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Insights, external networks, Innovation, and Reservists

In his 2018 address, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) asked Defence to stimulate innovation and transform to be more agile’. Post this, you can’t move for in the Forces without someone asking about your latest Agile sprint or innovation project. ‘The idea of “agile” management, in which workers are frequently reassigned to multidisciplinary teams, is all the rage’. In this context, CDS’s aspirations seem sensible given the current zeitgeist for Defence to work with civilian partners who are already embracing innovation to a far greater extent than Defence. 

But there is a problem. The article understanding fake agile gives three laws of agile, one of which is ‘a continuing effort to obliterate bureaucracy and top-down hierarchy’. Bureaucracy is rightly necessary when spending tax payer’s money and a top down hierarchy is in the Armed Forces DNA. The consultancy McKinsey tells us becoming Agile is hard. The Military’s hierarchy and bureaucracy makes it much harder. McKinsey also gives ‘eight essentials of innovation’. In the essential Discover they ask ‘Do you have differentiated…insights that translate into a winning business proposition’? In Extend they ask ‘Do you win by creating and capitalising on external networks’? When considering the Army, the answer to both is not really. 

This article will discuss the terms Agile and innovate. It will discuss why Agile is, in context, a misnomer and why true Agility can only be achieved by significant change which does not seem to be happening at the moment. It will suggest that using Professional Amateur (Pro-Am) Reservists is a good, cheap way to get differentiated ideas from external networks which is an important factor in innovation. 

Failing to be agile

When a superior says ‘I want to be more agile’ it can be difficult for a subordinate to know what they really mean. The dictionary definition of agile is move your body quickly and easily’ or be ‘able to think quickly and clearly. Assuming the PTIs have done their job then it could pertain to the latter. But, being able to do this is surely a given for military professionals?!? 

The widely agreed origin of the business term Agile refers to methodologies for software development, including working in short ‘sprints’; with each work period generally two weeks in length. Sprinting relies on cross functional teams. But what do software development and, say, battlefield first aid have in common? At first glance, very little. So returning to the original question, when asked to be more Agile, this could mean, returning to the dictionary definitions ‘work faster and harder’. Or, in a hierarchy with a tyrannical boss, ‘be able to read my mind better’

Agile relies on DevOps – a combination of Development and Operations. In the traditional waterfall software development method, a Development team would build something, have it tested and then throw it over the proverbial wall for Operations to run. Development had few incentives to make sure it was a good long term product. It is fair to say Ops didn’t like Dev that much. 

Agile works on the principle of ‘you build it you run it’, hence DevOps. Some software could run for years with the same team doing regular maintenance. The current two year staffing cycle sits more comfortably in the waterfall methodology than DevOps. If you are sure that you are moving on every two years (which many DevOps civilians aren’t) you can simply toss your work over the wall at the end of your two years and forgot all about it. There isn’t an OJAR six months or a year after you left talking about skeletons and cupboards, and so little long term stake and therefore little in common with DevOps.

When developing software, it is usually A/B tested. Different versions will be used by different populations to gauge which is most user friendly. In the context of personnel policy, one cannot, for reasons of fairness, A/B test for example financial retention incentives on different populations. Stuart Potter refers to sprinting in the personnel context. Without testing, it would appear that the use of sprinting is a misnomer here. He puts the word sprint into inverted commas which makes me think he is not convinced by its use. 

I have had personal experience of being asked to ‘sprint’. I worked with my own (multifunctional team), for just one person of higher rank than me (hierarchy) and with no budget (bureaucracy). This wasn’t sprinting, this was work, being wrongly termed as a sprint.

History reminds us words matter. During the Korean War, Brigadier Tom Brodie told his American Superior Brigadier General Soule “things are a bit sticky.” Soule understood this to mean “we’re holding the line”. Although the Glorious Glosters held out for another four days, many men died who might not have. 

The overuse and misuse of the word Agile is indicative of CDS taking business language with limited understanding of its true meaning and making it fashionable. This starts a butterfly effect throughout the organisation. The term is then badly used by subordinates keen to curry favour with superiors. There is lack of understanding, training and an organisational construct to support, in this case Agile. 

If the aspiration is for the workforce to be flexible (agile with a small ‘a’ if you absolutely must), which, speaking to some people, seems to be the case, then just ask them to be that. Becoming Agile in its true sense would need significant changes such as new team structures, assignments lengths, reporting lines and budgeting processes. There is little evidence of this happening. 

Case Study; Army Innovation Team

Because the Army is bottom fed the majority of personnel will have spent the majority of their professional lives in the Army. As Stan McChrystal says Army colleagues are more likely than civilians to be friends, having known each other, in some cases, for decades, and have literally risked life and limb together. They are less likely to socialise with people from other walks of life. Military professionals lack diversity of viewpoint.

The British Army Innovation Team has the same reporting regime as the rest of the Army which will be an impediment to innovation. The rational way for its members to act is in many ways similar to Management Consultants who are trained to agree with the clients theories. In this case, the client is their Reporting Officer, who decides if they get a good report or not and therefore determines their behaviour. In addition, the team reporting to the Capability Directorate, not the Executive Committee of the Army Board (ECAB), as one might expect with an Army wide team, means that they are associated with kit, which narrows the perception of their scope of work.   

