How Agile got Command and Control Wrong

Tragically, we have distorted an idea more aligned to Agile values than we give credit for

On Leadership
Apr 10, 2015 · 4 min read

The Agile software development community has zealously adopted the militaristic term “command-and-control” as a pejorative synonym for “dictatorial management.” At conferences, in blogs, and in books, we are bombarded with the mantra that command-and-control is evil and should be banished. Unfortunately, Agile has mistakenly contorted the meaning of command-and-control, and in doing so has written-off a domain from which we could learn much.

The term “command-and-control” has been borrowed from the military, and misinterpreted to mean “micromanagement and authoritarianism.” This not surprising, as the popular perception of military leadership conjures images of R. Lee Ermey’s character from “Full Metal Jacket”, yelling expletives at new recruits (which perhaps rings a little too close to home in some corporate settings). The problem is: this image of authoritarianism is neither an accurate interpretation of command-and-control, nor an accurate reflection of military leadership.

There are two myths the Agile community is propagating:

  • that command-and-control (at least in the military sense) is equivalent to micromanagement; and
  • that militaries (at least Western ones) practice and promote micromanagement as effective leadership.

Both are untrue. The military has discovered (long before the software industry has) that effective leadership does not manifest from authoritarianism. Secondly, command-and-control is about aligning the organization and integrating feedback mechanisms, rather than controlling people, as is too frequently assumed.

To be clear: coaching, facilitation, and mentorship is essential to effective leadership. I simply wish the Agile community had stuck with using “micromanagement” in place of “command-and-control”.

Superficially, this may sound like splitting hairs over semantics. However, words have meaning. By borrowing a term from another domain, and subsequently distorting it, we risk further alienating that domain as a valuable source of knowledge. The reality is that armies have millennia more experience in organizing cross-functional teams, creating alignment, developing leadership, and operating in highly complex, fluid and uncertain environments — and doing so without micromanagement. In many ways, the Agile community enjoys re-inventing the wheel, rather than looking over their shoulder.

So what does the military really mean when they use the terms command and control?

Command is the authority to decide on the direction of an organization, and then to align the efforts of the organization to those ends. In any organization (even an Agile one) this alignment is critical. How that alignment is achieved is a matter of leadership (or lack thereof). This is in complete agreement with Niel Nickolaisen’s Purpose Alignment Model, which reiterates the importance of selecting and communicating alignment in enabling decentralized decision making.

Canadian military doctrine intimately relates command and leadership in a manner which eerily echoes “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”:

“…it is clear that command is a human endeavour, and relies more on the dynamics that exist between a commander and his subordinates than simply legal authority.” Command B-GL-300–003/FP-000 National Defence Canada

Control is a doctrinally distinct, but related, term from “command”. Contrary to popular belief, “control” does not mean controlling people — it refers to the systemic mechanisms that enable effective decision making in response to a complex and changing situation. Backlog re-prioritization? That’s exercising control.

“However, control should be viewed, not just as topdown direction, but as including the feedback from bottom-up as to the effect of the action taken... A commander who is capable of operating in an uncertain environment, without becoming frustrated by attempting to over-control a situation, will be more dynamic in his decision-making” Command B-GL-300–003/FP-000 National Defence Canada

Not just top-down? Feedback? Operating in uncertain environment? Not attempting to over-control? Dynamic decision making? Sounds Agile to me.

D. Reinertsen, in Principles of Product Development Flow, has expertly demonstrated how knowledge from other domains can be cross-applied to product development. Not surprisingly, he cites the US Marines and their philosophy of Mission Command (actually shared by most Western militaries) as an example of empowered and decentralized decision-making. In this spirit, we should be encouraging cross-application of knowledge; when it comes to individuals and interactions, the challenges software development teams face are rarely unique.

Look no further than the following quote from General Odierno, the US Army’s Chief of Staff, which could easily pass as a resounding Agile endorsement we would be so fortunate to hear from most CEO’s:

“Mission Command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution, using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent. Done well, it empowers agile and adaptive leaders to successfully operate under conditions of uncertainty, exploit fleeting opportunities, and most importantly achieve unity of effort. Importantly, it helps establish mutual trust and shared understanding throughout the force. Mission Command is fundamental to ensuring that our Army stays ahead of and adapts to the rapidly changing environments we expect to face in the future.”

GEN Raymond T. Odierno, United States Army Chief of Staff

Adaptive organizations require decentralized decision making. Decentralized decision making requires mutual trust. Trust requires transformational leadership — not micromanagement. Product development organizations could benefit from a little more command and control.

On Leadership

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