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The "Command and Control" Military Gets Agile

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Agility is a term that is gaining traction in some very unusual places. The military is suddenly taking Agility (big "A") very seriously. The military defines Agility as "the ability to successfully respond to change". The term "command and control" is used so commonly in the military that is abbreviated to "C2" in common usage. There is also a C2 Journal, a journal all about Command and Control. The C2 Journal has had many articles on Agility recently.

Earlier this year, in March, a "Precis" was published by the Department of Defense Command and Control Research Center entitled The Agility Imperative. This document describes Agility as related to security and war. What is striking is the clarity of the language relative to software agility. Consider the following:

Agile people conceive and approach the world and their assigned tasks differently from those who are less agile. In general, agile people have a propensity to seek improvements, are more willing to consider information that is at odds with preconceived notions, and are more willing to be different and take risks. These basic characteristics can be enhanced or suppressed by education, training, and culture. Unfortunately, many organizations, both large and small, suppress agility-enabling characteristics.

The document from the C2 Research Center has much to say about people. For example:

Often it is productive to focus on simply removing the obstacles to Agility. Just as an open and inquisitive mindset is an enabler of Agility, a closed and complacent mindset is an impediment.

Those seeking clarity on the "command and control" vs. "Agile" debate are likely to enjoy examining the content at the Department of Defense Command and Control Research Center . For example, at this site, you can download a slide deck devoted to defining Agility in military terms. What is striking here is the near 100% overlap with descriptions of software development agility. Apparently, software development and war have much complexity in common: according to the Precis entitled "The Agile Emperative", Agility applies anywhere there is a "Complex Endeavor" to deal with.

Does this sound familiar?

Information, Interactions, & Decisions in C2

Requisite Agility

Some definitions and concepts that apply to the military use of Agility might be useful in the software development world, especially as applied to large IT shops that are organized around the waterfall approach. One such concept is Requisite Agility. The paper The Agility Imperative defines "Requisite Agility" as a balanced level of Agility, a capital-allocation concept not generally discussed in the agile literature when addressing the mixing agile and traditional approaches.

Agility is not an end unto itself. Therefore, Agility is not a capability that should be maximized. The capability to be agile (Agility Potential) and actual reactions to changes (Manifest Agility) both involve costs. These costs can be justified only by the nature of the challenge. The appropriate amount of Agility to seek, Requisite Agility, is a level that balances the costs of attaining it with the consequences of not having it, given the situation. Thus, Requisite Agility, not unlimited Agility, should be the goal.

Another interesting paper found inside the C2 Journal on the C2 Research Center site, Agility, Focus, and Convergence: The Future of Command and Control makes some points that can be applied directly to software development Agility:

The word "control" is inappropriate...because it sends the wrong message. It implies that complex situations can be controlled...push the right levers; take this action or that; solve this problem. But this is a dangerous oversimplification. The best that one can do is to create a set of conditions that improves the probability that a desirable (rather than an undesirable) outcome will occur and to change the conditions when what is expected is not occurring. Control is in fact an emergent property, not an option to be selected.

This C2 article goes on to say that 'command and control' is such a loaded term in the military that it limits perceptions and learning. Influential writers inside the military are working to change that language. The new suggested language uses Scrum values (Focus) and terminology from complexity science:

Focus & Convergence is the term ... to replace Command and captures the essential aspects of command and control and can easily be understood by individuals without a prior knowledge of or experience with command and control. Furthermore, these words do not carry any preconceived notions of how to achieve these objectives. Focus as a replacement for command speaks directly to what command is meant to accomplish while being agnostic with respect to the existence of someone in charge or particular lines of authority. Similarly, convergence speaks directly to what control (the verb) is meant to achieve without asserting that control as a verb is possible or desirable. The combined term, Focus & Convergence, speaks to the existence of a set of dynamic interactions between the two functions.

Another article on Agility in the C2 Journal, Agile Networking in Command and Control, focuses on how to incorporate "Agile C2" into modern military operations:

Agile C2 ... refers to the capability of a force to adjust to and manage changing operational conditions.

Agility is seen as including robustness, resilience, responsiveness, flexibility, innovation, and adaptation in order to be effective...In order to achieve agility, it is required to have almost instant information sharing using robust networks, "self organizing" social structures for high responsiveness and fast feedback, and understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.

In project management, we debate the relative merits of traditional Project Managers and Agile approaches. Here the military is doing something similiar, referring to "Agile Command and Control" while we refer to "Agile Project Managers". It is interesting to note the parallels, especially in light of heated discussions on the PMI-Agile Yahoo Group about the validity of "Agile Project Manager" hybrids which incorporate aspects of waterfall and agile approaches.

The military is directly studying this dynamic of mixing traditional C2 with Agility. Consider this quote from The Agility Imperative:

...understanding the consequences of the mixture of agile and non-agile people, in a variety of circumstances, is important. This is a topic being currently explored by DoD's CCRP and its DoD and international partners."

Those interested in articles and papers that address military Agility can search the C2 Research Center and quickly find resources such as papers, slide decks and web pages that cover Agility relative to traditional C2. The C2 Research Center is the place on the web where the best military minds are studying Agility relative to "Command and Control". As such, it may be a great resource for those seeking to bridge Agility and traditional approaches.

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Community comments

  • Scrum and the Military

    by Jeff Sutherland,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    The foundation of Scrum (Inspect and Adapt) was based on my 11 experience as a fighter pilot. Always be executing a maneuver that minimizes the risk of getting shot down. Then when you are shot at you do not have to do anything different than execute the pattern. The Sprint in Scrum with the daily meeting is essentially the strategy I used for living through 100 missions over North Vietnam.

    My approach to strategy was basically what John Boyd taught the military services. As arguably the world's best fighter pilot, his strategy is now used in business. At OpenView Venture Partners, I use Boyd's OOAD loop to explain how Product Owners need to approach the market. Read "Certain to Win" by one of Boyd's business people.

    The great thing about the military today is that they know if they are not Agile they will lose the war. Unfortunately, many of our commercial companies have not figured this out yet.

    Jeff Sutherland

  • Re: Scrum and the Military

    by Bruce Rennie,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    In fact, I believe the Marine Corps was always an interested follower of Boyd and are probably the most agile for the American service branches. The military may have a reputation as a stodgy organization but they have the advantage in that there's a strong incentive to learn and improve.

  • Re: Scrum and the Military

    by Jens Meydam,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.


    The parallel between the inspect-and-adapt cycle (both product/plan and process) in Scrum and the "OOAD" loop is obvious. The connection between what you did as a pilot and the /internal/ pattern of a Sprint (in particular the Daily Scrum) is less clear to me.

    Could you elaborate a little further?


  • Re: Scrum and the Military

    by Jens Meydam,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    By the way, in Don Reinertsen's latest book there is a whole chapter about the doctrine of the Marine Corps. For an executive, the parallels with elite units in the military may be the most convincing argument for moving from a plan-driven to a more agile style of development.

  • Re: Scrum and the Military

    by Alexandre Bairos de Medeiros,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Jens, a small suggestion is that agile is not antagonistic to following a plan. Another way of speaking is "moving from a anticipation based approach to an adaptation based" or something similar. The idea comes from Mike Cohn's Agile estimating and planning book.

    Alexandre Bairos

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