Thursday, September 2, 2004


The stone walls soared upwards all around me. The shuffle of feet on the dusty stone floor, combined with the low murmur of the steadily moving crowd of visitors, was punctuated by the raised voices of the tour guides leading tourists through the cathedral. Sunlight pierced the dusky interior from windows high in the dome. The vertical lines repeated in the architecture of the walls forced my eyes to move continuously upward to the arches forming the dome and the vaulted ceiling. Smoke from incense being burned near the altar drifted upward, occasionally being snaked by the air currents. The walls, the vertical lines, the vaulted ceiling, the dome, the drifting smoke of the incense, the decorative ceiling were all designed to force me to look upward. Form and function were in agreement in this Gothic cathedral.

I remember being taught somewhere, sometime in my childhood, the details now lost to the inevitable rush of time, that the arch was the true sign of civilization, that modern civilization really began when the arch was invented.

What is an arch? The arch is mechanical invention that transforms a tensile force into a compressive force. Why is that important? It is important because most construction materials, particularly cement, have poor tensile properties, but excellent compressive properties. Most construction materials can stand a lot more force pushing than pulling. Bricks or stones with mortar, or in ancient times without mortar, cannot span any large distance unless an arch is used. The arch transforms the vertical pull of gravity to thrust in the pillars. These thrusts can be transmitted through a series of arches that help hold each other up, but must eventually be relieved on the ends. The flying buttress was the solution used for the Gothic cathedrals.

"The arch never sleeps!" The Egyptians who used the arch in utilitarian buildings coined this phrase. They understood that the balanced forces were always at work within the arch. The arch has been used in some of man's most impressive architectural achievements throughout time. Cathedrals and buildings in both Western and Eastern cultures have made impressive use of the arch. Functional structures such as the Roman aqueduct and bridges are arches.

Implemented in high-technology materials, the arch has beauty of form and function.

Monuments have also displayed arches prominently - The Arch Of Constantine, The Arc de Triumpe, among many others, and most recently the Gateway to the West monument in St. Louis, designed by Saarinen. The Saarinen arch in St. Louis is the most impressive monument I've ever seen. Its simplicity of form and gleaming beauty of execution in stainless steel is awe-inspiring. My eyes were swept upward constantly. The arch hangs in mid-air, defying gravity.

The word "arch" may have had its roots in the Indo-European word arkh that meant "the beginning" or "leader." Incorporated into the word "architecture," the meaning of "arch" is clearly integral to that field. The technological development of the innovation of the arch may have marked the beginning of modem civilization. It is certainly woven throughout it.

I think, though, that I was taught wrong. Termites build arches. Now I know that termites, like ants and bees, have a form of civilization. But is that really equivalent to what we know as our modem civilization? I think not.

Communication among termites is not completely understood. Since they live and work in darkness, they are blind, as we know the term. Smell and touch seem to be the preferred form of communication. Termites build nests from a material that they make with body chemicals and cellulose, wood fiber. Big termite nests, like those found in Africa or Australia, can be several feet high and last decades. A nest may contain millions of individuals. Termites require carefully controlled humidity and temperature conditions inside the nest. The structure and material provide this function. Function and form are in consonance.

Construction of a nest follows a simple procedure. At some point for reasons unknown, and by mechanisms unknown, upon sensing a "signal" of some sort, termite workers start producing the pellets of material they use to construct nests. The termites begin to pile these pellets, each working individually, cementing them together with an adhesive they produce.

At some later time, sensing another "signal," the workers "look" around them. If they see a pile of pellets larger than theirs in the immediate vicinity, they abandon their project and go work on the higher pile. Through this process they select those piles they will work on.

A little while later, sensing still another "signal," the workers "look" around to see if there is a pile of nearly the same height within a specified distance of the pile they are working upon. If not, they abandon their pile and search for two piles that are close together. Again, after time has elapsed, termite workers begin to form the arch at the top. This process is repeated many times until an interlocking web of randomly constructed arches is completed.

In this process there are no high-performing termites. The entire process can be written in the form of a set of simple logical instructions - a program. There is no plan. Randomness plays an important role. The instructions and the responses seem to be genetically programmed into the termite worker. Signals do not seem to be given by anyone. Environmental conditions dictate the start of the process. When it is time to build a nest, a nest is built. The processes can be defined logically, analytically. Time may even play a role in the behavior changes once the building has begun. No one has a vision of the outcome. Everyone follows the rules and the result is functionally correct, but not elegant.

How many instructions like the ones used to build termite nests would it take to build a Gothic cathedral? More than is possible to count! How long would it take for a set of termites to accidentally build a Gothic cathedral? More time than there is in the universe! To build the Gothic cathedral required vision. Vision was required for the St. Louis monument. Yet vision itself is not enough. It is necessary but not sufficient. The vision must be converted into a plan. The vision must be communicated to others to get them to support and work on the vision. The plan must be implemented- follow the plan and holistically, intuitively follow progress and be alert to potential problems.

Arches did not mark the beginning of modem civilization. Whole-brained individuals who saw in the technological innovation of the arch a vision of heretofore unimagined structures began our modem civilization. Social structures run logically, analytically, and rule bound do not produce revolutionary innovation.

Gary Hamel in Leading the Revolution writes, "…how many times have you heard a CEO or divisional vice president say, ’Our real problem is execution’? Or worse, tell people that ‘strategy is the easy part, implementation is the hard part.’ What rubbish! These worthless aphorisms are favored by executives afraid to admit that their strategies are seriously out of date, executive’s who’d prefer their people stop asking awkward questions and get back to work. Strategy is easy if you’re content to have a strategy that is a derivative of someone else’s strategy. Strategy is anything but easy if your goal is to be the author of industry transformation – again and again." How many organizations have you seen that employ the termite approach to creating value? How many people employ the termite approach to their lives?

Do you see a paradox here? We've been busily stripping out levels of management and rule bound bureaucracies in order to let people be free to work individually and in teams. Individuals are left to make choices based on what they perceive is best for themselves with money as the only currency of evaluation. We're rapidly creating "termite mounds". The rules individuals follow in this type of environment may be more complex then termites, but they are nevertheless still rules.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to articulate the vision that captures the full range of capability of your innovation, or an innovation you know of, catalyzing yourself and a group into action. Establish the shared vision! It is not a mission impossible. It is a mission that is both essential and possible.

Paul Schumann

1 comment:

  1. Hey Paul,
    You have written something about termites here, which I am not able to confirm. I am talking about the termites getting signals.
    Where did you get this information? It will be great if you can mail me at