The U.S. Army’s Agile Narrative

The U.S. Army’s Agile Narrative

I was teaching an “Agile Project Management” class in Dallas. It was open enrollment, so there were participants from lots of different companies; Motorola, NEC, and a group from the U.S. Army.  We did an exercise in which we rated the agile ‘readiness’ of a fictional set of organizations, one of which was a government agency.  As we sorted and ranked the criteria, one participant made the comment that “obviously, the government agency will be ‘old wave’…they’ll have the most bureaucracy and be totally command-and-control…”.

That comment evidently got under the skin of one of the Army guys, because he, very politely, went into a rant about the agility of the modern Army.  He described the brainstorming techniques his squad had learned.  He enthused about the self-motivated nature of his team, and the acceptance by brass that the individual soldier can be creative on the field of action. He conceded that the Department of Defense still required a task-oriented project plan, a firm budget, and a committed schedule, but he was convinced even that was changing.

He was clearly right.  If you need confirmation that the core ideas of agile have gone mainstream, check out this new commercial from the U.S. Army. It might as well have been titled “Inspect and Adapt”.

“We train, adapt, and get smarter…”, says the narrator, “…not to keep up with change, but to drive it.” Over images of cross-functional teams of soldiers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and engineers, we learn that “no-one knows what challenges tomorrow will bring.”

This thirty-second commercial confirms that the fundamental ideas of agility have become conventional wisdom. “Challenges never stop”, as the commercial says, so continuous delivery,  continuous education, and continuous, conscious improvement is essential. Change never stops, and is not controlled or controllable; it is inherent in conflicts, in projects, and in life.  We can utilize iterative methods to try and keep up, but we must accept change as the driver. Cross-functional teams, with the ability to take ownership of a problem and marshall all the forces necessary to solve it, are as necessary in the military as they are in the agile IT department.

Even the U.S. Army, the very definition of command-and-control, has accepted these principles, because of the threat they face. Guerrilla warriors do not wear uniforms or stand in ranks. They sneak in, sneak out, and adapt to the circumstances of the moment.  As soon as we figure out their tactics, they change. On both sides of the front, adaptability means survival.

So too in business. Digital disruptors probe constantly for weakness, and pounce without warning or mercy. The pace of technological change increases,  business models morph, clients become increasingly sophisticated, and every human gets connected.  Every IT organization, and every enterprise, needs to acknowledge the truths that the U.S. Army has accepted; change will happen, self-motivated teams can deliver great things, and adaptability is the key to victory.


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