Ben Ford – The overlap between modern military ideas and agile
Read along you will
Shane: Welcome to the no nonsense agile podcast. I’m Shane Gibson
Murray: and I’m Murray Robinson,
Ben: and I’m Ben Ford.
Murray:Welcome Ben, how are you?
Ben: I’m good. Thanks.
Murray:Great to have you on, we’ve talked before on, on LinkedIn and you have a military background, which I, I found very interesting because I’ve been reading about John Boyd and UDA loops and you know, mission command and the blitz Creek and command and control and so on.
So I think that there’s a, there’s a lot of interesting ideas in the military around agility and leadership, which Yeah, which could benefit us in, in the kind of at product development world.
Ben: Yeah, murray, I agree and I discounted it for a long time. So I left the military in 2004.
Having taught myself the basics of Python while I was on, on the way to Iraq in 2003 sort of dove into, you know, being a, being a geek and writing code and, you know, going ever, ever more deeply down that kind of technical journey. And it wasn’t till probably, I don’t know, five or so years ago that I began to run into more and more problems of like the complexity, the growing in complexity of the modern world of, of development mm-hmm
And you know, I got quite frustrated with, you know, time and time again, building a great team, building a great technical product, and then running into some sort of organizational complexity or just, you know, the increasing pace of change. And, and I started. I started at that point, looking into, you know, properly looking into agile and, and the underpinnings.
And about that time team of teams by general McChrystal came out and then the extreme ownership by Joco willin and turned the ship around and all these military kind of books. And I was already starting to make some links between, you know, my time in, in the Royal Marines. And and you know, what, what I was seeing kind of on the ground, if you like.
And so these books then sort of sent me on this journey of doing a load of research and coming across the work of John Boyd, which I’m sure we’re gonna dig into extensively. And yeah, there’s a very, very rich sea of not directly practices, but principles that we can extract from, you know, that evolutionary environment of the military that’s been running.
You know, it’s basically an experiment on how to, how to operate in complexity. That’s been running for a good few centuries now. and there’s, there is some good stuff that we can extract from there, for sure.
Murray: Hmm. Well, I mean, the military has been the biggest organization around for, for most of our civilization.
I, I think and you know, until probably the last 200 years private sector organizations, you know, really weren’t very big at all. So I would imagine that that most people coming into, you know, management a hundred years ago or, or, or 200 years ago, would’ve had all their experience of large organizations from the military and they do seem to be well, I get the impression that, that that’s where a lot of the, the ideas of traditional management comes from.
So, There’s a, there’s a clear in traditional management, not in modern management, there’s a clear distinction between the, the management who are the offices and the workers. Yeah. And the management think, and the workers do. And you know how there’s five year plans and three year plans. And A lot of hierarchy and structure and functions.
And that seems like the way the military used to be organized. Maybe world war I style. I don’t know what you, what you think about that.
Ben: Yeah. So that’s the way the military still is organized actually. Is there’s, there’s a massive distinction that we need to draw here between, you know, the, the operational aspects of the military, I E getting on the ground and fighting the bad guys and the kind of bureaucratic aspects of the military, which are just like any other big bureau bureaucracy in any country in the world.
And there’s, there’s been this constant battle between, you know, elements of, of military that want to operate. And, you know, we can dig into like some of the underpinnings of that, like mission command and, and. And things like that, but, you know, the, the way that the operational military works is that that org structure kind of flattens out and the best idea wins.
And, you know, it’s all, it’s all a kind of almost an egalitarian process of decision making to be the most effective. But then you get those very same people, you know, come back from making life or death life or life or death in the moment decisions that can have massive international repercussions down to the very lowest level.
Right. You know, a, a private, straight out of training can be involved in an operation that could have, you know, international in, in incident implications. And then you get them back on camp. And, you know, the Colonel who’s got 20 years of experience goes to work in the mod. And he spends half his day chasing around a, a, you know, a refund for a parking ticket that costs 20 quid because this, the trust isn’t there in that system.
So you’ve got these two overlaid kind of dynamics in the same organization. And one context brings out one type of dynamic and one context brings out the other type of dynamic. And I think we see that in many companies as they get big as well.
Murray: Yeah. I, I think that one reason for that is if you fought a war, like the, the way that your, that captain was trying to get his parking ticket refunded you’d lose every battle. Wouldn’t you? So there’s intense competition in a war, which just. You know, has, has driven out that bureaucratic behavior.
And I, and I guess has proved that, you know, a, a mission command type of approach is more successful when you are, when you’re in the heat of it.
Ben: Yeah. So, so there, I think there’s a few things to unpack there. So yes, definitely the, that element of competition is critical. You know, it’s any endeavor in, you know, the whole biosphere on the planet is, is an evolutionary process.
And the things that have emerged over, you know, centuries in the military are things that have emerged to stop people getting killed or stop people getting killed in such great numbers. So, you know, there’s, there’s definitely gonna be some, some gold hidden in that stream. And I think it’s more and more relevant.
today because the operational environment and the competitive environment within business driven by this kind of technological explosion that we’ve had over the last, what 25 years is now causing the same dynamics to play out much more widely than, you know, a battle in a war somewhere. Right. So I think, you know, I’m not gonna say business is a war because it’s not, you know, war is a, that kind of zero sum, especially the, the more traditional kind of aspect idea of a, of a war of, you know, two nations fighting each other to mutual destruction.
The kind of conflict that we’re in now is much more akin to the kind of business environment, you know, that kind of fourth generation warfare and things like that. So, so we’re now in this kind of very diffuse operational environment where incumbents. Getting their asses handed to them, you know, on the regular, by scrappy upstarts that are able to operate orders of magnitude more effectively, cuz they’ve got better technology.
And I think that’s that dynamic is where we can definitely take in more insight from the military than perhaps like, you know, traditional management or even dare I say it kind of traditional agile
Shane: mm-hmm so it’s an, it’s an interesting lens that you’ve just put up there about competition. Cause you know, I, I’ve seen definitely on my side of the world, that interesting behavior in the forces where, you know, when teams are deployed, they’re self organizing, you know, They sit off in a direction, they go and do the best they can.
There there’s very little bureaucracy yet. We come back to time of peace and, you know, we have the big head offices and, you know, bureaucracy, rain, Supreme. And I always wondered whether it was urgency, whether it was a time constraint, that was the differentiator. So, you know, when you’re out there, there is no time to go and ask somebody for permission, you know?
