Monday, 1 July 2013

Agile methods in Prussian military doctrine

The Agile Manifesto was written in 2001. Prussian military doctrine, developed in the early 19th century and refined between the 20th century's world wars, anticipated key elements of agile methods:
  • Requirements as needs rather than instructions
  • Devolved authority
It also anticipated large organisations' difficulty adopting genuinely agile approaches.

Bear with me here.

The history

In 1806 Napoleon defeated Prussia at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Prussia became part of the French Empire until the formation of the Sixth Coalition in 1812, which finally defeated Napoleon. This led to a major rethink of Prussian military doctrine with two goals:
  1. Institute a way to counter an individual genius like Napoleon
  2. Punch above their weight when facing larger enemies
The new approach was dubbed Auftragstaktik - Mission tactics - by the old guard who preferred traditional command management.

There are dubious claims of Auftragstaktik's success at the battle of Königgrätz (1866). Germany certainly built their capability after the First World War and whatever else is true of them in the Second World War, they fielded an astonishingly successful military. Auftragstaktik was key to this success.

Auftragstaktik described

Over to Gerhard Muhm, a Colonel in the German campaign against the Allied advance through Italy.
From my first day as a student officer the expression "Auftrag wiederholen" ["Repeat the mission"] rang in my ears. Our superiors wanted us to "repeat the mission" that had been assigned us to be quite sure that we had understood it. And they always said "Auftrag" ["mission"] and not "Befehl" ["order"]
And so it was through the entire Italian campaign. I always was given an "Auftrag", never a "Befehl". And I always did the same with my subordinates to whom I always passed on the "Auftrag", in the well-worn traditional "Auftragstaktik" of the German Army.

The tactical concept followed by the German Army was the "Tactics of the Mission or Task" in contrast to the "Order-type Tactics" ["Befehlstaktik"] in use with other armies. The difference in conception and execution between these two tactics is fundamental: the first exalts the soldier's intelligence and capability, the second tends to damp them down, making the soldier a passive executor of the orders of others.With Auftragstaktik a mission is ordered and the officer is left with the freedom to carry out the mission assigned to him, and so he feels responsible for the actions which are suggested to him by his intelligence, his enterprise and his capabilities.

Similarities to agile methods

The similarities are startling:
  • Tell the team what you want them to achieve, not how to do it
  • Then let them use their experience and expertise to get on with it
There's another striking similarity: the communication of military intent. Auftragstaktik requires the communication not only of the substance of the mission but of its underlying purpose. To understand the intent of the Auftrag, German offices were trainied to operate two levels higher than their current rank. This typically led to short orders, clearly stated.

Compare with a Role/Action/Goal user story:
As a: General commanding the defense of Italy
I want: Your company to defend a line as far South as possible
So that: ...
What's the goal here? To slow the Allied advance? To halt it? To hold a specific city? I can only guess - thank God I'm not a German Colonel in that war and I'm not trained in strategy to the level of Major General. I need a well expressed Goal in my user story if I'm to meet my stakeholders' needs.

And there we have a powerful core of agile methods:
  • Requirements as needs rather than instructions
  • Devolved authority

Agile versus large organisations

I suggested that Auftragstaktik also anticipated large organisations' difficulty adopting genuinely agile approaches.

Modern English-speaking armies call Auftragstaktik "Mission Command". At this point I'll quote Wikipedia directly:
the British Army in 1987 announced an intention to adopt 'Mission Command', yet an internal 2004 British Army review of command and control in the Iraq War in 2003 clearly shows that they had achieved the reverse: British orders were substantially more detailed, and subordinates generally more constrained than twenty years earlier, indicating that there is more to Auftragstaktik than process.
In organisations with a culture or expectation of following orders, the freedom to implement either Auftragstaktik or agile project management is severely constrained.

Credit where it's due

This blog entry leans heavily on two sources:
The comparison between Auftragstaktik and agile methods is mine.

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