In his book, The Lean Start-Up, Eric Ries defines a start-up as a “human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Operating in uncertainty is inherently risky. What makes many start-ups successful, among other things, is their ability to mitigate risk. One way a company can remain adaptive and responsive during uncertainty, and therefore reduce risk, is employing an agile development model. A good example of such an organization is Spotify, which continues to embrace, practice, and improve on agile fundamentals even after growing to over 30 development teams in three different locations.
There are striking similarities between the way Spotify organizes their teams and the way U.S. Army Special Forces organizes their Operational Detachments-Alpha, aka “A-Teams.” It makes sense that the two would be similar because the A-Team was in fact an innovation designed to deliver a “service” under conditions of extreme uncertainty. In this case, the “service” was military assistance to the struggling Republic of Vietnam, and later to guerrilla forces and resistance movements waging unconventional warfare against the North Vietnamese. The U.S. Army had never undertaken a mission similar in objective and scope. They did not know the conditions, the support, or the communication capabilities that their soldiers would find. The U.S. Army needed a self-sustaining team with all the skills necessary to complete a mission with a broad and evolving scope. Moreover, the team would have to operate autonomously and would have to be trusted to make decisions normally left to upper echelons.
The U.S. Army assessed and selected twelve of their most seasoned veterans, and then trained them each in one of six specialties: medicine, engineering, communications, weapons and tactics, or intelligence. Having redundancy in each position was desired in case one soldier got injured, and it also gave the team the ability to pair a new member with a more senior member of the same specialty. Redundancy also facilitated the ascension of the team’s most senior soldier to the role of Operations Sergeant. The A-Team Operations Sergeant is comparable to the role of Spotify’s Agile Coach, or sometimes called a “Scrum Master” in other organizations. He no longer fills a specialty function on the A-team. He is the team’s mentor and draws on his experience to coach the team. He wants his team to be efficient and safe, which equates to a quality product in their realm. It is the also the Operations Sergeant’s job to advise and informally train the A-team’s commander on the team’s competences and potential with respect to their assigned mission. He ensures that the commander does not over commit the A-team to the stakeholders.
The A-Team was designed to operate deep behind enemy lines. They would not maintain frequent contact to their command. Because the complexity of the mission at hand, the A-Team worked not only for their command, but on the on behalf of many other stakeholders, such as the U.S. State Department, CIA, and other government agencies. In the absence of guidance from their command, and other key stakeholders, it is crucial that the commander, with input from the team, manage the team’s priorities with respect to the mission’s goals. Just like Spotify’s Product Owner, it is the A-team’s commander who ensures the team is on track to accomplish the stakeholders’ desired end state by prioritizing projects and associated tasks.
The way that Spotify tweaked the idea of a Matrix Org to facilitate product-centered teams while managing professional development and adherence to standards across functional areas resembles the method used by A-teams. Spotify organizes their development teams or “Squads,” into “Tribes” of 100 contributors of varying disciplines such as software engineering, hardware engineering, DBAs, etc. Each Tribe has a “Chapter” in which contributors with the same competencies are grouped. Chapters are led by “Chapter Leads” who are responsible for the quality of work produced by his or her chapter. Special Forces A-Teams are organized into “Companies” of six multi-disciplinary teams (around 70 people). A-Team “Companies” have a headquarters unit that is responsible for the professional development and standards of each specialty on the team. As an example, the medics on each team practice medicine under the license of a medical doctor assigned to the headquarters unit. The doctor’s function is similar to that of a Chapter Lead because he is responsible for each medic’s continued professional growth, refresher training, and the overall standard of care that is provided by his chapter.
The A-Team model’s structure has not significantly changed since their inception. During the Vietnam War, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Forces A-Teams have produced tangible results where larger, conventional military units have not. Their self-sufficient and decentralized approach allows the team to focus on mission accomplishment. The conventional Army’s centralized and hierarchical structure doesn’t allow for the flexibility needed to mitigate risk in uncertain environments. Results often become secondary to strict adherence to protocol for protocol’s sake, and the approval of long reporting chains. Similarly, in the technology industry, companies like Spotify who adhere to agile fundamentals are able to scale and grow successfully amid the uncertainty, while larger, less “agile” organizations become bogged down in bureaucracy, and can not navigate the evolving and uncertain market.