Scrum and the Military and Law Enforcement
Many agile and scrum experts have an appreciation for agile principles and the scrum framework because of their experience in the military. Militaries are mistakenly perceived to value strong centralized decision making. However, military strategists have long since known that centralized decision making quickly leads to defeat on the battlefield:
A commander cannot possibly see all parts of the battlefield nor communicate fast enough to understand the chaotic and rapidly changing situation or exploit fleeting opportunities. Wise commanders understand that they must empower those at all levels to make timely decisions.
In 1871, German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder) sagely observed that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” It was his approach to decentralized decision making that today is known to the military as “Mission Command.” U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odienro describes mission command as
“. . . the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution, using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent. Done well, it empowers agile and adaptive leaders to successfully operate under conditions of uncertainty, exploit fleeting opportunities, and most importantly achieve unity of effort. Importantly, it helps establish mutual trust and shared understanding throughout the force. Mission Command is fundamental to ensuring that our Army stays ahead of and adapts to the rapidly changing environments we expect to face in the future.”
The principles of Mission Command are practiced by most western militaries, including the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army. In fact, the U.S. Army operates the Mission Command Center of Excellence to train leaders in the methods of decentralized decision making.
Traditional military consists of huge command-and-control structures. Thank goodness there are leaders willing to make difficult decisions, and soldiers ready to carry out tough orders. However, more and more military leaders are now seeing that all command and control may not be the ideal approach after all.
In 2007, General David Petraeus reversed the course of the Iraq war by enabling small, cross-functional teams to make decisions that fueled the counterinsurgency on the ground in Baghdad. “Security of the population, especially in Baghdad, and in partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces, will be the focus of the military effort,” Petraeus said. In many ways, agile teams are analogous to the special forces teams. They are both small, highly trained, highly professional, cohesive, and cross-functional.
Special forces teams are small in size and cross-functional to bring situational-appropriate actions to bear. Cross-functionality, remember, means that every member of the team can do more than one thing, and ideally everyone on the team can do every skill necessary.
Like agile teams, special forces teams are stable and long-lived. Through hard-earned experience, they know how to work together and trust each other, and will all pitch in to do whatever is needed to accomplish the mission. That mission may require fluency in a foreign language, building relationships with local villagers, or even skilled use of deadly force if necessary. The mission may call for any combination of those things, yet carrying out the mission may involve something completely different. Special forces teams know how to learn and adapt.
Another similarity is that both agile and special forces teams create a sense of mutual accountability. In high-stakes situations, whether in business or on the battlefield, the desire to not let down a team member is more important than any deadline.
Like scrum sprints, missions for military teams are normally broken down and can be accomplished very quickly, within weeks at the longest. Longer missions wear out soldiers, deplete supplies, and require significant ongoing support. You find an exponential correlation to the length of a mission and the cost and rate of failure. Short missions provide better focus, team morale, and success.
One of the many examples where a military commander succeeded by changing his command-and-control approach is Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. Instead of requiring strict adherence to signal flags hoisted on his flagship, Nelson delegated quite substantial authority to ship captains: “In case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”