So you’re allowed to have permission to do what you need to do is my understanding. But when we go back into times where we have time, everybody wants an opinion, right? There’s time to delay decisions because the impact is supposedly less. So that’s, that was
Ben: my view of,
Shane: I thought that was kind of the driving problem.
But then if I think about competition, I, I often see when I’m working with teams that are still starting to form,
Ben: you know, they don’t really gel
Shane: and interesting enough when they get an, a adversary. And it might be another team that’s doing better, or it might be somebody that’s coming. That’s trying to break them up and says, what’s this agile crap.
And, and, and disrupt them. They inform because they have some, some competition, they have something to compete against. So do you think it’s both, do you think it’s one, what, what do you think the kind of driver is that yeah. Allows us to lose the agility that you have on the front line when you’re back in, in, in the office worrying about your parking ticket.
Ben: Yeah, that, that is a really great question. So I, I think the, both examples of the same thing, which is a constraint on your. Resources. Right. So we can start maybe start taking a little shallow dive into John Boyd’s work here, but you know, Boyd is a Colonel John Boyd is a military strategist who was active from the time of the Korean war to the late nineties.
And, you know, he cut us away across everything from sort of tactical, how you fly a fighter jet all the way up to, you know, the, the urban myth is that he was the, the designer of the first, the first Gulf war campaign. And you know, he says that the primary objective is to, for, for any kind of biological organism is to increase its capacity for independent action.
Right. So. Is intricately bound up with the constraints within which that organize organism is operating, right? So the cons the constraints will shape the way that organism. And when, when I say organism, I’m not just talking about, you know, a creature, but, you know, a team, a, a business a unit within a business, a military unit, they’re all, you know, broadly kind of lumped under that term of, of a, you know, biodynamic organism.
So I think it’s, you know, then we get into the, the process of evolution and the, the, the process by which an internal structure forms within a team or, or an organism is you know, the process by which it learns its behavior is driven by the constraints of the environment. So, you know, if you have that team on the one hand, that’s, you know, newly forming, there’s not really any pressure, you know, nobody’s asking them to deliver because they’re brand new.
Well, you know, they’ll, they’ll make links and they’ll make structure, but it won’t be the structure that they need to actually. , you know, get on the tools and deliver and the same in the military, right? You’ll you’ll have, you know, literally hundreds, well actually thousands of people wandering around in higher headquarters, all jockeying for position as all humans do, but no external pressure and no real kind of goal.
So it’s just this kind of mess of people bumping up against each other and vying for position. And I think that probably plays out in many, many companies that have built this kind of ginormous internal bureaucracy. That’s
Murray: my experience, as well as Ben that in the organizations I know of that have really embraced.
An agile transformation it’s because they were suffering from severe financial problems. They were losing one organization I was working with was losing a lot of money on all of their projects. So they had to do something different. And so therefore they really got behind, you know, a big change. And another organization I know of was had very disappointing sales figures.
And so they, yeah, they put somebody from their digital arm in charge. So, so the change comes from, you know, having to respond to a threat that, that can’t be ignored, I think. Yeah.
Ben: Yeah. And it, and it, it’s interesting that that is, you know, what you are describing is bottom up, you know, environment driven change.
Right. And I think, you know, we can maybe dig into this, but one of the observations that I make about some many places I’ve worked, some, you know, mostly in the public sector is that. , you know, you’ve got all of these consultants running around, selling agile and, and selling, selling the kind of things that we talk about and they sell it into the top of the organization and then they try and implement it from the top of the organization.
But actually the only time I agree with you completely, the only time that this really works is when it’s implemented bottom up. So it’s gotta be this evolutionary, environmental driven process of energy and information exchange with the environment that you’re operating and not some, you know, Grandi grand two year plan from, from.
The leadership or the management in this case, saying, right. Here’s the plan go do it.
Shane: So it, it still needs permission though. Right?
Shane: I agree at bottom up is all I’ve ever seen. I’ve, you know, I’ve never gone in at the top and been gone into an organization that has had permission from the top to, to do the change properly.
You know, see some organizations that pretend they have permission, you know, tend to get a big, a three blueprint from a consulting company and, and transform. But if, if the people at the bottom are trying to do it and they don’t have permission, it would be the same as, you know, the, the squads going out into the field, but still being told they had to phone home.
Right. And you know, they’re either gonna ignore it, break the rules or, or do it and where the consequences. So, you know, I think in those large organizations, they still need permission to, to change the way they work. Yeah, depending on how that is. It doesn’t need to be from the top down, but there needs to be a, when I call the shit umbrella, right, there needs to be some safety for them to fail, you know, to learn, to make mistakes.
And and that’s important.
Murray: I would say that I’ve seen a number of agile transformations that started from the bottom up. Cause they all used to in the old days, they always used to start from the bottom up. And then there’s a change of leadership and, you know, suddenly it’s all squashed by somebody who wants to put in a traditional approach.
So I feel like it, it needs top level support. But yeah, it shouldn’t be imposed. It needs to come from both directions at the same time. And I think there is a, when there’s something wrong in the environment, then the people on the ground are very well aware that things have to change. So they want to change.
Ben: Yeah. Yeah, so I, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen. Examples of like bottom up driven, not really, not really transformation, but you know, , I’ve, I’ve heard it referred to, and I’ve actually written an article on LinkedIn. I’ve heard it referred to as an internal insurgency. And actually that, that does seem to be like, there’s a great book called the, the tower on the square, which is about the historical interaction between hierarchies and networks.
And it does seem that there’s this kind of periodic, almost like a circadian rhythm of the network or the hierarchy getting control or thinking that they, you know, imposing some kind of control, but then that environmental pressure perhaps generating activity within the informal network as Dave Snowden would call it the informal network that then percolates up and disrupts the hierarchy.
And I think, you know, a great example is the, the special oper special operations executive in the second mobile. Before they could go and disrupt the Germans they had to form. And they had to form under the protection of Churchill himself because they had to go and disrupt the war office because it dis the war office wasn’t interested.
The war office was, you know, no, thank you. We’re British. We fight with the Queens be rules. And, you know, we’ll probably stumble into another bout of trench warfare and kill millions of people. So, so yeah, the, I, I’m not sure whether permission’s exactly the right word, because I think sometimes these things percolate up to the point that they can’t be ignored.
