Scrum: a new organizational tool that will help shape the 21st century

Summary: A new industrial revolution has begun. We usually think of these are new tech and new machines, but they also create new ways of thinking and new methods of doing business — changes almost as important as the new tech. Here Mike Few discusses new ways of problem solving, which create new forms of organization. {@nd of 2 posts today.}

The F3EAD framework

Scrum: how it works

Combat Scrum: From Iraq to the Research Triangle Park

By Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired)
Introduction to his presentation at the Global SCRUM GATHERING®
18-20 April 2016 at Orlando, FL

The day was March 25, 2007, our unit was 5-73 Recon (Airborne), and these events would culminate into what was known on the strategic level as the Iraq Surge.   After much failure, we knew that we were losing the war.  We decided to change our thinking and adopt a decentralized, adaptive framework to try and salvage a win. The results were astonishing — real, tangible patterns not whitewashed Orwellian KPI’s {key performance indicators} on a PowerPoint slide to brief the Generals.

Down in a desolate, lonesome river valley, over a 90-day period, things begin to change as we changed our behavior.  Our empowered teams began collecting actionable intelligence, we were able to penetrate deep into enemy territory and neutralize several enemy-training camps, and our squadron became one of the most decorated units during the Surge. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were practicing Scrum,

  • Incremental, iterative operations to accomplish mission, just like sprints.
  • Routine, deliberate adaptive planning meetings to identify and prioritize goals, just like backlogs.
  • Decentralized execution with absolute collaboration at the team level.
  • Post-operation inspection of results followed by debriefs to adapt and restart planning.

Today, I serve as the leader of an Agile Program Office at a Financial Technology company practicing Holacracy.  I help coach, mentor, and guide teams building 30 different hardware and software solutions for handling cash in both financial and retail markets.  However, I have no formal background in software or computer science. I suppose that you could consider me an Accidental ScrumMaster and an Agilist.

Combat taught me Scrum.  Through a trial by fire in an unforgiving environment, I learned to change the way that I see and understand problems.  There are thousands of other veterans out there like me that learned the same lessons, and they could have an immediate impact in your business for real results.  Here’s how we did it.

Combat Scrum Framework:
Fighting for Intelligence to Overcome the Information Gap

It was a bad day in Iraq, one of 900 bad days that I experienced over the course of four tours.  Nothing was going right; the war seemed endless.  During this tour, which would be my last, our recon squadron was tasked to find, fix, and finish a series of al Qaida training camps in Diyala Province.  To achieve this goal, we lived out in the countryside amongst the people far away from the relative safety of the larger Army bases.

We had an idea about what we wanted to achieve, but we did not know exactly how to get there.  The overall mission to bring democracy and peace to the region was untenable.  Iraq is still a mess.  We could not solve their problems for them.   Instead, we focused on incremental, iterative steps.

As a commander with 90 US paratroopers and 200 Iraqi Army soldiers, I was responsible to define the vision and scope just like a product owner.   For the first ninety days, I asked to team to try and stop the violence.  If we could achieve this goal, then we could move towards peace negotiations.  But, first, the boys had to figure out how to stop people from blowing themselves up in the market, planting bombs in the road, and beheading their neighbors.

While Jeff Sutherland adapted John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA Loop) for software development, United States Special Operations Forces evolved this open system into a framework called Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate (F3EAD) to help break through the information gap that exists in small wars.  Basically, the enemy could see us, but we could not see them.  It’s the same type of problem a business initially faces when they are trying to understand the next evolution of the market.  We borrowed this approach for our operations.

The boys were heading back in from patrol, and I headed into my company tactical operations center for our nightly huddle.  I grabbed a cup of coffee, and the Platoon Leaders, Platoon Sergeants, key squad leaders, and intelligence folks made their way into the building.  The teams took turns briefing what they discovered that day, how it nested into our larger mission, and what actions they planned for the next day.

