We have known for years that the military’s work style placed unnecessary—and often unsustainable—burdens on its leaders. In their 2015 monograph, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty and the Military Profession, Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras highlighted the Army’s unreasonable mandatory training and administrative requirements. Eventually, the Army responded—then-Secretary of the Army Mark Esper released a series of official memorandums in 2018 that eliminated unnecessary mandatory training requirements.
Despite these efforts, there is still much work to be done. A 2019 Rand study found “company leaders work an average of 12.5-hour workdays.” What’s more, nearly 90 percent felt that “this time burden makes it difficult to fulfill nonwork responsibilities.” The study recommended that military leaders adopt systems to “define and concentrate effort on important tasks” and to “critically screen urgent tasks.”
A key insight from the RAND study is that the problem manifests itself at the tactical level. That means that, while steps taken at the enterprise level can help to address it, the most effective solutions will also be at the tactical level. Company-level leaders can create immediate impact by introducing tools and methodologies based on Agile, an approach that has had dramatic effects in the private sector.
Agile is the First Step
Agile is a private-sector software-development strategy that empowers small teams to rapidly adapt to environmental changes using tactics like tightly structured meetings and project-management tools. Agile radically improved software businesses, and gained popularity after the release of the Agile Manifesto, a short collection of principles designed to enhance software delivery. Since then, Agile has been adopted and adapted by leading Fortune 500 companies across the world. Harvard Business Review describes it as “a radical alternative to command-and-control-style management.”
At present, the Pentagon often treats Agile as a framework for enhancing acquisitions projects or guiding software-development efforts. While this emphasis is helpful, the military is missing the potential for Agile tools to drive tactical operations and planning.
It’s natural for a skeptic to ask how much relevance a software-development strategy actually has to the way the US operates on a day-to-day basis. And of course, some readers will have become weary of the seemingly endless calls for the military to start acting more like a private-sector startup. Setting those concerns aside, though, it is hard to ignore the many deep and important areas of overlap between Agile and military leadership. The notion of the strategic corporal, for example, popularized by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak in the 1990s, is indicative of a broader pattern in the US military of embracing the need for adaptive thinkers at the lowest level. Teams using Agile reflect that same pattern: they are self-organizing, determining their own tasks to best achieve key endstates.
Rethinking the Morning Meeting
In Agile, meetings are led by a “scrum master”—a concept that aligns closely with the notion of servant leadership, something that the military naturally fosters and, at its best, values. Servant leadership is about putting “the needs of others first” and “[turning] the power pyramid upside down.” It is selfless service, to be sure, but it is also creative and flexible leadership. Agile leaders set clear visions of their intended outcomes and allow their teams to iterate against these milestones, while eliminating barriers to their progress.
One of the simplest Agile tactics to execute are morning scrum standups. At first glance, these standups look a lot like standard Army morning meetings. Both often happen at the beginning of a workday, last around fifteen minutes, and help determine a course for the day’s work.
The difference is in the meetings’ structures. In the military, many morning meetings are command-and-control exercises, where a single leader issues all the guidance for daily tasks and those attending the meeting execute as told. In contrast, Agile meetings encourage an adaptive culture by aligning self-organizing workflows. This distinction makes morning standups comparatively more in line with the Army’s decentralized philosophy of mission command than a directive-based, top-down meeting, whose one-way information flows could incidentally be better achieved through email anyway.
In a scrum standup, daily workflows are shared on a Kanban board, a tool “designed to help visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize efficiency.” In its simplest form, cards are used to represent work items and moved from left to right across columns that denote stages in work processes. In fact, scrum morning standups are explicitly not status update meetings. This overcomes some of the natural inefficiencies of traditional Army “two minute drills.” Adopting the scrum standup method increases the impact and application of human judgment, allowing commanders to empower their teams to work smarter. Unit signal personnel could even be encouraged to integrate mission-command systems and data-scraping tools to create live updating dashboards—enabling greater speed and precision for data-driven decisions.
The morning standup is governed by three key questions:
- What did I do yesterday to help my team move toward our goal?
- What will I do today to help our team move toward our goal?
- What obstacles do I foresee preventing me or the team from meeting our current goal?
The most important question is the last one, because it marks the clearest point of deviation between Agile and traditional command-and-control models. When team members describe obstacles in Agile, they are also asking for resources and support from their scrum master. This approach allows scrum masters, like servant leaders, to focus on removing obstacles as their primary means of helping their teams.
While there are tools designed to help military leaders become more innovative, like the Army Design Methodology, these resources are most often applied to strategic and operational problems. For tactical leaders, we recommend taking advantage of free training opportunities across the defense innovation ecosystem, like the Center for Adaptive Warfighting, an offshoot of the Navy’s disruptive innovation center NavalX that offers in-person and distance Scrum and design-thinking training. There are also useful programs offered by the National Security Innovation Network, which conducts agile training through its Hacking for Defense classes and Bootcamps.