But yes, there’s definitely, you know, there’s definitely some aspect of meeting in the middle and, and support from the top. Yeah.
Murray: I wanted to ask about U loop mm-hmm , which well, you can, you can describe what it is. And, and my understanding is time is the main Thing that we’re looking at, but do you wanna run quickly through it?
Ben: Yeah, sure. So , this could be this could be a long, a long monologue here. fair warning. So the ULO is the formulation that John Boyd came up with towards the end of his work. So there’s a, a, you know, many people have heard of the Ute loop at this point because it’s, you know, become popular over the last few years.
But what we generally tend to come across is the kind of very, very simplified version. A a four step process where you observe you orient, you decide and you act that’s what UDA stands for. And you often see that portrayed as a, you know, a circle with an act, with an arrow going around the circle from observe to act.
And then, you know, you observe the results of your actions. Hmm. And the know the, the traditional simplified view of that is, you know, the quick you go around that loop, if you go around that loop quicker than your opponent, you win because you are, you know, you are inside their UDA loop, which is, you know, it’s not wrong.
But you know, this was accumulation of boy’s 30 years of incredibly wide insight and, and, and incredibly kind of wide research into multiple different aspects, not just military history, but, you know, natural sciences philosophy. So there’s a bit more to udder than, than just that four step process.
And really the key to udder is that. Second I it’s the orientation. So orientation is your, your model of the world. If you like, it’s your, how closely your internal picture of the world matches up to the environment that you are operating in. And the whole point of going through this UDA loop is to build that model to an acceptable level of fidelity that lets you operate in that environment with, with some degree of fluency, like
Murray: scientific models
Ben: yet com Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t think so because you, you don’t need, you don’t need a hypothesis to build an orientation, right. When I I’ll give you an example from the martial arts. So I, I obviously from COVID at the moment I’m lapsed, but my favorite martial arts is Brazilian jujitsu and Brazilian jujitsu is, you know, you’ll, you’ll drill a movement, which is like a really basic kind of.
You know, this is how you choke somebody, but all of the learning takes place in, in rolling, which is basically simulated combat. And the difference between somebody who’s been doing it for a while and somebody who’s brand new is night and day and that, but that brand new person can have 30 years of experience in another martial art, by the way, you know, you’ll, you’ll get regularly, get people with black belts and multiple Dans and other martial arts come in and they’ll get their asses handed to them by a, a six week, six month experience white belt.
And you can learn how to do Brazilian jujitsu with absolutely no training at all. You can just roll and learn. So although there is drilling, right, there’s a guy based in Australia. I can’t remember his name offhand, but he basically discounts drilling completely. And he, he got to black belt and Brazilian jujitsu just by relentlessly putting himself in bad positions and figuring things out.
So no hypothesis at all, just purely experience led building of these internal structures that, that teach you to operate better. And, you know, same goes with good development teams and businesses. You know, they all build as they grow, they all build this internal structure that enables them to, to operate at a higher level.
Murray: That’s very interesting because it seems to me that in order to understand. What’s working and what’s not working with your, with your customers, your market and your team. You need to be open and honest and reflective, which is the key to, you know, the, the retrospectives in, in the scrum and a lot of the, the scrum ideas.
Ben: And debriefing the military. It’s exactly the same principle. Yeah. But it, but
Shane: it also aligns with the idea that while some of their job patterns are
Ben: useful, you know, the, the
Shane: use of the patents and anger. Right. And, and the reuse and the adaption of those patents to something that works for you is more important than following the patents to the letter of the law.
Ben: Yeah. A hundred percent. There’s a, a great quote that, that Boyd I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but you know, doctrine inevitably becomes dogma. And when it becomes document, it’s not useful as doctrine anymore.
Murray: We talk a lot about tailoring your, your approach to software development.
Don’t we, Shane yeah. Find
Shane: your own way of working right. Adopt what’s useful and throw away. What’s not, we, we also talk a lot about skills and roles and, and Murray, and I have the very different view on this particular one. So, so how does that work in the military? Right. So you have a group of people that are going out, they all have different skills, but they do actually have predetermined
Ben: roles don’t they?
Yeah. To, to, so to a degree, I mean, I, you know, I’ve only got a, a thin slice of experience within, within one military unit rather than, you know, a, a full military career. But the way the rural Marines works is quite interesting. Especially given that kind of cultural heritage of, of being spun out of the special operations executive during the second world war.
So the, the rural Marines is a very longstanding. Continuous military organization that what goes back to 1664. But the commando aspect of it came about during the second world war. And that commando aspect is now kind of woven through the culture of, of the Marines. So the Marines is a bit different in that everyone.
So, you know, in many, many other military organizations in the world, you can join as a specialist. You know, you can join as a technician and you’ll do like a really basic maybe, I don’t know, six weeks as low as six weeks. In some cases, basic military training, you know, teach you how to salute, teach you how to March, you know, teach you how to shoot it going without killing yourself kind of level.
The rural Marines is a bit different, regardless of whatever specialism you do, you are a commando first. So you always go and do every, everyone who has a green beret within the Marines has done 30 weeks, minimum training, 32 nowadays. So you get this aspect of, and then you go onto your do your specialism.
So I was a signal. You know, back in the day when it was still analog radios and very, very out of day kit. And then, you know, the unit that is on the ground per operation, you might take people from a different specialism. So you might have a heavy, heavy weapons division for an operation. You know, a signals unit maybe have a sniper team, but all interestingly, even though all those people have different roles, the, the communications process and the doctrine and the, the way that they learn how to interate is the same.
So that that’s interesting. There’s a kind of common fabric that holds them together, which is the communications practices and processes. And then the different skills go off and do their things, but they report back via the same mechanism.
Shane: So they, they effectively have a shared language. Yeah. Yeah. And, and then what happens if, you know, one of those specialist skills isn’t available, right?
Because from what I heard, the, you start off with generalist skills, right? You, you, you can cover lots of things. Maybe not, as well as the specialist who’s been doing it for years, but you know, if you needed to pick up the, the, the heavy item, you probably have enough skills to pick it up and make do, right.
