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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Agile Lessons from the Army Leadership Field Manual

You will be amazed to learn that Army Field Manual number 6-22 is entitled Army Leadership, Competent, Confident and Agile.  If it weren't for the small word, "Army," at the beginning of this title, any aspiring lean/agile leader might eagerly browse through this readily available text for tips and tricks to warm the heart and increase the team velocity.  In case there's any suspense, I'm going to suggest that despite the title, you do exactly that.

Of course, in the world of the Army Field Manual, command-and-control, like gravity, isn't a guideline--it's the law.  And we in the agile/lean community typically frown on command-and-control right along with "waterfall," "big modeling upfront," and using pens smaller than sharpies.  See, for example, this impassioned description from the "Energized Work" blog:

Command and control elicits compliance to enforced processes through management by policy. Focusing on process fixates management on the means rather than the result. Emphasis is placed on building hierarchies, formalising roles, and people are viewed as resources. All this amounts to bureaucracy and adds no value. Hierarchies introduce protracted decision-making. Decisions made up the hierarchy typically don't involve the people who will be tasked with fulfilling the decisions. And consequently, the support from these people for the decisions is absent. These decisions aren't easily reversed. All this nonsense doesn't exactly set the project up for success. I can't think of a better way to demotivate people and reduce productivity. 

Interestingly, however, although FM 6-22 is uncompromising in the matter of the leader's authority and concomitant responsibility for the results achieved by her team, it describes a philosophy and practice which would add a lot to any agile work environment.  It turns out that although the ideal Army leader works within a command-and-control framework, her leadership style is the opposite of that outlined by the Energized Work blogger.  For example:
  • People versus process:  in FM 6-22, leaders (and soldiers) are defined by character, knowledge, and application, or "BE-KNOW-DO" for short:  results come first from who you are, second from what you know, and third from what you do.  FM 6-22, in fact, is uncompromising about the fact that people are always more important than process:  "Respect for the individual is the basis for the rule of law—the very essence of what the Nation stands for. In the Army, respect means treating others as they should be treated. This value reiterates that people are the most precious resource and that one is bound to treat others with dignity and respect." (4-18)
  • Means versus results:  FM 6-22 outlines ten ways for leaders to influence their teams which are better than simply issuing a direct order.  "Compliance-focused influence is not particularly effective when a leader’s greatest aim is to create initiative and high esteem within the team."  A good leader is a person focused on results, not process, and who knows how best to work with her team to achieve that result (options include "pressure," "legitimate requests," "exchange," "personal appeals," "collaboration," "rational pursuasion," "apprising," "inspiration," "participation," and "relationship building.) (7-3 to 7-17)
  • Developing the team:  agile theory is pretty silent on this matter, and indeed in practice, companies love to hire young people infatuated with software but who won't throw their weight around when it comes to making decisions.  FM 6-22 puts "developing the team" front and center as a responsibility of a good leader, and provides an entire chapter on how to choose your team and how to counsel each individual to help her advance.
Certainly, FM 6-22 occupies a world foreign to what most of us experience in the "trenches" of corporate America, where good leadership can literally mean life or death to a large number of people.  Certainly I have no knowledge about how the ideals of FM 6-22 are applied on the ground by actual Army leaders.  Likely, they are as bad at "command and control" as our own corporate commanders. Certainly we in the agile/lean community embrace an egalitarian philosophy that says the person doing the work knows more about the problems at hand than a Vice President eight levels above her.  Certainly we don't want to put as much energy into organizing our hierarchies as the Army has done over the past 200 years--picture what that would do to our deadlines.

But this field manual is a gold mine for suggesting how to be a leader, how to scale leadership techniques, how to motivate, counsel, and talk with other people.  I can't do it justice in a blog.  Please think about reading it.