Have we Agilists misused the military as example of Command & Control

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851 (1024x656)If you are like me you believed since early days in your life, that the military is the example for command and control. I personally have never experienced the military by myself, but frequently I heard phrases like “We are not as strict with our command and control as the military”. Only recently after hearing from Don Reinertsen and Mark Horstman about their experiences in the military did I come to question my understanding.

“No plan survives the contact with the enemy” – from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

So in my head I had this organisation where everything is well planned and if anything I would have associated it with the “waterfall” mentality more than an “agile” mentality. But let’s look a bit closer. In any real combat situation the enemy will behave differently to what you expect and it is very unreasonable to account for all possible details in the field. The above quote from von Moltke the Elder demonstrates that. So clearly the planning in detail and then just executing the plan approach will not work in such cases. So how does the military then operate?

The military makes sure that the soldiers understand what the goal of the mission is. Planning is being done on a high level (which mountain to take or what strategic points to take) which then breaks down into more detailed plans and not just for one scenarios. When practicing some variables get changed so that the soldiers learn to improvise and replan as more information about the situation becomes available. Does this sound familiar? It sounds exactly like the behaviour of an Agile team (with the difference that Agile teams don’t get the chance to practice their projects many times before doing it for real).

What this allows is a high-speed of decision while still adhering to a high level plan. It is possible because the organisation is aligned on the goals and high level plan. Imagine soldiers always had to wait in the field until the “project plan” is updated before they can proceed with changes to the plan. That would take way too long, so they are empowered to change as required within certain well-known parameters. By pushing decisions down to the lowest level the speed of decisions improves. And with clear parameters of what they can decide and what not, the risk of these decision is adjustable. When the lower level decisions aggregate to changes to the overall plan, then there are people at this level who can make those decisions as well (the product owners and release train engineers I guess).

I certainly think differently about the military now after hearing stories and examples that show how inherently agile they have to be. It makes for a good organisational example of combining high level plans and goals with agility and how to achieve positive results.

Here is a slide from Don’s talk with a few additional points:


I am no expert in the military so I am looking forward to your thoughts and I will surely learn from the discussion.

4 thoughts on “Have we Agilists misused the military as example of Command & Control

  1. Mark McLaughlin

    I am always wary of analogies. I would argue trying to relate Software Development to a military scenario is an analogy. Sure you can make some point but is it really relevant and helpful?

    For me the issue is that the person making the analogy has usually drawn some artificial boundary around the scenario that want to use an example and bases their argument on that. In this case you perhaps should ask what is the overall purpose of the case: a military scenario is usually about achieving a clearly defined objective whilst sustaining the minimum possible losses in the minimum possible time.

    Yes it can change as the battle develops but usually that isn’t because the objective has changed. It is more typically because of excessive losses or some other major change of situation. Is that really something we can relate to a software project delivering some loosely defined business objective as is the case for most software projects?

    Maybe it is but all too often I’ve seen people taking analogies as proof of how they should approach a problem when a better understanding of their own situation would perhaps be more helpful



  2. Stefan Schindewolf

    Hi Mirco.

    I like your blog and the thoughts on Agile you are sharing from time to time. It is really thoughtful and also entertaining to read.

    From my point of view Don´s analogy emphasizes very much the Agile aspect of being responsive to change over sticking to a fixed plan. And in this sense I agree with his views. Moltke once developed the principle of “Auftragstaktik” which can be compared to “leading by objective” in modern organizations – and it seemingly evolved into the fourth principle of the Agile manifesto (Responding to change over following a plan).

    Yet the military analogy comes to an end very quickly when it comes to other aspects of Agile:
    1) Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    Certainly the military does not value individualism, diversity and self-guided interactions. When you enter the military there is one thing you learn from day one: you can forget about free will. From the times you have breakfast, lunch and dinner to the way you are tying your shoes (yes, that is regulated) – every aspect of your life is determined by rules and prescriptions. Literally everything.

    2) Working software over comprehensive documentation
    Well, this maybe this principle does not apply to battle situations. But having served in the military I think I can assure you they are really really strong in (paper-based) documentation in peace times. The military when not in battle is just the archetype of bureaucracy – every screw gets a number.
    And when you hear stories about 50% of the helicopter force being out of order due to maintenance issues or procuring a rifle that is not properly tested in all battle conditions and turns out to endanger soldiers´ life later on – I doubt that they put effectiveness, safety or quality first.
    Actually if you are responsible for something in the military the following rule applies: it is more important to have your paperwork in order than having all your tanks in working condition.

    3) Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    Well, follow the scandals about the German drone program, the rifle replacement, the Eurofighter, the A-400 and so on…
    It is 100% clear that in the military and the military-industrial complex contracts are everything. We spent billions of tax money and in the end
    – we receive equipment that does not meet specifications
    – because the specs came from the supplier
    – because the military is not capable of managing requirements
    – and nobody cares about tax payers´ money

    So the more I am following this analogy the more I am actually infuriated – because the military is usually the best example of waste, laziness, stupidity, lack of responsibility and every other aspect that Agile would like to remove from modern organizations.

    However in the end I think the presentation you are referring to is really making a certain point. And this point is certainly well explained.
    It´s just that usually no analogy applies to 100% of the real world problem and thus is always vulnerable to argumentation lines that follow it through completely.

    Kind regards and seasons greetings from Germany 🙂


  3. Mirco Hering Post author

    Mark, Stefan – great points and thank you for the thoughtful comments. I tend to agree with your points that all analogies fail at some stage – i dont have to go very far. This whole blog is named after an analogy – one that keeps infuriating me and worse sometimes confuses me because people can pick elements that actually work in the factory analogy. I liked the point that was made and had little insight into the military so i was surprised. Reading Stefan’s points makes me happy that i dont have experience in that environment – my corporate experience with red-tape is close enough to driving me mad 😉 Have a great break folks, I am signing off for the year, next post will be in January.


  4. Pingback: Impressions from Agile Australia 2017 | Not A Factory Anymore

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