You wouldn’t be the best, but you’d still be adequate. Is that true? Or
Ben: does it not work that way? Yeah. So I mean, everyone, so, so there’ll be weapon systems that, that need specialist training, like, you know, the, the javelin anti tank, this are, for example, like that is a specialist course that you need to go on and there’d be bits of radio equipment that, that I was trained on, that other people wouldn’t be trained on, but the process of operating the radio, like the, what they call voice procedure to mitigate the poor communications of the, of the equipment itself is the same.
So everyone learns that during training. I think the, the interesting thing is in that example where a specialist skill is not available is, you know, that’s, that’s where this kind of military planning process comes in. That I think that there’s a lot we could take for this for, for software development.
So you have an, and you have a set of resources and what you do during the planning process is you figure out how you can make that objective happen with the resources that you’ve got. And, you know, sometimes you’ll have to be extremely creative and sometimes you’ll have to go back to hire, come on and say, look, I just can’t make this work.
You know? And, and then that will percolate up to whatever that objective was part of as a, as a larger objective might have to change. So you’ll go up and down this kind of, you know, process of planning that you Murray mentioned before we came on about OKRs. It is similar to KRS in, in some ways, right? So if.
a unit has been given a task that it can’t complete on its own. It will either go and ask for the resources it needs to complete. So, okay. We don’t have a heavy weapons division. We don’t have a heavy, heavy weapons unit with us. Can we get an air strike instead? Right. So they’ll, they’ll be this process of, okay, this is the objective that we have to meet.
How can we make it happen? And that, that will be that kind of flat. Right? Who’s got the ideas, you know, I don’t care if it’s like someone brand new. It’s like, you know, if they got an idea that, that we can sort of put our finger in the air and think, yeah, that’s got a chance of working, then that might start to form the backbone of a plan to, to take that objective.
And then at some point you’ll either say, yeah, we’ve got something that’s good enough. This is what we’re gonna go with. And then you’ll really make it very detailed. Or you’ll go back and say, well, look, we just can’t make this work. We need to change it.
Murray: This might be a good point to explain mission command.
And my understanding of it is that the German military developed this before world war II. And the idea is that individual units need to be able to have a lot of autonomy to achieve the mission. Because as soon as you engage everything changes and plans have to change on the spot. You don’t have time to go back up.
So speed is very important when you’re in competition. And so therefore as a lot of time is spent explaining from higher levels down to lower levels, not only what you want to do, but why, why do you wanna do this? And what’s the objective that you’re trying to achieve. And then. The higher level commander would ask the lower level commander to develop a plan and then they might review it.
But everybody knows that as soon as things begin, that plan is, you know, has to be changed without going back again, is, is that mission command and, and you know, how does it actually work?
Ben: Yeah. So, okay. So, so the, the, the underpinnings of mission commander, you know, slightly older than, than the Germans.
So the Germans formulated into this much more fully explained kind of doctrine, I guess. But you know, yesterday was Nathan Nelson day and the battle of Trago was in 18. Oh my God. I should know this cause it’s one of the core memorable dates. But you know, several hundred years ago, let’s say, and you know, Nelson used mission command in, in that battle.
So the, I, the idea of, of. Mission command is that yes, you, you set the objective and then you empower lower units to achieve, you know, achieve the elements of that objective by, by whatever means within the constraints that you set as well. And, you know, all of these things get quite fuzzy quite quickly.
There’s a great story that perhaps we can stick in the show notes of a Finnish Swedish Swedish military unit in Bosnia, who, and Sweden’s on the border of Russia. Their whole doctrine is based on the Russians are gonna invade us and will need to very quickly move into gorilla warfare. So they absolutely embrace military MI mission command down to the, you know, down to the roots of their DNA.
So when you put a bunch of these people in Bosnia, a battalion of them, I think it was. And they’re under this kind of UN mandate and loads of rules of engagement. Well, that didn’t work for them. Like the, you know, the, the mission that they were given was to protect the local population. And when the rules of engagement got in the way of them protecting the MI the population, they said, well, fuck that.
And they threw the rules of engagement out and they, you know, they started going toe to toe with whoever their opponent was. And they were far more effective in the objective that they were given, but they absolutely completely ignored the constraints within which they were supposed to operate. So this is where the problems come with commander control in the military is that, you know, in order to achieve the outcome, sometimes you have to accept that you’re not in any way in control as a commander.
And that’s where this kind of the, the fabric that mission command is built on is trust. And that you have to, in order to allow people to be out of control, You have to trust them and they have to trust you. So it gets, it gets very interesting very quickly. And I think sometimes we often lose, you know, we went mention OKRs a couple of times.
Like, I feel like OKRs become this very linear. Almost like an algorithm of, of right. We’ve got this task and we’ll split it down. It’s almost like a task list at the end of it. And, and at the end of it, when it’s poorly implemented. Whereas actually I think the spirit of OKRs that Andy gross sets out, you know, he actually said first first let chaos reign and then reign in chaos.
And you know, I don’t see much chaos being allowed to reign in modern kind of management theory. I see lots in development
Ben: So yeah,
Shane: we, we have some hope
Murray: yeah. I, I think it’s very common within organizations for management, not to trust the, their staff. And therefore to be extremely controlling and, and, you know, it goes back to this philosophy, the theory X versus theory, Y you know, philosophy theory, X is you can’t trust people.
They’re lazy, they’ll Skype off. They won’t, they’ll avoid responsibility theory. Why is people will people will naturally wanna achieve things under the right circumstances and with the right trust and support, and you know, that they, that they’ll bring their talent and people are naturally innovative and creative.
So I still see a lot of theory, X management, and a lot of theory, X type of people implementing agile and turning it into. What’s called dark scrum and you know, this kind of micromanagement .
Ben: Yeah. I’ve never heard that before, but oh my God, it fits so well in so many
Murray: places I’ve worked yeah. It’s like nightmare authoritarian, scrum, where you’re a, you’re a factory, you’re a, a developer as a factory worker on a death March because they’re using people with that mindset are, are using scrum to micromanage you.
Yep. So it’s a mindset difference.
Ben: Yeah, it is. And I think, I think there’s an interesting, there’s an interesting thing there that the people that end up in those leadership positions who may have been sort of operators let’s call ’em at one point. I mean, sometimes not, right. Sometimes you get like a, a, somebody in a CTO position.
