This is an excerpt from the book Kanban Remastered: Agile Lessons from Strategy Games. You can get a copy here.


“It is the sovereign’s function to give broad instructions, but to decide on battle it is the function of the general.”

— The Art of War, Sun Tsu

When implementing Agile methodology, some things are often overlooked: the organizational structure, the culture of the organization, and the people involved. Management looks at the market, hears “Agile” as the new buzzword and thinks that this is the solution to the problems they (management) figure exist within the development department.

Introducing Agile is a change process and change is hard. Why is it hard? Because over time, no matter how effectively an organization is structured, people fine-tune themselves to their organizational environment to at least have locally optimal work conditions. Changing any aspect of the organization then leads to those local optimizations becoming worthless, which leads to lower productivity and stronger resistance to change.

Because of this, when adopting Agile methods, an organization leader needs to take extra care to not only change one part, but also to change the whole organization (over time). Every part of the organization is involved, because the idea of Agile is to combine different phases into one.

AGILE ·  Agile, in the context of project management, is a method to reduce waste and delays by anticipating that plans will change. It is a set of methods which are most effective when applied to projects that are complex and chaotic, especially in product development. It also has its place in production, given that customer demand as well as productivity fluctuate.

If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.

— The Art of War, Sun Tsu

Kanban itself does not require specific roles within the team. What it does, though, is uncover problems in the organization that could be solved by assigning a single “product owner” to the team in order to give the team a vision and help with prioritizing tasks. Most often, the opposite is actually true, namely you have too many product owners and overlapping responsibilities.

Imagine you have a software team and an architecture team, each with a separate supervising product owner. The software team needs machines for production deployment, but the product owner of the architecture team prioritized another project. In theory, in true Kanban fashion, the software team could move in to help out the architecture team and speed things up. In reality, this could fail for a number of reasons, such as lack of knowledge, access rights, or simply a difference of opinion about how the IT infrastructure should look. In addition, the software team may get conflicting messages from both product owners about how to proceed. By focusing both development and IT architecture under a single product owner, these problems could be prevented and deployment could be streamlined.

Looking at StarCraft, you will encounter both scenarios in multiplayer mode. There is no separate “general” role that oversees how a team should concentrate its forces. Instead, players individually decide where and how to attack. They are very opportunistic, quickly joining an attack by other members of the team with their available forces, and with little to no need for a manager at the top. In addition, the most suitable (in terms of experience, size of force, proximity to the base, etc.) player automatically becomes a temporary leader in a specific situation.

In games like StarCraft, the general is in full control of land and air forces, from production to deployment. However, looking at military history, we see a totally different approach by some leaders. Sun Tsu, a Chinese general and military strategist in the “Spring and Autumn” period of Chinese history (722 BC to 470 BC), most famous for his work The Art of War, pointed out that it is essential for victory that generals are unconstrained by their superiors. A general must be free to wage war without interference. In World War II, the Allied command structure gave total authority to General Eisenhower, with four commanders representing the US Navy Group, United States Army Air Forces, US Army Group, and British Army Group. Each commander had clear responsibilities and was able to plan and execute operations independent of the other commanders. Land, air, and sea operations could be planned by the individual commanders, and only joint operations that required a combination of groups had to involve Eisenhower directly.

One would expect an even better organized hierarchy on the German side. However, there, you had a whole array of overlapping authorities with, for example, tank divisions being distributed among different army groups. The idea behind Hitler’s organizational setup was primarily not about efficiency on the battlefield, but to retain control over the different factions within the German army and to have the final word on all decisions (i.e., to be the dictator). Before any of his commanders could execute an operation, it had to go over Hitler’s desk because only he had all the necessary information required to make a strategic decision.

Imagine playing a game like StarCraft if team players had to share half their units with another player from the team—with the only possibility of talking to that player being via a third person who kept (informational) control this way. This allows the project to be micromanaged and controlled by a third person (basically a “dictator”); you will lose the creativity and flexibility emerging from decentralized management. In business, it is relatively easy to recognize the type of organization in which you are working. How are budgets allocated? Can individual departments work closely with other departments without involvement of the CEO? Do the departments have authority or can decisions be enforced only by mentioning the CEO (or adding him or her to the CC line in email messages)?

Sure, organizations ultimately have to remain unified. A CEO cannot have one department running wild. And there is usually a reason that an organization is the way it is, so simply changing the leadership style might actually result in even more chaos. Ultimately, it depends on the people involved. What type of people are they? Do they prefer a clean organizational chart with clear responsibilities or can they operate only based on personal bonds and informational control? Do they share and work toward a common vision, or do they prefer having a strong leader directing the way from case to case?

While every organization is different, you will find the latter type of organization more often in the field of sales-focused industries, while the former is usually to be found in production-focused industries. I think that both types of organizations have their place, but when you want to produce and run projects, you might want to think twice about wanting your organization to be controlled from the top.

What type of structure do you have in the organization where you work? Is it led by someone who is focused on production or on sales? How does that affect your experience with change in the organization?