The 12 enemies of adaptability

And weapons to kill them…. Enemy 7: Rigid Structures

Marty de Jonge
Oct 11 · 8 min read

In “ the 12 enemies of adaptability” series different angles that influence adaptability within organisations are discussed. All articles have this theme but can be read on their own.

The Macedonian “Phalanx”

One of the main reason for organisations to start a transformation is to (re)structure the organisation in order to improve their ability to respond to a fast changing environment.

Only, to be a smooth adaptable organisation in the world around you, first you’ll have to make sure you have an internal environment that is supporting this objective. In this series of articles I will describe 12 enemies of internal adaptability. Kill these inside enemies and you will smoothen the way to reach your objective towards the external adaptability as an organization.

Enemy number 7. Rigid structures

Rigid departmental boundaries, functional silos and political kingdoms ensure that the organization can not quickly adapt to changes that affect existing assets and skills. this is a danger for an actually successful transformation

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…

What are the first names that come to mind when I ask you to make a list of the greatest conquerors in history that you know? There is a good chance that “Julius Caesar” and “Alexander the Great” appear in it. And rightly so, because both have an impressive track record when it comes to the art of warfare and the expansion of their empire through confiscation of valuable areas.

Although they lived in a totally different era, both are the personifications of the greatest empires we have ever known. Caesar to the Roman empire and Alexander to the (possibly slightly less known) Macedonian empire.

Although around 320 BC the carefully built-up Macedonian Empire was many times larger than the Roman Empire at that time, within a few decades it soon began to tilt. 270 BC was a major tipping point in this with the historic victory of the Romans in the Pyrrhic war.

Pyrrhus, the name giver of the well-known expression “a Pyrrhic victory” was a very experienced and tactically strong commander who had already won many victories for the Macedonian empire, but it was here that his proven phalanxes were not able to cope with the Roman legions.

Where did things go wrong according to the historians and what can we learn from this in relation to our Scrum teams?

Adapting structures matter

Nowadays, warfare often takes place from remote distances. With precision bombing (either with military force or via digital roads) or via a calculated spreading of fear with fake news and suicide bombings.

That was slightly different in the last centuries before Christ. Wars were then waged by putting thousands of men against each other in heavy armor and the army that turned out to be the last one standing won another piece of territorium. Although of course the number of men you could throw in the fight was important for the result, there was a lot more involved then just that.

Outnumbered did not necessarily mean that you would also be defeated. Tactically deploying your people and making smart choices that the enemy did not expect could still bring you victory. For example, Pyrrhus’ army appeared indomitable for many years. Until somewhere between 280BC and 275BC that is, when he was summarily walloped by the Romans.

Long before Pyrrhus arrived on the Italian peninsula, the Macedonians had developed diverse proven methods throughout the field sagas they had led under Alexander the Great. One of them was a formation known as the “phalanx”.

The formation itself was not so unique to the Macedonians (the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans also used it), but the arrangement and armament were. The phalanx was a rectangular mass infantry formation that could hold up to 250 people. The specific feature for a Macedonian phalanx was that the men were equipped with spears up to 7 meters long. ( Sarissa).

In a frontal attack, they were the terror of many armies. Certainly if they were accompanied by a cavalry of crushing elephants. Since most other formations were men armed with stab spears, swords, axes and shields, many died before they had penetrated the 7-meter-deep forest of Macedonian spears.

Rome, too, initially regularly positioned its legions in the (square, dense populated) phalanx formation. On the Italian peninsula, however, they were soon confronted with enemies against which the phalanx did little to nothing since their opponent were undisciplined tribes that fought in a total different way. So they decided to adapt their legions to their opponents. In this way Rome took over the tactics and weapons of her opponents and improved them themselves. They trained in shifting rapidly in form and weapons equipment. This allowed Rome to defeat its enemies if it entered the field even with lower numbers.