Who’s never been a technologist at all, but it’s just a manager. So the, the problem there is, I think there’s a huge amount of insecurity that goes with. That position sometimes, you know, the Peter principle of being, you know, even, even good technical people, getting promoted up to a point that they’re not comfortable anymore.
And you know, when humans are uncomfortable, they try and seek control and they try and manufacture control whether or not it exists. And the irony is that by trying to do that, they actually remove the ability to generate that capacity for independent action over time, because they, they remove that learning element, which is what builds the structure, which is what allows you to operate.
So it’s this kind of really perverse negative cycle of, you know, more control means less learning, which removes control, which means that you try and apply more control and you get less learning. So it’s a, it’s a really bad, a really bad dynamic to get into that. So many companies are in. So
Shane: how’s that different in the military.
So, you know, for example, you often see in large organizations, people get promoted to their highest level of incompetence because they’ve been around the longest or, you know, Murray often has a, a, a comment around you know, they, they work to get promoted rather than, you know, work to add value. How’s that different in the military though?
So people get promoted, right? That there is a hierarchy, you know, in terms of those, those levels, does it work like a big corporate or is it, is it different?
Ben: So there’s, there’s a few elements that are different. So, yes. I mean, it’s a, it’s a hierarchy at the end of the day. It works the same as any other hierarchy.
Right. I don’t care if it’s based on rank or anything else. Like you, you will get people within the military who, you know, at the end of the day, the pay in the military is not great. So, you know, you, you will get a, a portion of every moving up that hierarchy who will leave to find better opportunities.
And some of those. So you, you know, you’ll get a very few really, really gifted people that just, you know, the military’s their life and, and, you know, they’re brilliant leaders and they’re, you know, self learners and, and all of that stuff. And, and you’ll get just like any other organization that will be a Pretto distribution.
And the majority of people, once you get to sort of middle management will be middle managers, the difference. And, and actually, so in, in, in, in the operational sense, one of the differences that mil that military has is they have this pre-defined process of communication. That is the same everywhere. So if you lose somebody in a leader, in a leadership position through promotion, or, or, you know, whatever the, the next person that slots in already has a very predefined way of communicating.
So it’s the orders process. It’s debriefing, it’s, you know, it’s all this stuff that is. Built into the doctrine and the training. So you’re not losing the whole leader if you like, the system remains, whereas in many civilian sort of context, a person leaves and all of that structure leaves with them. So, so there’s more continuity in the military, which is sort of required that the, you, you need people to slot into a working machine and continue the mission.
And that pressure isn’t the same in civilian contexts.
Shane: So, so just before just, so what I kind of hear is these ceremonies, right? There’s, there’s, systemwide ceremonies there. When you move into the next level role, you, you know what the ceremonies look like. You may not have been great at. Yeah. You may not have led those ceremonies, but you know what they are, you, you know, the language of those ceremonies and therefore you’re at least not starting from a standing start.
So again, a lot of, lot of comparisons to some of the agile patterns that we
Ben: use, right. Yeah. It’s it’s yeah. It’s almost kind of ritualized ceremony. Yeah. It’s kind of similar to the ceremonies, I suppose. Yeah. Yeah, except it’s, it’s there across the whole organization, you know, the, one of the problems with agile is that.
The ceremony is not the same. Once you get up to a certain level, right. You know, you don’t have, you know, the border and doesn’t do a standup. Not, not that I’m saying that they should, they could anybody should, but you know, ,
Murray: I have once implemented, I once implemented a daily standup with a leadership team and that it worked well for as long as the CEO could be bothered with it.
Yeah. what I was going to say before was that management and, and senior management is N nearly, always in the private sector, very inward looking, not always, well, maybe not always, but frequently, very inward looking. Yep. And very, very political and people who do well often do so by. Controlling the information that goes up and down the hierarchy.
Yeah. So that they look good, you know, and they get credit for things and therefore they get promoted. Mm-hmm but the process of doing that can severely distort the information going up to the senior leadership. So the classic one is where people are on a death March project, which is everyone knows it’s gonna fail.
The project manager, reports it as red, their general manager says, no, it’s actually good. They reported it as green to the executive. And it goes all the way up to the top as a tremendously successful project, that’s all going very well. And then it fails and everyone is surprised. So, it seems to me that, that this ties back nicely with what you were saying before about the orient.
Process in, in John Boyd that in a lot of organizations, senior executives are living in a, in a, a fantasy world about how things are really going, because they themselves have created a, a, a culture of fear in their organizations where people won’t tell them what’s really
Ben: going on. Yep, yep. No, a hundred, a hundred percent.
And, and this, this actually, the ULO has got a lot to say about this. So, so one of the, you know, boy’s theories came from combat, right? It’s you know, how do you achieve a dominant position and win in every, every kind of element of combat from, you know, fighter aircraft to, you know, military strategy and one of the key kind of ideas of, of the Ulu that doesn’t really get talked about much.
So I’ll just sort of sketch it out here. Is that. You know, U UDA is describes the process of interacting with your environment, right? And the only place that you touch your environment is an observation and action, right? So a key, a key way of getting inside an opponent’s ter loop is just to cut one of those one or both of those things off, right?
So you either shape their observation by feeding them information too quickly, or feeding them the wrong information, or noticing that they are taking the wrong meaning from it. And then, and, you know, magnifying that, so you, you, you disrupt the information flow and you also disrupt the information flow about their, the results of their actions and what happens when you do that successfully.
And I felt this, you know, doing martial arts with somebody that doesn’t know anything about the Ulu, but is, you know, a higher be than me. What, what happens is that the. Opponent in that instance folds in upon itself, because all it does is try and orientate and decide orientate, decide orientate, decide, and it’s constantly, it’s orientation is moving further and further and further away from something that is a fit for reality.
And, you know, if that’s, if that’s your goal with an opponent in a competitive or combative situation, what you’ve described is exactly that process being generated internally by this, you know, politics, and, you know, you are cutting off information from the environment and your essentially increasing internal entropy and.
You know, that is a death spiral. That that is exactly what any opponent would seek to do to you if they were trying to destroy you. And so many companies have this process that just builds that, that, that just happens organically internally because of all these politics and, and whatnot. I, I find that incredibly interesting and, and wasteful
I mean, we see it as an anti patent in teams, you know, the team self organizing, but then there’s a whole lot of gates put in their way and, you know, the gates stop them delivering, and then they get smacked for not delivering on time. So more gates go in to make sure they deliver on time. And that destructive loop within the team does helps them burn out.
