At first glance, the military would not seem a natural home for the principles of Agile management. Hierarchical. Measured. Massive. What use could that kind of organization have for the experimental mindset, flat teams and compressed timeframes of Agile?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Eighteen months ago, Diggerworks, the designer, developer and integrator of combat equipment and clothing used by Australian soldiers, decided to “go Agile.” In the short time since, 100% of Diggerworks teams have shifted from traditional waterfall management to Scrum and other Agile methods.
- Productivity has improved 400% to 600%.
- Project delivery times have dropped, in many cases from months to weeks.
- Employee surveys found that happiness skyrocketed.
Given those strong results, it is not surprising other groups are now thinking of adopting Agile. Among them: Army R&D groups, personnel management, and those managing a few major acquisition projects. Even the Royal Australian Navy and Air Force are interested.
Diggerworks was founded in 2011 after Australian Senate Estimates Committee hearings identified critical problems in the procurement and supply chain arrangements of the equipment and clothing used by Australian soldiers. Senior executives in the Army launched a substantial overhaul, emphasizing innovation and agility in response to a changing and complex military operating environment on and off the battlefield. Diggerworks’ task was to provide better military equipment and clothing, and do it faster.
Agile—which uses small, self-governing teams to rapidly solve complex problems—has been essential to meeting that mission. One early Agile success story involves night-vision googles, which can literally be a matter of life or death for combatants. The Australian Army’s standard soft cases for the goggles were not effectively protecting them from wear and tear at the front line. All too often, costly repairs were required and, even worse, soldiers occasionally found themselves with damaged and faulty goggles just when they needed them most. Diggerworks used Agile methods to develop a solution. By adopting the rules of Scrum and with leaders newly trained on Agile management, a hard casing was designed and prototyped within seven weeks. The new casing was $6 million cheaper than the off-the-shelf option and protected googles better, saving an additional $25 million in avoided repairs and replacements.
A similar story has played out for an Agile team working on the latest upgrade of all soldier combat equipment. In just 12 months, this team developed a new belt, armor and webbing, a job that took five years the previous time. Some 85,000 new sets will be distributed over the next 3 ½ years, in one-fifth the time required by traditional methods.
Diggerworks’ Agile experiment could not have worked without a radical shift in leadership style. Though steeped in the military’s rank-and-file mindset, Diggerworks’ leaders were open-minded and invested the time to learn, experiment with and ultimately embrace Agile principles. By asking first what their teams needed from them, they set a new tone and kept their teams focused on a common goal and priorities. By continuing to meet every day to discuss impediments facing their Agile teams, they keep pace with them, and by making their own work and priorities visible, these leaders create greater clarity and accountability to their teams.
They adopted Scrum, the most popular Agile framework. That created a common, neutral methodology and language that helps team members from a variety of traditional silos—Army close combatants, scientists and engineers, among others—work together in a collaborative, rigorous and fast-paced way.
By introducing a high level of sophistication to how people work together, Agile helps Diggerworks’ cross-functional teams collaborate seamlessly, leadership reports. Team members hold themselves and each other to account and are committed to the greater good. Because everyone gets to speak and everyone is listened to, Agile teams develop new insights that individuals could not create on their own.
Innovation and change requires energy. By helping teams overcome complex problems, have fun, collaborate and deliver better outcomes, Agile has also helped Diggerworks’ people achieve their potential, a critical workplace benefit.
Learning from Diggerworks’ experience, traditionally hierarchical organizations looking to adapt Agile ways of working can benefit from taking a few specific steps:
- Reduce the hierarchy. Eliminate the layer between the people doing the work and the leaders guiding and supporting them.
- Streamline processes and paperwork. Create minimal viable bureaucracy so administrators who are not adding value do not slow down teams or limit innovation.
- Ensure every Agile team member is 100% dedicated. When one Diggerworks team did not have a member available full time, productivity of the whole team dropped approximately 30%.
- Recognize the power of colocation. This is particularly important when bringing people from different functions together for the first time. Ideally, teams should be physically together, but virtual colocation is better than nothing.