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Provocative Ideas:

Strategic Termites: The Power of Self-Organization

Termites! Small, blind creatures related to the cockroach.

Creepy, crawly things that eat wood and make houses crumble.

Whenever I mention the possibility of becoming a "strategic termite" most managers seize on negative interpretations.

"You want us to eat away at the bureaucracy?"

"You're inviting us to become subversive?"

The metaphor, at first sight, does have these negative associations. But they're not the ones that I want to emphasize here. Subversive behavior in an organization tends to attract the exterminator. The person who seeks to create change by directly undermining existing policies and structures often runs into trouble. Create a hole in bureaucratic functioning one week, and chances are that next week the basic structure will be twice as strong as before. So let's redirect attention to some of the more positive aspects of termite behavior, especially those exemplified in the processes through which termites build their nests and engage in mutually supporting activities.

Imagine a termite colony somewhere in the tropics. There are thousands of termites milling around.

The ground on which they start to build their nest is quite flat. The termites begin their work by moving earth in a random fashion. Gradually, distinct piles of earth begin to emerge. These then become the focus of sustained building activity, resulting in columns located in more or less random positions. These are built to a certain height, then construction stops. When columns emerge that are sufficiently close together, building resumes until they are joined at the top to form a rounded arch. In this way the termite nest evolves as an increasingly complex structure, with the arch as the basic unit. The approach eventually results in a kind of free-form architecture, comprised of interlocking caverns and tunnels that are ventilated, humidity-controlled and beautifully formed. African termite nests may rise twelve feet high and measure a hundred feet across. They can house millions of termites. In terms of scale, they're equivalent to human beings creating a building over a mile high.

Needless to say, the accomplishment has attracted the attention of many scientists. How do these blind creatures manage to produce such architectural masterpieces?

No one knows for sure.

A queen termite occupies a royal cell in the center of the mound. It's suspected that she plays a crucial role in processes of communication within the colony. But if there's a plan or blueprint, where does it come from?

How do the termites direct and control their activity?

How do they co-ordinate their work?

How do they acquire the ability to repair parts of nests when they are destroyed, returning them to states that are as good as new?

There are lots of unresolved issues here. Instinct, habit and various forms of communication, play an important role. For example, the termites' deposits of saliva are believed to form important parts of their communication system. But one thing is clear. Termites don't build their nests like humans build houses and office towers. They don't follow predetermined plans.

One exciting theory emerging from the study of termite behavior is that work in the termite colony reflects a self organizing process where order emerges "out of chaos." While the nest always has a familiar pattern, it is infinitely variable in terms of detailed form. It is impossible to predict the detailed structure in advance, because it emerges as a result of the scattered pattern of droppings. This is what makes the construction process so different from that of human beings. The "masterpiece" evolves from random, chaotic activities guided by what seems to be an overall sense of purpose and direction, but in an open-ended manner.

We have in this view of termite behavior a splendid image for rethinking many aspects of the leadership process in human organizations. For example, it suggests that effective leadership or change management may not have to be based on a detailed strategic plan. It may not be something that has to be imposed. It may be something that can emerge and take form in a self-organizing, evolutionary way.

In my research on the management of change I encounter many successful "strategic termites." They are managers who operate out of a strong sense of vision, while letting the detailed course of implementation emerge from the evolving situations being faced. "Strategic termites" are incremental and opportunistic in their approach to change. They build on ideas, actions and events that they create, or spontaneously come their way. They are strategic in the sense that, while their activity is open to the influence of random opportunity, decisions and actions are always informed and guided by a strong sense of what they are ultimately trying to achieve. They have "plans;" but they don't implement plans and are not constrained by plans. They are people who know where they would like to go. But they do not always know the route by which they're going to get there!

In this positive, expansive and free-ranging interpretation of termite-like behavior, I believe there's an important message for people who wish to undertake leadership roles in turbulent times....

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