Ben: Yep. There’s a, there’s a great term. Just, just to interject there. There’s a great extract from a CIA field manual in the 1950s about how to, how to bring down a regime and it’s all about basically, you know, just become a bureaucrat, just you. Make sure you’ve got always a, a, a comment in meetings and make sure that you insist everything goes through committee and it’s like a it’s like an operating manual for, for a screwed up company in, in the 2000 hysterical.
Well, it’s actually, it
Shane: is a great idea for a startup. Isn’t it? That one way you could be really successful is fun, safe consultants into the large dominant player in the market and just wait. That would be . So I dunno a question. Cause I’m really interested in this parallel between the military and, and the agile world.
I find it really fascinating. So one of the things we, we struggle with constantly is scaling, right? Mm-hmm so I always talk about, I, I love working with one team of seven. I really enjoy it. Two teams of seven. I find hard four teams of seven. I find a nightmare after that, you know, I’ve, I’ve never quite got there.
So, you know, a military organization is, is more than a team of seven. So how does it
Ben: handle that scaling problem? Yeah, so that, that is interesting. It. It does, it does to a degree. And one of the ways it does it is by having very fractal social structures. So within, within a military unit and, and actually very interestingly, these the sizes of these social structures map quite nicely to anthrop anthropological human group sizes as well.
So in a combat oriented military organization, like a regiment, you know, in the Marines, it’s called a commando. You have sections sections are made up of two fire teams and this, you know, varies by a number or two across different types of military organizations. Like some might have six or 12 or whatever.
But so in the Marines, when I was in there’s an eight person section, which is two, four man fire teams, Each of which has a fire team commander. One of those fire team commanders is the section commander three sections form, a troop or a would be called a platoon in other, other types, other militaries.
And that is three sections plus troop Sergeant, which is kind of logistics, troop commander, which is leadership and then probably a troop signaler. So that would be somebody who knows how to use a radio and then any attachments for kind of liaison with other elements. And then three troops, former company, and the company has a slightly larger HQ.
whether, you know, probably two, two or three signals and a probably larger set of attachments, like a heavy weapons platoon or something like that. So, so you get this kind of growing fractal structure, each, each element that you go up adds slightly larger sort of back office. I guess, if you like, you know, non, non combat element, and then three companies goes into a commando or a regimen, and that has a lot more support, like, you know, motor transport much larger signal element other types of heavy weapons and mortars and, and it becomes a, it becomes a more capable and self-contained fighting unit as you go up.
And I think that’s something very interesting to. To think about when you, when you think about some of these kind of more fancy, flat management, things like Holocracy and, you know, you read in reinventing organizations and you read about, Hey, and you read corporate rebels, and you notice that while the traditional hierarchy disappears, you still have these element sizes, right.
They’re still some, some notion of nesting or composing smaller sub units into larger units with extra support structures as you, as you grow. So, yeah, I think, I think there’s a, you know, strip away some of the specifics and there’s some real nice sort of mathematical principles in there.
Murray: Since we’re talking about larger teams, I, I I’d like to just touch on team of teams.
No, not team of teams turn the ship around, which is about commanding a us nuclear submarine, which has about 130, 140. People I, I understand
Ben: which is right around Dunbar’s number, interestingly enough, from an anthropological point of view.
Murray: So Shane and I talk a lot about servant leadership here and, and how that is the way to get the, the best out of people mm-hmm and to, and to get the best sort of organization and you know, much creates much more pleasant environment for everybody as well.
And it strikes me that he, although he doesn’t talk about servant leadership specifically, that’s what he’s doing as a commander of that submarine, or I wonder what you thought.
Ben: Yeah. Yeah. I think so I find team, a team of teams and turn the ship around are both like really, really fantastic books. Yeah.
What’s interesting about them is that they don’t really mention the kind of theoretical underpinnings. Right. It’s a very experiential. kind of thing. And, and they don’t dig into, like, I don’t think mission command is mentioned in team of teams at all. The Ulu is not mentioned in team of teams at all, and turn the ship around is, is sort of similar.
But yeah, I think it’s essentially putting, putting guide rails in place and loosening them appropriately over time. So actually the, the follow up to one to team of teams, one mission talks about this a bit more in detail. So, you know, team of teams is kind of the, the experiential report and then one mission is a bit more theoretical.
But yeah, I mean, that’s essentially servant leadership is about that. Being there to remove obstacles from the team so that they can achieve. The outcomes that you want.
Murray: Yeah, well, he, he talks in turn the ship around about taking one of the, the worst performing nuclear ships and turning it into one of the best in 12 months by basically delegating mm-hmm as much as possible throughout the ship and asking everybody what would they do if, if they were him.
So, yeah. So instead of giving them an order, he would say, this is what we are trying to achieve. What’s your proposal. Yep. And that really trained everybody to think at the next level up. And then he cascaded that all the way down, right down to the bottom so that everybody effectively learned over 12 months, how to work at the, the next level of the organization.
Yeah. Up and then they perform much
Ben: better. Yeah. There, there’s a really interesting sort of Second order effect of doing that. So, so one of the things, so there’s, there’s two couple of things here. So one of the things that David marque implemented is that, you know, in order to bring me a problem, you have to also bring a select a suggested solution.
So there’s, there’s two little acronyms here. I, it, I intend to, and I O T in order to so orders or, you know, outcomes come with in order to, which is like the vision and the, the, the actual benefit, right? I want you to do this in order to realize this benefit and problems come with, I’ve noticed this, and I intend to do this about it.
And the really interesting second order effect of that is that you get that bottom up sense making, because everyone is noticing what’s going on and, and reacting to it. But you end up mitigating the signal. Going upwards. So that only the really important stuff goes up. Right? So you, you are removing or, or you are mitigating the overload of the leader to be, you know, in the loop.
Right. So it’s, I’ve seen this problem and I intend to do this and, and then, you know, two things can happen either. Yeah. That sounds good. Go, go do it. Which is what happens most of the time, because these people are experts or it’s like, no, you’ve, you’ve kind of misunderstood that I suggest we try this instead.