The efficiencies gained by scaling these training solutions can be complemented by integrating Pentagon-approved technology solutions. Commercial Virtual Remote, which was approved to help military personnel operate from home during the COVID-19 crisis, is a great way for leaders to apply Agile concepts in their existing workflows. The tool enables decentralized communication and provides a Kanban board. This helps leaders track tasks and create situational awareness for existing workstreams despite geographic separation. The at-a-glance nature of these tools offer instant understanding of outstanding tasks and decrease time spent answering scrum morning standup question #1.
Small-unit leaders can leverage these resources to train both themselves and their formations on Agile methodologies. Instead of the COVID-19 crisis impacting our units in a negative way, leveraging new tools like Agile can set the conditions for the Army to emerge from the crisis more productive than before.
If and when we reach a new normal in the wake of COVID-19, let’s make sure it includes an improved approach to better and more efficient ways of operating for small units—starting with morning meetings.
James “Jay” Long is an innovation officer in the Army Reserves based in Washington DC and tweets at @JayLong716.
Spencer Macdonald is a field artillery officer in the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. Prior to joining the Army, he was a product manager at a venture-backed technology startup in San Diego, CA.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Maj. Robert Fellingham, US Army
This is worthwhile comment as a reference point though the caution remains that all effective systems will be a product of the unique leadership and situational environment of the organization. Having operated in both the Army's system for an extensive period of time as well as a state public sector system for an equally extended period, the servant/team oriented approach, as opposed to the top down authoritative format, tends to produce the best results in my experience. The "scrum master" mechanism assures momentum and adjustments in flight to bring home the best results with maximum engagement. While an App like Agile certainly may have benefits in working toward a best practice and results capability, from experience I would say that a leader team operating in that general to specific orientation for leader and organizational/operational daily and sustaining activity will arrive at similar capable approaches…the description very much aligns with company operations I recall in a mechanized company that was. with the "required training load" over tasked. In addition to the "required" training load, the company was simultaneously tasked to bring itself to XVIIIth Abn Corps mission task proficiency, support a sister National Guard mechanized company (to include administering its ARTEP) recently reorganized from an FA battery, retrain a platoon of over strength MOS NCOs to infantry MOS and certify, deploy to McGregor Range, NM for a month of gunnery and maneuver training, support the Developmental/Operational Test II for the Mechanized Infantry Fighting Vehicle (today's M-2 Bradley) for four months with three tank sections OPCON as a Soviet MRB in opposing force scenarios using equipment that would later deploy to the NTC…and the list goes on. The company leadership arrived at a team style that very much aligned with the style indicated in the article. It does work and work well. The approach was applied in later Army venues and in such civilian contexts as a state park region to similar effectiveness. Again, the approach does work. If my understanding from the article is correct, Agile may accelerate moving a leadership team in this direction.
This article itself opens up a Pandora box which leads us to question and come up with solutions for a much productive outcome in our daily Army tasks/duties. Today, with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it is extremely crucial for our Armed forces institution to creat a systems through technical approaches which will enable us to be a part of a progressive and unique organisation. I have been a part of the armed forces for the past 6 years and I believe the Agile approach have both pros and cons when it comes to military use. As mentioned in the article above, it is not surprisingly for the military to be skeptical about the use of the Agile manifesto due to the scrum master concept. The servant leadership highlights 2 points, one that it is to put the need of the others first and second, to turn the power pyramid upside down. In my opinion, the second point might to turn out to be viable to the military due to the senior administrations to have a deeper and mature understanding of the situations.
All in all, the agile manifesto is a good approach when it comes to the military personnels to not be able to serve while in office. But it is also important to be mindful that, a upper command had to always be given the highest authority which the scrum concept might not adhere to.
This article appreciate the use of agile approach in routine tasking of Armed forces. The most important outcome of this approach is eradication of unnecessary activities related to task and screening of important task to save time and most importantly the minimization of stress which is increasing nowadays in military lifestyle. This approach helps the team to complete the given task in more proficient way than conventional way. Daily morning meetings will help to update the Commanding officer and to take decision then and there. Well updated Kanban board not only help the team to avoid over burden but it will also help the higher command to be more updated on given project or tasks.
But when we come to adopt this approach, we need some big changes in routine working of army.
First of all this approach needs active involvement of higher command and needs immediate decision also. Moreover, this approach demands flexibility to change course as needed but in military we need these critical decision from higher command and furthermore we needs decision in written not verbally which takes more time. So active involvement is very difficult in agile methodology. Furthermore, incremental delivery which is basics of scrum is not acceptable in Army as higher comd needs full completed task at once.
Now during present situation of covid 19. This apch will help only higher authority to command units in positive direction by working from home and providing these facilities down to the minimum level will also be a challenging task itself.
We used a similar technique during our CFLCC C9 "Stand Ups" at Camp Arifjan. When we first got there, we were doing more formal briefings with slides which took time to prepare for ahead of time. Our process streamlined to the Stand Up mode over time. The team would assemble around a workstation and we would briefly discuss much as the article mentions. It was a quick way to get all on the same sheet and help if there voids. Our operations officer kept condensed notes just using Microsoft aps from the brief meeting to keep the continuity.