The Agile Manifesto has greatly influenced what modern IT is, both from a technical and a management perspective. Many of the most successful SW development initiatives of the last years have had Agility as their north star.
Let’s quickly go back to the four values of the Agile Manifesto:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Responding to change over following a plan
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
If we look at them, we see that yes, they relate to SW development and IT organisations, but at the same time they are also somehow more general and talk about how groups of human beings should address complex tasks with important goals at stake. Complexity and risk are things that characterise many IT initiatives, but not only IT initiatives. In many spaces outside IT we have encountered complexity and risk mixed together.
From this broader perspective, it may be interesting to look at other areas of human activities, where complexity, risks and interests at stake are high, to see whether the “Agile principles seen at large” have been actually used and which kind of results they have helped achieve.
War, unfortunately something we humans have exercised too much since we have appeared on hearth, can be definitely seen as a complex thing to run, with a lot of risks and a lot at stake. No doubt about this.
Interestingly, it is also an area where some of the Agile principles, seen in their broader sense, have been very successfully used. And sometimes they have been used in direct competition with a “rigid planning — waterfall — command and control” approach, allowing us to make a comparison of the respective effectiveness.
Here an example.
World War 1 was an insane massacre which devastated Europe and part of Middle East from 1914 until the end of 1918.
Military leadership on all sides conducted operations using 19th century strategies without understanding that machine guns and heavy artilleries and the huge logistic that new war technologies required, had changed the rules of the game.
The net result was devastating. Masses of men jumping out of trenches at a command running against machine gun fire, battles with hundreds of thousands of casualties for few miles of terrain conquered and to be lost at the next massacre.
In 1917, German Imperial High Command realised eventually that they had to change something. They had to change strategy. After USA entrance in the war, it was clear to them that such continuous bleeding would have brought Germany to defeat for exhaustion, for total consumption of forces. To this conclusion they arrived just via arithmetics, counting the living bodies still available on both sides.
A new strategy therefore was devised, out of real need, almost desperation.
On October 24th 1917, a German and Austro-Hungarian army launched an intense attack on a narrow sector of the Italian front, centred around Caporetto, now Kobarit in Slovenia, testing for the first time at large scale the new German strategy.
The concepts at the root of the this new strategy have a lot in common with the values of the Agile Manifesto. Let’s read the new strategy deployed in the Caporetto offensive through the lenses of the four values of the Agile Manifesto.
Rather than trying to occupy a vast front of trenches with a huge amount of infantry, the first Austro German attack troops were divided into small formations led by young, low rank officers. Each group was to penetrate deeply into enemy territory, with an ambitious end objective to achieve, a lateral task of disrupting communications and generate panic, ample freedom of initiative.
In the intensity of the combat and penetration, such groups had to rely on themselves much more than on the army organization. Their individual aptitude and their team attitude were key to their success, which meant also their survival. These troops had been selected and trained to achieve a new level or results.
The success was overwhelming, the initial ambitions were quickly overcome. In just four weeks the Italian army was pushed back by 120 Km. Up to that moment, the most successful offensive on the Italian front had gained 12 Km, at an absurd cost in terms of casualties.
Trained teams, quick interactions, distributed leadership were the key of that great success. These elements were the great advantage against an enemy still immerse in the old traditional way of waging war.
Launching such a new kind of offensive meant to escape from the usual way of defining detailed battle plans, which were doomed to become totally useless as soon as the first shell hit the field.
The German Command explained to their operational officers the end goal of the offensive, gave them ambitious targets but no detailed instructions on how to achieve them. Rather, they encouraged their operational officers to be proactive, take decisions based on the concrete situation they were facing on the ground, report to the center only highly important elements, both issues and successes.
Erwin Rommel at the time was not yet the Desert Fox. He was just a young Captain leading the Wuerttemberg Mountain Battalion, a formation specifically trained for mountain warfare. Caporetto was surrounded by mountains.