Mm. Or I’ll go and get help going. I’ll go and help. So what happens is that, you know, you’ve got one person in the middle in, in the kind of leadership position and what happens in many places that I’ve worked is that that person becomes the bottleneck because they have to be in the loop for every decision.
So they become both overwhelmed under, under effective, you know, less effective. And, you know, they, they become the bottleneck. What happens here is that you still get that, that signal coming up, but it gets attenuated. So that only, the really important stuff gets to the, to the appropriate level. And I think that’s, you know, we’ll be talking about scale here and, you know, there’s, there’s a great book by the same name by Jeffrey West.
Who’s a physicist and former head of the Santa Fe Institute. And that’s what happens in every biological system, right? There’s the signals that come in are attenuated appropriately and only the really important stuff gets into the middle. That’s how our cognition works as well. So yeah, it’s a really, if you can get that dynamic going, that’s the secret to being able to scale appropriate.
Shane: and then the interesting thing is to send you and see another organism that, you know, the whole system has to redevelop. Right? So same in an organization when it’s it’s rocking and it’s working and then one of the senior roles change
Ben: the organization, you
Shane: know, the organism has to reform
Ben: it’s yeah. See it time and time again.
Murray: One of the big problems I see in, in management is that managers are not trained on how to manage people. So I think it’s worth in the technology side of things. But for example I know very few managers who know how to give feedback appropriate. You know, in, in a constructive way, most of them don’t give any feedback at all, or they just give very destructive, personal feedback.
Yeah. Or, you know, or sometimes people are just, you know, super positive and that’s, that’s their approach. So I don’t know how to give feedback. They don’t know how to do one-on-ones. There’s just all the basic stuff about how to lead people. I just don’t think is not, is taught in management at all.
It’s not taught in an MBA cause they talk about more theoretical things. And I, I presume people actually do learn that in the military, but I don’t know.
Ben: Yes, yes and no. So yeah. Leadership is obviously sprinkled through. Every aspect of the military, but it, I think this is one of the other interesting aspects of, of the difference between military leadership and non-military leadership.
A lot of the elements of leadership in the military is offloaded to the system. Mm. So it’s a sociotechnical system. It’s not a set of skills. So, you know, for example, the orders process and the debrief process, offloads a whole bunch of that ego, you know, potential ego problem, you know, ego and interpersonal problem onto a specific process that you go through.
Okay. What happened? Objective. And then what did you do? And then what did you do? So it’s almost like you are, you’re not, you’re not being grilled by somebody. There’s an accepted doctrinal process that you go through. that pulls out mistakes were made. I would’ve done this differently. I would’ve done that differently.
So it’s, that’s not a leadership skill as such. It’s an aspect of the system within which that leadership skill is deployed. And I think that’s a really important point because what that gives you in the military is it gives you the ability to swap it. It, it caps, it caps downside of poor leadership, right?
So if you get somebody who isn’t, you know, not particularly great interpersonally, you know, is arrogant and you know, this, this happens in the military because of that kind of officer the, you know, that, that divide that we talked about at the beginning of the management versus the the doers, you know, you’ll very often get people that are from completely different strata of society that, that, you know, come across extremely arrogant.
And I, I had this myself cause I, I went to university and I did the officer training Corps at, at quite posh university. Before I joined the Marines as an enlisted guy. and I carried over a whole bunch of kind of communications styles that were completely inappropriate. So back to the point though, so it, the, the, having a, having the system in place caps the downside of a poor leader without limiting the upside of a good leader.
And I think that’s a really, really important thing that we can take and learn from the military is that especially as people’s turnover and tenure turnover increases in tenure, decreases in companies, what remains as the system. So as a leadership, as a leader and owner of a company, that’s the thing you should be working on because that’s the thing that remains as people cycle through.
And you get the benefits of the good people. You cap the downside of the poor hires and the system as a whole grows and becomes more, more fit and more appropriate over time. Yeah. I mean, I, I just
Shane: liken That feedback loop, that, that process you talk about of what happened, you know, what, what went well, what didn’t go?
Well, it sounds almost like a scrum retrospective, right? Oh, totally.
Ben: Yep. And,
Shane: but again, we often see teams using it. We don’t see leaders using it
Murray: often. Yeah. They should
Shane: though. Large organization. They should. Yeah. Well, they should do daily standups. Right. They should talk to each other about how they’re steering the ship right.
Murray: For five minutes should be open and honest about what’s going
Ben: on. Yeah, well, yeah. So I, I tell you what though, one, one of the things that is problematic there is, there is no, you know, we, we talk about scrum and, and, you know, processes and, and all that kind of stuff, but there isn’t an appropriate way of doing that, you know, in, in most companies.
And one, one of the best sort of sets of techniques that I’ve come across for that is a, a bunch of stuff called red team thinking mm-hmm . So red teaming is another aspect of, of military. sort of culture, I guess, that, that grew out of, you know, this observation that you, you can have the best military in the world operationally.
And you know, that we do in the west, right. We have the highest train, the best equipped and, and they can go in and they can do a perfect job on the ground. But if the strategy that sent them there in the first place was floored, which it, you know, I don’t believe we’ve got that right. Once in the last 20 years, then it’s all for now, right?
Because your, your overall security position, economic position gets progressively worse over time. So red team thinking or red teaming as it was called, was formulated in the military to stop, to mitigate human cognitive biases that, that come up in are really detrimental in groups. Things like, you know, group think and confirmation bias and all these things.
So again, it’s a, it’s an example of. Set of protocols and a, and a structure that is in place rather than relying on somebody. Who’s a really skilled leader to be able to put that in place. It’s like, okay, look, just, just use the system.
Murray: Do you wanna explain what red team thinking is? Is, is it where you get one group of people to effectively play the role of the opposition and to say, well, if you did that, I’d do this and, and that sort of thing.
Ben: So it’s, that’s one element of it. So that, that’s the kind of traditional, you know, red team, blue team, you know, you build a plan, you throw it across to the, to the red team, the red team, tears it apart and gives it back to you in taters. That’s the kind of traditional, you know, military way of taking a, a strategy and pressure testing it.
If you like red team thinking is a bit different, it’s more of a set of skills that you embed at every level a bit like what we were talking about with, with the military doctrine, having that same set of communications protocols, but it’s things like liberating structures, for example, in meetings.
