I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Patrol Method and Self Directed Agile Teams

As part of my research into method earlier this year, I picked up a 1959 edition of the Scoutmaster's Handbook. The core of the philosophy for a Scout troop was what Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, called the Patrol method. The early editions of the Boy Scouts of America's version of the Boy Scout Handbook were mostly written by the same person, William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt, and revised over many years.

The Patrol method Hillcourt described in the Scoutmaster's Handbook was essentially a self-directed Agile team. The key characteristics are:

  • Small team size: patrols are 6 to 8 people. Several patrols form a troop, but patrols are autonomous.
  • Pairing: experienced people teach new people on the team.
  • Continuous feedback: the Court of Honor is "...a peer system in which Scouts discuss each other's behaviors and is part of the self-governing aspect of Scouting."
  • Servant leadership: achieved through an emphasis on service to others (an expectation shared by all), as well as stressing that the highest leadership roles are expected to assist those in the troop to train themselves as opposed to telling them what to do. "A Scoutmaster's job is to help boys grow - by encouraging them to learn for themselves."
  • Hands-on over theory: "No meeting should be inside - all activities should be outdoors".
  • Respond to change: "If the planned program doesn't work, be resourceful. Throw some out, if necessary, to suit conditions."
  • Transparency: "Encourage members of the troop committee to attend regularly."
  • Stakeholder management: "When they come, have something definite for them to do."
  • Chickens and pigs: "Keep visitors on the side lines. Most of the time visitors come to see what is happening. Don't let them interrupt the meeting."
  • Generalize skills by rotating pairs and responsibilities through the duty roster instead of allowing people to specialize in tasks.
  • Tool construction: pioneering techniques forge useful tools from available resources that make you more productive and comfortable.
  • Each team owns the plan: troop goals and patrol objectives are set by members of the patrols themselves, not dictated the adult leadership.
  • Adaptability in technique: "Fortunately, there is no standard way of planning the program of a troop. A group of robots using a standard pattern in exactly the same fashion would pretty soon kill Scouting. Each troop works out its own way..."
  • A code with positive goals: the Scout Oath and Laws provide a value system for conduct, in much the same way that the Agile Manifesto is a value system for software delivery.

There are many more similarities I could draw out between the Patrol method and Agile teams. The point isn't to suggest that the concept of self-directed teams are influenced by the Boy Scouts - it doesn't matter whether they are or not. Or that there are no new leadership philosophies under the sun - servant leadership concepts are at least 2,500 years old at this point.

The point is to learn from what the people championing that method experienced when they applied it: intransigent doubt that the method can work because it turns leadership responsibility over to the team, or that learning-by-doing is inferior (e.g., doesn't provide value for money, or isn't more effective) to training by mass instruction.

If the concepts aren't new, the objections to them aren't, either. The strengths of a self-directed team might be self-evident to the initiated, but they're not an easy sell to those who are not - for reasons that have been with us for time immemorial. We can learn from their setbacks.

In the next post, we'll look at how champions internalized objections to the method, and what they observed happened when the method was compromised for sake of implementation.