I never read it but I have been told that the Marine’s Corp “Warfighting” manual contains several similarities with how Agile projects and teams should be.
If you also don’t feel to read the dense 100+ pages document here is my shorter take, inspired from what I learnt during my mandatory military service time (well, I was not in the Marine’s but still in a rapid response force).
Traditionally you associate military to huge command-and-control structures but that is not always the case.
In 1871, German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke observed that:
No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
It was his approach to decentralised decision-making that today is known as Mission Command.
The idea was to allow decentralised execution and to promote freedom and initiative, to be flexible in order to adapt to changing circumstances.
At any moment, a situation that was not planned nor anticipated could happen. And in such a case you cannot just call your superiors and ask what to do.
You need then to be able to analyse the changes very quickly and to inspect and adapt. Flexibility is the keyword. Or – if you want – Agility.
Missions for military teams are normally broken down in tasks that can be accomplished very quickly, never last more than two to three weeks.
If the missions were longer than that, the teams become exhausted and weary and continuing support is difficult.
You can find a correlation between the length of a mission and its cost or the rate of failure. Short missions provide better focus, team morale and success.
Agile suggests as key to success to have short sprints that allow the team to accomplish something of value more frequently, thus increasing the morale of the team and improving the overall chance of success on future sprints.
You can see it as fail fast, fix fast.
You obtain just enough information to get started, then see if it works or not. If you fail, no problem: you have identified an issue early on and can figure out how to fix it or change it.
Cross-functional small team
Special forces teams are small in size and cross-functional to carry the situational-appropriate actions. Cross-functionality means that every member of the team can do more than one thing and ideally has every skill necessary.
I recall teams where every member would help each other out and would focus on the mission at hand, working in a collaborative manner to achieve the common goal.
Personal integrity, courage, determination and commitment. These are the same attributes that make a member of an Agile team successful.
Agile team member should bring encouragement to each other, integrity to do what is right, courage to challenge the bad habits and commitment to see the work through. This is teamwork.
Another mindset within the military corps is “to lead by example”.
This is similar to the Agile concept of servant leader. In Agile, we don’t need people telling us what to do. We need people who lead by example and who live the Agile mindset. This is the best way for the team to absorb what is expected by the Agile values and principles, resulting in higher performance and engaged team members, who are growing.
Retrospectives and long-lived teams
Every mission, successful or not, will have a de-briefing at the end, when you go through what went good and what not. Very similar to the Agile retrospective.
Through this kind of hard-earned experience, the team members know how to work together and trust each other and will jelly together as a team able to do all is necessary to accomplish the mission.
Like agile teams, special forces teams are stable and long-lived.