So, you know, if you’ve got, which often happens, you know, you’ve got the single alpha male who has some bizarre notion that there’s some kind of lead Wolf and he has to be the lead Wolf, cuz he’s the guy in charge, which happens a lot. I dunno why this is still a thing that it is . So a liberating structure would be something that you put in place.
And it’s just a simple rule that in meetings, everybody speaks once before anybody speaks twice. I like that liberating structures.
Shane: I don’t use ’em a lot, but I, I work with people
Ben: every now and again who do, and I kind of find
Shane: them interesting. Yeah. Cool. Well I think yeah, we are, we are pretty close to, to doing our time.
So, maybe we’ll just wrap up with some thoughts from marrying myself on some stuff we. interesting. I mean, I’ve found the, the whole thing. Interesting. And I’ve got a shit load of books. I’m gonna have to go read now. Thanks. . But Murray, take us away with what your key thoughts are.
Murray: Yeah. There’s a, there’s a lot of parallel development that’s happened in the military and in agile with both sides, not being that aware of each other or what they’re doing.
Although Jeff Sutherland was a fighter pilot in Vietnam or Korea, and he did have exposure to the U loop when scrum was being developed. So some of that may have actually influenced scrum from the beginning
Ben: and yeah, also Steve blank. Steve blank was in the air force. So all of the lean the lean startup type of ideas, that’s all quite explicitly influenced by the Ute loop as well.
Murray: Yeah, yeah. Lean’s startup is, is fantastic. And, and a lot of overlaps between Lean’s startup, UDA and, and agile. And I would really incorporate Lean’s startup into everything we do with, you know, agile product development these days. But so lots of really interesting ideas, I think mission command we need to do a lot more of that and do it properly.
This idea that we need to really understand our environment. The, the orient part of U de loop mm-hmm , we need to accurately, we need to have an accurate model of our environment so that we can make good decisions is critical. And that depends on having good information. And, and that’s a really big problem in most organizations today because of the politics that distorts everything.
I, I think team of teams is a approach is a great antidote to this. And you know, we need to do a lot more just basic, you know, people management education, I think of leaders and even at the middle level, cause we just don’t do it and turned the ship. So team of teams and turned the ship around are both two very interesting books to read.
As you said, they are You know, observational accounts. I, I think both, all of us actually were aware of more of the theory than they’re letting on, but you know, it’s not good for consulting to tell. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. To tell people how you came up with things, you just make them entirely dependent on you.
But you know, there’s a lot of stuff there in team of teams, I found very similar to the agile ideas. He talks a lot about having to bring people together, the CIA and the different elements of the army and the special forces and the air force, he, the way they solved their problem with insurgents was to bring those people together into a tight loop of decision making.
Yeah. Very agile in idea. I think,
Ben: I think the really key thing with team of teams is, is it wasn’t really just about the decision making, it was about that shared consciousness that they created. Yeah. Good point. So, and that, that shared consciousness is just another word for orientation to me. Right.
Having a tight orientation so that the people on the ground can operate at the speed that the environment requires, which for them was daily cadence.
Murray: Yeah. But he does talk though about having a daily video meeting that would go for 90 minutes and have a thousand people on it though. I think there’s something pretty wrong with that to be, to be honest, but still yeah, so, so lots of fascinating ideas.
What do you think, Shane?
Shane: Yeah, look, I. I kind of got lots out of it. So the key points for me that I kind of reiterate back to myself is one of the things you said when you’re opening up was at the beginning was there’s a bunch of principles to managing complexity. And they’re important.
And that kind of led me onto this, this constant thing that came through of shared language, knowing ceremonies is important for that. And then onto the idea of scaling that, you know, it’s that, that same pattern of small teams of, you know,
Shane: call them pizza teams, right. But you know, less than nine and then three of those, and then three of those.
And as you scale up more and more overhead to manage the complexity that you get by having a hundred people involved in a, in a moving part The, the competition co time constraint. One’s still one that I hadn’t thought about from that lens. I, I suppose I line it back to shared goal you know, the sense of competition against somebody else that’s against you gives you a shared goal.
The time constraint where you know, you have to get it done that you can’t muck around and wait is, is the she goal mm-hmm . But the key thing being, you know, when the forces are deployed, get outta their way give them autonomy. Things will go, well, things will go wrong, but by putting things in the way it’s always gonna go wrong.
yeah. So, so yeah, I, I, yeah, picked up a, a lot a lot of similarities. I think the main thing for me is my understanding is Kela came out of, of, you know, military need, and now we’ve got it in our cars to make them a hell of a lot faster. Yeah. So I think, you know, as people retire out of the military, they should move into the world of.
And start bringing some of those practices to us a bit more than, than we currently have now. And, and as long
Murray: as they’re not a traditional Sergeant major, who becomes your project director, Shane?
Shane: I, I
Ben: tell you what,
Shane: I, I spent a very small amount of time in our territory forces when I came outta school.
It did not suit me. Yeah, Sergeant majors are probably the one and only people that I, if I was working on a project would make me to the line they share on me when I was 18. And I think still do anyway.
Ben: Talk. Yeah, thanks.
Murray: Just how can people reach you find out more about you and you know, how, how you can help them? Yeah, sure. So I’m,
Ben: I’m at commando dev on both Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org on email. Any of those will work. I. semi-regular posting on, on LinkedIn about elements of this that I find interesting.
I, I do coaching and, and consulting for mainly for smaller companies. Like I, I, I haven’t cracked the how to implement this for big, big companies yet. Like I, I still go in and work, you know, in public you know, public services and whatnot. And I, I generally am working at the lower levels and I’ve, I’ve got literally no idea how to make this stuff stick at bigger organizations.
It’s a much, much tough enough that I can crack, but scaling up tech companies. That’s my, that’s my bag. That’s where I really formulated all the links between these two worlds that we’re talking about. And that’s where I feel like I can help the most. So, yeah, implementing that kind of bottom up sense, making.
Being more fluent and more in tune with your environment. That’s definitely stuff I can help with if, if you’re a tech company. So yeah. Feel free to drop me a line. Great.
Murray: All right. Thanks, Matt. Ben.
Ben: Awesome. Cheers guys. All right. Catch your letter.
Murray: That was the no nonsense agile podcast from Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson.
If you’d like help with agile contact Murray evolve, that’s evolve with zero. Thanks for listening.