“Rattatatatata!!! Got you!” I triumphantly shouted to my friend as I approached him from behind. Did you as a kid also play war (probably not really PC these days, but we liked it)? Sneaking with your team of friends to find the enemy, your other friends. Fantasising about how you were this cool elite commando guy.

A while ago I held a talk at the Dutch Railways (NS) in which I compared Scrum Teams to Special Forces. Scrum Teams share a lot of the characteristics of Navy SEALs teams or Delta Force teams. They are small, self-organising teams, with a clear mission and guiding values. I think people in Scrum Teams – and their leaders! – can learn from the way these specialised military teams operate and are led.

The Team

Special Forces teams are small, often comprised of 4 – 8 team members. These are professional, multitalented individuals that have been through the toughest training. Team members perform different roles: there are communication specialists, demolition specialists, medical specialists, snipers. Though they have a specialisation that they’ve honed after years of training, they are generalising specialists. They share a fundamental part of their capabilities and are able to take over for each other. Together, they are more powerful than the sum of the parts. Indeed, just like Scrum, it is all about the team.

Scrum does not make a distinction of titles within the team, and the professionals in the team are all equals. In the same way in Special Forces teams, input and ideas are encouraged from everyone. Together they have to support each other for a single, shared purpose.

Another characteristic Specials Forces teams and Scrum Teams share is that they are often long lived. Team members stay together for a long period of time and learn from and with each other. SEAL team members know each other so well they can recognise a team mate in the dark just by their silhouette. They gel, and a bond of brotherhood is formed.

The Mission

Every move is towards the mission. It is the most important goal to achieve. Clarity in the mission is crucial for a team to perform. Plans must be communicated in a clear and concise manner, so everyone involved knows and understands what is the desired outcome. There is a good reason for conciseness: when something goes wrong, or just in an unforeseen direction, complex plans add to confusion.

A good leader is a true believer in the mission. If a mission is passed on to a leader, he or she should be able to confidently and clearly explain the rationale behind it. If he can’t, he should go back and ask questions until he understands the mission. It is very important teams know why they are asked to do what they do. Translated to a Scrum Team, this means that the Product Owner must be able to explain the mission, the goals she wants to achieve with the product, so that the Development Team knows what they are working towards and why.

Once the mission is clear, the Special Forces teams are free to achieve the goal by whatever they deem most effective. They focus on the immediate goal that everyone can see, and then move on to the next, all the while adapting when necessary. Special Forces are trained to make decisions on the fly. Independent of the control of higher-ups they make a call. After all, they are closest to the action and know best what is going on. All are leaders in that sense. When something unforeseen happens, they inspect and adapt (Hmm, where have I heard that before ;). After all:

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The Values

The values underpinning Scrum are commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect. Special Forces units also have their values and are famous for their mottos, like Semper Fidelis, De Opresso Liber and Nunc aut Nunquam. In my research into these units I came across values like courage, adaptability, professionalism and personal responsibility. I think there are a lot of similarities here and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine how commitment (to the mission, to helping eachother), courage (jumping out of a plane deep into enemy territory for instance), focus (on the next step towards achieving the mission), respect (for being different individuals with different drives and unique skills) and even openness (sharing critical information within the team and with the chain of command) play a critical role in the Special Forces.

Of course, at the end of the day, it all revolves about the outcome, whether that is rescuing hostages or creating a product that customers love. No ceremony, tactic or value is an end in itself. Just as doing Scrum and having Scrum Teams are not a goal to achieve. But I believe that creating Scrum Teams leads to the better results you want to achieve. Keeping in mind that these teams are much like Special Forces teams you could enable them to perform as truly self-organising professionals that get the job done.

Do you want the whole experience?

The talk was well received, and I liked to deliver it to these professionals that make the innovation in NS possible. I gladly deliver it to your organisation. If you’re interested, reach out!

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