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Charming the Army: the Power of Delivery

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Dec 31, 2007 |
Now and then we hear a story about Agile's use in governmental organisations and DOD contracting. Here is another one: in this video from the 2006 APLN Leadership Summit in Washington, Mark Salamango and John Cunningham looked at the problems and opportunities they encountered when introducing Agile in an Army environment - where research programs are mainly top-down driven initiatives, and where large programs tend to get the attention and the resources. The problem? True agile practices cannot be 'commanded' or 'directed’ but there are other kinds of power: these stories demonstrate that even in a place defined by power heirarchies, there are kinds of power available to innovators that ease the introduction of such radical ideas as incremental and iterative software development.

John Salamango, formerly the Chief Pervasive Architect for the Army (now independend) told his story: solving a problem of non-compatible architecture across multiple projects by developing a component-based foundation for an embedded vehicle platform, to allow users to connect a variety of devices and (un)load new business models and related user interfaces. John's message to his teams: the people in the field are clamoring for interoperable solutions: let's use short cycle times to field new functions, iterate to get them just right, and work with a more open architecture. The teams went for it, and their "customer", the National Guard, ate it up!  Salamango's team built for themselves, a weekly delivery at a time, a platform of real power based on reliable, frequent results that met current in-the-field needs.

Despite the public perception that the army is driven by top-down directives, those who have lived it tell us that's only half the story. One oft-cited example of this is the Marines' management approach: "built around simple truths about human nature and the uncertainties of dynamic environments.... " which depends on the agency of the people on the ground to make decisions in real time. In the second part of the presentation, John Cunningham of Band XI International provided an illustration from the book "Thunder Run,"  about the capture of one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces by armoured elements, which soon experienced a retaliatory attack. Deafened by rockets and unable to hear, one captain none-the-less did what he could to pull his people together to collect and transport casualties, salvage operable vehicles, etc.  ... only to find that wherever he went, they were already doing so. Cunningham's question was: "was he a bad leader, because he wasn't directing things? Or an effective leader because he didn't have to?" It all depends on how one frames "power" and "leadership," doesn't it?

Cunningham reminded listeners that, despite the challenges facing agile adoption in such a culture of deeply ingrained institutional practices, one is never truly powerless, and he looked at the different kinds of power1 available to change-leaders and how they could be leveraged. He comparing "direct" power (rewards, coersion and punishment) with what he called "legitimate power" or "soft" power: such as "Expert Power" and "Referent Power," which is the ability to inspire people to follow your example, often called charisma. Use of soft power doesn't eliminate frustration - cultivating soft power is a political process. But Cunningham maintains that Agile leaders always lead using soft power - delivery builds a base that supports referent & expert power - and that direct power is actually a weaker form of power, a crutch that makes leaders lazy.

Some advice offered out of the speakers' experiences:

  • Seek out those who are predisposed to an agile approach
  • Create and demonstrate a value proposition that is undeniable
  • Direct your message at an audience that is amenable
  • Foster growth of an agile community
  • Root values in  good citizenship: a sense of duty, of doing the things that need to be done, for no reason other than they are the right things to do
  • Leaders must be role models that build leadership skills in their team members.

View the InfoQ video of this conference presentation: Leading the Agile Way: Duty. Honor. Delivery.


1. reference for types of power: French, J. P. R. Jr., and Raven, B. (1960). The Bases of Social Power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander (eds.), Group Dynamics (pp. 607-623). New York: Harper and Row.

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