Monday, June 1, 2015

Great Failure Yields Great Wisdom

This guy can teach us about Agile
It is nice to take time off.  It feels slightly decadent to have nothing to do but enjoy time passing.  This week with the Memorial Day holiday behind me I wanted to talk about how agile professional can draw some inspiration from our armed forces to make our teams better.

The American Heroes Channel has be celebrating the end of the Second World War with the seventieth anniversary of VE day.  I think what was more informative was the more muted commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.  That tragic period of history has a deep resonance with me.  Instead of “Peace with Honor” we had the collapse of a nation.  In my mind, the panic, chaos, and missed opportunities of the fall of Saigon seem like a fairly good metaphor for a failing IT project.  People scrambling for the exits, leaders trying to make the best of a bad situation, and stories of commitment and courage all come to the forefront when talking about how to deal with a desperate situation.

I think what sticks out in my mind most is the story of Richard Armitage.  Many people might remember him as the Deputy Secretary of State with Collin Powel during George W. Bush’s presidency.  But in 1975 he had served three tours in Vietnam with the Republic of Vietnam Navy.  He was also involved with the CIA gathering intelligence.  When the end come for South Vietnam, Armitage helped save 30,000 refugees crammed on ships escaping Saigon.  He did this against the wishes of the Philippine and American governments.

What can an agile specialist learn from this story?  First, when the chips are down doing what is “right” is more important than what your boss wants.  Armitage, was supposed to liberate a few officers from the Republic of Vietnam Navy and make sure the frigates and destroyers docked in Saigon did not fall into communist hands.  Instead, he defied orders and not only save the ships and officers but the sailors and their families.  Next, when confronted with an impossible situation make the impossible choice.  There was no way that Armitage was going to save everyone he could but he did the best that he could, given the circumstances.  Not everyone was saved from the communists but 30,000 people were able to breathe free thanks to the impossible choices Armitage made.  Finally, let the work and effort speak for itself.  When the war ended, Armitage’s career was over with the Navy but because of his reputation and experience he quickly found work with the Department of Defense.  Eventually, Armitage would work with a fellow Vietnam Vet named Collin Powel in the State Department.

It is easy to look at military victories and find lessons in them.  I find defeat and failure to be much more informative.  By looking at those tragic efforts we can see where we can improve and how we can do better the next time.  Many of the lessons of Vietnam informed the officers who fought their and guided their decision making steps when it came to future efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So as an agile practitioner remember doing what is right is more important than what your boss wants, make impossible choices in impossible situations, and finally let your efforts speak for itself.

Until next time.