The Military Origins of Agility

If you ever search the origins of Memorial Day, you will quickly discover that after the Civil War, several cities across the United States claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. Regardless of Memorial Day’s disputed birthplace, its origins are steeped in honoring those who lost their lives in service to our country.

We don’t disagree that many Agile practitioners consider the birthplace of Agile to be the creation of The Agile Manifesto in 2001. However, Agile was around long before that historic meeting of The Agile Alliance. Agility was on active duty in our US Military. In honor of Memorial Day, we thought we’d pay tribute to our military by sharing with you another origin story; that of the origin of Agility within the US Military.

The following is an excerpt from our latest White Paper, Agility, authored by retired military officer and 3Back’s Chief Scientist and Senior Agility Instructor, Dan Rawsthorne.

‘Agility’ is a Military Word

Military Origins of AgilityMy first encounter with the word ‘Agility’ in a management context was in 1983 when I was studying the Army’s AirLand Military Doctrine in an Army leadership course. The AirLand Battle Doctrine was about how the Army and Air Force were going to work together to beat the Soviet Union in Europe – how we were going to ‘win’ WWIII – and it was based on four basic tenets: Agility, initiative, depth and synchronization.

Each of these tenets is interesting in its own right, but we’re focusing on Agility. The military definition of ‘Agility’ is unsurprising: Agility is adapting to, and exploiting, the chaos of the battlefield, and the goal is to do it faster and better than your enemy does.

I spent a lot of time in the Army training on Agility. Some of my fundamental take-aways were:

  • Nothing is risk-free. All layers (echelons) of Command must take informed risks, and the organization must support this risk-taking;
  • Orders should state the Commander’s Intent (what is needed and why), and Commanders should not attempt to control every action of their subordinates; and
  • People should have the greatest possible freedom to carry out their Orders; they should have initiative, be flexible and quick-minded, and improvise as necessary.

Perhaps Winston Churchill Said It Best

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

And, As Always, Stay Agile.