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 might think. But countless failed projects suggest that it is often difficult for individuals and groups to change course. Our desire for conformance often blinds us to the fact that the path we are marching is completely wrong. Or perhaps we know it is wrong, but we lack the courage to point it out to the rest of the team or to our leadership.
And so while it isn’t as easy to change course as it seems, agile is here to help. By design, agile has built-in mechanisms that prevent us from going too far off course. For one thing, we employ time-boxing in everything from iterations of work to planning meetings. This way, if we take a wrong turn or happen to be walking in circles, it is only a two or three-week mistake that we can correct in the next iteration. And if we generate a plan that needs to be changed, since we time-boxed that initial planning, we are not undoing hundreds of planning work hours. Another built-in mechanism is reflection. During every iteration, we stop as a team to evaluate how we are performing and where we can improve. Finally, in every layer of agile, there are mechanisms to help with collective focus. Before we do anything, we ask ourselves where we are trying to go and what we are trying to do. What is the definition of done for this feature? What is the definition of ready for this product backlog item? What is our measure of success for the product as a whole? What is our acceptance criteria for this story? What test can I create to measure the efficacy of what I am about to code? By constantly focusing on what we are trying to accomplish, we avoid marching along without a destination or purpose.
No matter how good we are, and despite our best efforts, we will all, at some point, find ourselves walking in circles. Too often we dutifully follow ill-fated plans. But if we have built an agile organization around us, we will have embedded automatic checkpoints to catch and correct ourselves. And even if we do undertake an ordeal of a five hundred yards’ march and three to four hundred turns, experience and reflection will be our province — we will squeeze that experience for everything it can teach us so that we come out all the wiser.