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6 Military Principles That Can Work For Agile Teams

Our Agile Coach talks all things critical for building agile teams

Bruce Taylor
Bruce Taylor

I'm passionate about agile methods. I've been scrum master, agile coach, head of engineering, leader of a team of 90 people across multiple disciplines and all around advocate of enabling teams.

I worked at Lonely Planet when agile was first introduced in 2004/5, and then moved to Aconex and then Iflix in Malaysia to bring agile goodness there. I'm now back in Melbourne working at RMIT Online heading the agile program.

Yesterday, I was watching a documentary on the Battle of the Bulge, a famous battle in World War II. The documentary producers were investigating German tactics during the battle. It was discovered that tactics that were successful earlier in the war, towards the end, fell apart after 3 - 5 days. Here's why.

German officers exercised mission command, which means setting goals and allowing teams responsibility for how they are carried out. During the war, those in high command placed great truth in their teams to take ownership and initiative in completing missions. As the war went on, mission command was gradually eroded when the high command no longer trusted the lower ranks, especially when they tried to kill them, and only gave them enough information for the immediate goals. Thus, the soldiers were disempowered and the strategy collapsed, contributing to the fall (thank goodness) of German team cohesion and resulted in the end of the war.

Anyhow, this led me to look up mission command, and it's guiding principles. We know teams are motivated by giving them 'Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose'. The mission command's 6 principles, as currently taught in US military academies, align well with that phrase.

1. Build Cohesive teams through trust: give the team the autonomy to get on with the job.

2. Create a shared understanding: there's a number of activities in agile that we use to create shared understanding, such as story mapping, retro and estimation. Shared understandings reduces the risk of individuals working at odds with each other.

3. Provide a clear intent (reworded from 'provide a clear commanders intent'): Why are we doing this thing? Understand the customers needs and work towards satisfying them.

4. Exercise disciplined initiative: exercise the discipline to both measure and pivot based on active intelligence, be data driven so we're responding to the right inputs and if we must be reactive, do it from a position of knowledge.

5. Use mission goals (reworded from 'use mission orders'): purpose again! Clear goals make planning easier. We spend less time explaining why we're doing something, by getting onto the 'how' we're going to get there faster.

6. Accept prudent risk: In agile, we talk about making mistakes and using them as learning opportunities, and having discipline (mastery) around making controlled mistakes.


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