As other units did, his battalion penetrated deeply and took the enemy by surprise. Many prisoners were made, so many that his direct superior thought the objectives of the unit were completely reached and that the unit could be called back to be employed somewhere else. Rommel though saw a new opportunity to strike the enemy hard, and therefore decided to interpret the command with flexibility. He retained a small group of soldiers and attacked from the rear an entire Regiment, which surrendered and was disarmed before realising how few were the German soldiers confronting them.
There were no detailed plans. There could not be sensible detailed plans for a thing like a major offensive in a mountain region. The only thing ever present, apart from tragedy, was the need of continuous change. Which meant that, if a subordinate officer saw a great opportunity to win something, he had the liberty to pursue it, even if this meant not to blindly obey superior orders.
There was definitely an high level plan, with clear high level objectives and responsibilities, but also clear indications for the soldiers to “respond to change” and operate flexibly on the ground.
On the other side of the camp, there were more than 500 big artillery pieces ready to fire on the small area where the Imperial Army was concentrating the troops before the assault. The Italian High Command knew about the imminent attack via deserters. The guns were aiming at the right spot, but…
But a General, Pietro Badoglio, wanted to be the one, the only one, to issue the order to fire, an order which would have destroyed the enemy, which would have brought him immense glory.
To be sure to be the One for the Great Honour, he removed the General commander of the artillery and substituted him with a lower level Colonel, Alberto Cannoniere — quite a name for a commander of artillery — to be sure that no insubordination would have ruined his plans.
General Badoglio of course was too busy to issue decisive orders to be near his troops, to be close to his artillery. So, when the Austro-Germans started the attack and destroyed communication lines as their first objective, Badoglio was cut out, he could not communicate with Cannoniere, who did not dare to fire without an official command. Cannoniere sent his men to look for Badoglio and receive the order, but in the chaos of the offensive they could not find him. After few hours later though they found the Austro-German troops, just coming from behind to capture the entire artillery, fully equipped with all ammunitions, since not a single shot had been fired.
Here the parallelism becomes more feeble, but still there is some.
Working software is just the end goal of a SW development initiative, or at least it should be. Conquering a specific set of objectives is the final goal of a battle.
Documentation is important in SW, specifically if it remains at high level, just to explain the big picture. Details must be derived by code, which is a sort of living organism. Reports on the situation on the ground and written orders are important, to maintain a consistent course of actions in an army. But they must be sufficiently high level to convey the big picture and the key elements, and not absorb any additional energy from the troops on the ground, which have more important and risky tasks to accomplish.
The German troops at Caporetto behaved along the lines of the Agile Manifesto value#3. The troops were focused on conquering their objectives, overcome them and look for the next ambitious ones. The High Command asked just for crucial information, and sent only crucial high level directives. Useless bureaucracy was removed, there was no time for it.
Now probably we have to stop. In a war there is no customer, unless you want to consider mercenaries, but this is not the case for this article.
We have seen “Agile principles seen at large” in the context of a complex battle. Not all of them make perfect sense, but at least 2 and an half do make sense, a lot of sense. Maybe, then, we can draw some conclusions.
Agility, when played well, with the right attitude and the right aptitude, is a key success factor. It is a success factor in scenarios which are complex, fast-moving and full of unknowns. Just what a big battle is.
The business scenarios we all live in today are what? They are complex, fast-moving and full of unknowns. Modern organisations need to adapt to such scenarios, rather than wait for the old good days to come back. Agility is a way, a proven way, to adapt to turbulent changes.
If you are not convinced of this, you can look back at history, look at different fields of human activities, investigate other areas where groups of humans work together to achieve something complex with high risks. You may well find other Agile practitioners ante litteram, who would have signed the Agile Manifesto, as Erwin Rommel would have signed, if he had just been a SW developer 80 years later.
Yes, this is true. The German and Austro-Hungarian lost the war. This is a fact. But was it because of the tactics employed at Caporetto?
Well, probably not. Maybe Caporetto-style arrived too late, with Austrian and German empires in starvation mode because of the naval blockade and America moving drastically the equilibrium of forces.
Maybe the truth lays in the fact that, if you change too late, well …, it is just too late.
What we can say for sure is just that when Agility was employed, it revealed to be quite effective.