When the first clashes between the Roman legions and the Macedonian phalanxes during the Pyrrhic Wars ended badly for the Romans, they adapted again. The legion learned to operate even more flexibly on the battlefield, in order to undermine the cohesion of the phalanx.

Although in offence the Macedonian phalanx was a killing machine, in defense they were severely disadvantaged. They were equipped with almost solely their spear. These 7 meter long spears were unmanageable to quickly adapt the formation and as soon as they were attacked in the flank they quickly lost any man to man fight. Since the spear was so long and heavy it needed to be managed with both hands having no hand free to use a secondary weapon like a sword. The Roman legion on the other hand consisted of man that were lightly armoured with different weapons allowing them to adapt swiftly.

For the Macedonian phalanxes, what was an all-decisive advantage in one battlefield appeared to mean their end in another.

The fight between the corporate clans

Nowadays organisational fights are not as bloody as they were in Roman times although there can still be rivalry between the different clans. Certainly within organizations where different knowledge areas are still firmly anchored in silos. Their motto is often “everyone for themselves and god for us all”. In practice, this often leads to a skirmish on the current corporate battlefields from where they only survivors are still all losers.
These silos or closed departments also often consist of a group of people who all have the same background, the same resources and the same kinds of knowledge. Because it has always worked like this and brought successes, it must now also deliver the required results. This inability to adapt to current circumstances could be a threat for them to become the modern Macedonian phalanxes.

When we turn to the Scrum Guide however, this provides us with tools for the battles that we have to fight in order to secure us of a more successful execution against our competitors. The framework gives us several handles to equip the several teams with the weapons and armor they need to form an organisation like a successful Roman legion.

The Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. — Scrum guide — 2017

The specific composition of a Roman legion changed many times over many years, but one characteristic of this organization form remained constant. It was always made up of various independently operating elements. These teams were formed from Legion level (5,000) via Cohort (480), Centurio (80) to a contubernium of 8 men.

This contubernium was the smallest unit of the Roman legion. They marched, fought, worked and camped together. Out in the field they were able to organize themselves. And since they were composed out of people that had to run their business together they could have been the first Scrum team we know of … Although not every team was equally good at every task because of the different skills that the participants had, they did form quite an adaptive organization that was united under the same direction and vision to the same goal. Survive and win!

Scrum is founded on empirical process control theory, or empiricism. …..Three pillars uphold every implementation of empirical process control: transparency, inspection, and adaptation. — Scrum guide — 2017

Sjoerd Nijland has already written a very informative article about the parallels between empiricism and Scrum, so I won’t let myself get involved in that part of the quote.

So, instead of the topic empiricism let’s dive some more in the field of transparency, inspection and adaptation. If we look to the Scrum framework from a Roman legion perspective we can see clear similarities.

Life in the Roman legions was hard but the clear, transparent structure, roles, tasks and events it gave the soldiers, the team had the opportunity to respond quickly and aggressively to any changing circumstances. In the Pyrrhic war this was done by adapting the form and attack tactics against the Macedonians.

In the current Scrum teams this is done by quickly adapting the composition and skillset of the team to changing circumstances. The framework for both Scrum teams and a contubernium gives leadership the opportunity to quickly carry out an inspection of the current formation and to quickly adapt the attack plan based on the actions that took place in the competition field.

Both on the military battlefield of the Romans as on the current commercial battlefield of our organizations, 1 motto is still the most important:

In this series of articles I will discuss all 12 enemies, so stay tuned and let me know if you want a notification when the next one comes online …

Did you like the article? I am very keen to learn what you think about this topic.

My twitter profile is

All discussed enemies of adaptation in this series:

1. Hierarchy

2. Fear

3. Decision Bias

4. Habit

5. Centralization

6. Inflexible business practices

7. Rigid Structures

8. Short-term thinking

9. Lack of diversity

10. Skill deficit

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Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Thanks to Paddy Corry and Willem-Jan Ageling

Marty de Jonge

Written by

As an agnostic change agent I am a descriptor of what is happening on the various business monkey rocks. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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