The militaries use radically different types leadership style ,some of which are extremely decentralized, self-organizing and explicitly use agility as the strategy to thrive in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment says Tomas Eilsø
Tomas Eilsø is an Agile coach from Denmark. Before getting into the IT world in 2006 Tomas was an F16 fighter pilot. Since 2006, he has worked with many medium and large organizations helping them with Agile Transformations. Tomas also owns an agile startup – a company that builds the next F16 simulators for the Danish Airforce.
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You’ve been a fighter pilot in the past; there is a popular thought that in the military, there is command and control leadership and no place for self-organized teams. How true is this?
It is probably fair to associate the military term “command and control” with a top-down hierarchical bureaucratic organization. But what’s interesting is that in reality (yea, not the Hollywood movies) the militaries use radically different types of “command and control” systems. Some of which are extremely decentralized, self-organizing and explicitly use agility as the strategy to thrive in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment.
I was lucky enough to fly F-16 fighter aircraft in an organizational system which took decentralization, leadership, and agility to an extreme. Further then most agile civilian organization I’m aware of. Some people find that those organizational ideas, solutions, and experiences are inspiring from an Agile perspective. So I want to share some of them with you in my talk.
What is the most important learning from your Fighter pilot days that you now use in your coaching and consulting engagements?
As instructor pilots, we teach student pilots different techniques on how to solve specific tasks, but we always let them know that they can do things however way they want… As long as its works 😉 . They find out if what they did worked in the debrief. There we focus on adapting their mental models to better match reality, instead of the instructor telling them what to do.
Going through this structured, disciplined and at the same time creative learning process countless times, taught me a humility towards the cognitive limitations, thinking biases and sometimes flawed perception and decision strategies of the human brain.
I found that 90% of making good decisions is understanding what’s really going on. 90% of winning is making good decisions fast. Fast decisions unfortunately in most cases, means deciding before all information is available – so there is a tension there. This tension increases when the number of actors increases.
I think the same fundamental issues are at play when we strive to achieve business agility. It’s hard for me to point out a single learning because to me its a set of interacting ideas that alone have limited power, but needs to be in place together to let everyone in our organization make good decisions fast at scale and create an impact. I will come back to the whole paradigm in the talk, but If I try to sum it up on one line, with the above story in mind, it looks like this: Be humble, take calculated risks, be on time, give a shit and keep learning
What are your thoughts on planning and its utility in the Agile world?
F-16 pilots are even more harsh on planning than the agile world. Quotes like “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” and “No plan survive the first contact with the enemy” are lessons learned the hard way in the military. But there is also significant value in planning. In the agile community, we sometimes label planning as a wasteful thing, and I think that is a huge mistake. But we need to think very differently about why and how we plan to get these benefits. When we do that, I find planning to be a major contribution to achieving business agility.
In your opinion, what can business leaders do to achieve Business Agility at scale?
I find that there are some key factors which need to be in place to achieve agility at scale. One of these factors outperforms the sum of all the other. That is to have a high trust culture. To many, this is not a controversial observation, but I find that many organizations really struggle to understand what it takes to influence and foster mutual trust. I will tell you some of the war stories where I survived because I was executing in an extremely high trust organization. There were some unusual circumstances, which made me change my thinking about what we can do as leaders to create such organizational environments – surprisingly fast.
What are the key takeaways for the attendees from your talk?
I hope people will be inspired to rethink how we collaborate to achieve business agility in our organizations today.