I had the privilege of serving in the US Marine Corps from 2003-2011 as an AH-1W Super Cobra pilot, an expeditionary unit Air Officer, and special unit Forward Air Controller (FAC). For the unfamiliar reader: my job was providing and coordinating fires in support of ground units, both from an attack helicopter and while embedded with ground units.
I deployed to combat three times. I had purpose, experienced the intensity that life has to offer, and witnessed the indomitable will of the human spirit. Perhaps most rewarding during my active duty days was serving alongside some of the finest humans I’ll ever know. Those were good years.
Throughout my time on active duty there was a pattern of motions for keeping pace and delivering optimal results in dynamic environments. The highest likelihood of mission success always centered around one thing: agile processes.
What is Agile, exactly?
The words “agile” and “agility” are sometimes used with little regard to the philosophies they espouse. They’ve become business buzzwords.
Viewed from a software lens, Atlassian’s Agile Coach defines it as “…an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Instead of betting everything on a ‘big bang’ launch, an agile team delivers work in small, but consumable, increments. Requirements, plans, and results are evaluated continuously so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to change quickly.”
Agile (now capitalized to invoke specific meaning) isn’t a set of recipes or a “one-size-fits-all” framework. It’s a series of motions that demonstrate the importance of tight feedback loops and continuous improvement. It’s also important to differentiate Agile from the linear “waterfall” approach, where requirements are gathered in the early stages of a project and then a plan is created to address those requirements.
Agile as a military response to dynamism
Military combat operations are dynamic. Further adding to this complexity are the changing human landscape, quality of intelligence, information flow, and time-critical nature of operations. Fast, flexible, and collaborative teams are crucial to survival, let alone success.
In the book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal et al details how conventional (waterfall) military processes were failing in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Information was siloed, responses were sluggish, and the US military was consistently a step behind. In order to address a dynamic enemy in an increasingly complex environment, the traditional, monolithic operational models and centralized command and control of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) needed to be rebuilt.
Agile is based upon tight feedback loops (collaboration) and continuous improvement (iteration), which are more easily accomplished in small units. But how to best scale these small unit best practices throughout an organization during high-intensity combat operations?
JSOTF leadership built the new model on two foundational pieces: 1) shared consciousness (transparent communication) and 2) empowered execution (decentralized decision-making authority). This foundation helped the task force build the trust and common purpose necessary for sustained performance. Technology and a commitment to agile change management were the catalysts that put the new model into action.
Technology provided streamlined information and real-time status updates, improving collaboration and creating the tight feedback loops to build shared consciousness within the organization. This transparency allowed decisions to be pushed to the lowest level possible, greatly increasing response times and agility. The result was a resounding success – a more flexible, adaptable, and capable military organization. Agile risk management became the key operational tradeoff mechanism.
Without going into details on specific military operations I participated in, I can attest to the effectiveness of Agile methodologies in practice and execution. Iteration, tight and tactical information flow, and rapid collaboration were the keys to mission success.
Tying Agile operations to the new wave of productivity software
Software is eating the world. Agility is critically important. We can borrow the rubrics from Team of Teams to evaluate the next wave of productivity software, leave buzzwords behind, and focus on execution. When we look at software tools, do they drive shared consciousness? Do they enable empowered execution? Do the teams and functions in your organization build their collaboration skills and develop tighter feedback loops?
Agility in digitized operations depends on software being fit for evolving purposes and designed to support continuous incremental change. Do your tools enable collaboration, continuous improvement, and drive transparency? Is your organization more flexible, adaptable, and capable as a result of its digitization efforts?
In a dynamic environment, there are no silver bullets. The system that brings success this year may become a limiting factor next year. Organizations that use Agile software will still sometimes find themselves to be only as agile as their teams and cultures allow. But where legacy software is too often a roadblock to agility, the new wave of enterprise productivity software is an important ingredient of mission success in the enterprise.
At Ondema, we’re grateful for the opportunity to help our customers be faster, more flexible, and more collaborative.
Last, but certainly not least:
Happy 244th birthday, United States Marine Corps, and Semper Fidelis!