During their briefings, I mostly listened. I would ask probing questions as necessary to clarify, and I would make sure that I understood any impediments that were blocking their advance.  These gaps or friction points could be anything ranging from requested air-support to clarification of my intelligence collection priorities.

At the end, I would conduct a quick re-planning session…

  • review our short-term objectives (2-4 weeks),
  • provide an overall assessment based on what we had learned, and
  • provide any deconfliction needed across teams.

After this meeting, the team would sit and listen to the radio as I went through the same exercise on the squadron level with my fellow commanders to ensure that our operations were synchronized and aligned.  In Army terms, it is called unity of effort and unity of command.  In software, it is better known as Scrum-of-Scrums.  The squadron represented 500 paratroopers covering a zone of control for 150,000 civilians. At the end, our squadron commander would review the objectives to ensure that our plans were nested into the larger operational plan.

The leaders would leave the meeting and head back out on their night reconnaissance patrols. Day-in and day-out, house by house, block by bloody block, and village-by-village, the teams went to work. To this day, I am still amazed at what they accomplished.  Over 90 days, they got to know the Iraqi people, earned their trust, and found a way to stop the violence through dismantling the bomb-making network.  In our next iteration, we were unable to broker peace, and the war still goes on.

I have mixed feelings about our involvement there, but I’m hopeful that maybe I learned some things that can help out back home particularly in helping other Veterans who learned the same, analogous Agile skills find work like I did.

Maybe you gained a deeper understanding of our military ops and their hunger to win. Hopefully you gained insight that combat vets bring an edge to the table that helps business win, too. Seek us out looking for a ScrumMaster, Product Owner, or Program Manager for your organization.

Sure, wartime military and business are different, but in a lot of ways remarkably similar. Your new hire will need some time to assimilate and learn the technical lingo, but odds are that they have been practicing agile creatively and successfully for years.

——————— End article ———————

Logo of Scrum Alliance

What is Scrum?

“Scrum is an iterative and incremental agile software development methodology for managing product development” (see Wikipedia). See the “what is Scrum” page from the Scrum Alliance website. Here is an early article about its origin: “The New New Product Development Game” by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review, January 1986 — excerpt…

Companies are increasingly realizing that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done. Instead, companies in Japan and the United States are using a holistic method — as in rugby, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.

This holistic approach has six characteristics: built-in instability, self-organizing project teams, overlapping development phases, “multilearning,” subtle control, and organizational transfer of learning. The six pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, forming a fast flexible process for new product development.

Mike Few

About the author

Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) serves as the Director, Global Agile Program Office at ARCA creating technology to help people control cash in bank branches, retail stores, and self-service kiosks.  He has fifteen years of scrum and agile experience in both combat and product development serving multiple tours in various command and staff assignments in Iraq.

He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, former Editor of the Small Wars Journal, and studied small wars and wicked problems in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

He is a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Certified Scrum Professional (CSP).

See his articles at the Small Wars Journal, and these posts at the FM website:

For More Information

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3 thoughts on “Scrum: a new organizational tool that will help shape the 21st century

  1. Interesting and fun read. Perused almost all the links. So this is one of the new stuff of organizations. Very rational, techie lingo. (Only an observation not a criticism). Must be great leadership to pull this off.
    So what took so long!? Not having lived ever in your corporate world, my deep initial response is ….in juxtaposition to this young Major’s nice elucidation….oh my God is it really that bad in the legacy Corps?
    Now I see why I read Hope here so often 😉

    Thx

  2. The 4th point wherein the results are analysized wrt expectations and adjustments mad3 is in my opinion the key step in a successful business Scum – or political or military. But it is the one most resisted.

    A post-mortem exposes management to recognition of error. That is unacceptable to many – including POTUS as it brings into question the competency of the top. Confidence in those at the top is considered more important than competence. I have seen it in business, w3 have all seem it in both the military and politics.

    Accountability. If that and the acceptance of responsibility were part of social contracts, point 4 would be so obvious as to be unnecessary.

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