillars, doing our best to keep moving ahead, but working ourselves to death toward futile ends, burning up money along the way and never reaching our desired goals.

One of the main tenants of the agile manifesto is responding to change over following a plan. Agile emphasizes short feedback loops, and encourages inspection, reflection, and adaptation so that when we find ourselves marching in circles, we can stop and say, "Hey, this isn't working, let's change course.”

We may all believe that we would never be quite as dim-witted as these caterpillars. “If I were a caterpillar, Fabre would never be disgusted with me!” we migh