Everyone in the creative department thinks that they are creative and the probably aren’t…everyone outside of the creative department daren’t be creative

The above quote, from Dave Trott, author of the book Creative Blindness is telling. The word ‘creation’ could is easily interchanged with innovation. Having an Innovation Team, subtly signals to everyone else ‘don’t think too much about innovation, the really smart people in the Innovation Team are already doing it for you’. This disempowers many and can stifle the bottom up flow of ideas that widespread innovation relies upon.

A lack of external thinking

A recent article from Project CASTLE referred at length to the 1960 Goodbody Report. Goodbody is an internal report which is seemingly being used to base the logic for Army careers for the 2020’s and beyond. It focusses on job security, without discussing the flip side. Some Long serving Middle Ranking Officers have, under the current system, unlimited job security. They can end up forming ‘the frozen middle’ and can slow or prevent precisely the innovation that the Innovation Team claim will happen ‘by instinct’. 

A CASTLE progress report leans heavily on data from AFCAS which is garnered largely from people inside the Forces. The ‘British Armed Forces have retention, not recruitment crisis’ so data from people who have left may be more useful (external networks). They may be more likely to speak frankly than when they were serving. Given their civilian experiences they can offer the external perspective that it appears CASTLE lack. As Robert Glazer, the TED speaker and bestselling author tells us ‘the Most Toxic Employees Aren’t the Ones Who Quit’. Those that have left can identify problems with retention. The system is working for those that have stayed. This could be achieved simply by heading to something like an Officers Association event and offering to buy drinks in return for a discussion as to why people left. Just because data isn’t quantitative doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. 

The Army is trying

To its credit the Army is trying. But as most will recognise, the Army, being a conservative organisation, moves more slowly than most of society. For example, it is sending significant numbers of Officers to study for MBAs just as MBAs are falling out of favour. People are now choosing specialist Masters Degrees as opposed to the generalist MBA[2] education. There are only two institutions that the Army sends its Officers to study at. Army education still relatively narrow when one considers The Economist ranks 100 MBA programmes globally.

Focussing on a single qualification speaks to the Army’s desire for a uniform training pipeline and conformity. My fear and suspicion is that this is driven by reporting (there is that word again). If someone has, for example, a Masters in Egyptology how should this be perceived by the reporting system when compared to someone with an MBA? The need for differentiated insights argument would say that doesn’t matter that much providing that it is from a reputable institution. 

The Harvard Business School Disruptive Voice podcast talks about how some of the projects, including strategy, that were once the mainstay of McKinsey, Bain and BCG (MBB) are now commodities. It says that ‘many people…are gaining the ability to do this in their sleep’. Arguably, the fact that most Officers now hold a degree means that they are already capable of generalist problem solving skills that the MBA used to claim ownership of. Plenty of soldiers without degrees are also good problem solvers. So with specialist Masters becoming more popular, some MBA teaching acknowledged as commodity and the need for diversity of thought the Army should consider its current approach carefully. 

An outside view from an insider – The Reservist

There is a rising tide of Pro-Ams in the workplace who are ‘amateurs1 who can work to professional standards’. They are ‘knowledgeable, committed and networked by new technology’. The Reservist is very much that, and in my experience, there are some fiercely bright Reservists. Reservist’s prospects in life are tied much more loosely to the Army than a full time Officer meaning they are likely to care less about their reporting chain and more about innovating.

Which Reservist to employ

There are some simple heuristics when looking to employ a Reservist. 

Firstly academics. The degree they studied and where. Was it a Russell Group University, an academically rigorous subject, and did they get a good result? Even if the Officer who is excellent with both a Rugby ball and weight and who holds a 3rd class sportsman’s degree disagrees, most of the rest of the world thinks academic qualifications are a good indicator of intellect and work ethic.   

Secondly, look at their CV. A couple of years at a large branded firm is the generally accepted standard of someone who can work in a high pressure environment. I know of Reservists who have or are working for Bain, KPMG, HSBC and Amazon to name a few. They are all big successful, reputable firms. They may have experience in a fields related to your problem (finance, technology, operations or logistics). If not, don’t dismiss them as they could still bring tangential perspectives. 

Thirdly, consider how much time they can give. Could they give you their two weeks (conveniently the length of an Agile sprint and an Annual Training Event) and then maybe a couple of follow up sessions every other week for a couple of months? This could mean you having to have some calls on Friday afternoon or on the weekends with them. Could you ask their unit to waive their two week camp in favour of one day a month? Getting outsiders involved early will help avoid anchoring on ideas without diverse views.    

Finally, the article The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures tells us ‘If it is safe for me to criticize your ideas, it must also be safe for you to criticize mine—whether you’re higher or lower in the organization than I am’. With this in mind forget rank. There are Private soldiers with world class education from Oxford or Cambridge and practical innovation experience in business. You could ask them to come in civilian attire removing the traditional outward signs of rank. You could even use first names and refer to them as consultants or red teams. The lack of uniform and badge of rank to identify them goes some small way to removing the hierarchy.


Applying Agile methodologies to non-software problems is difficult for all organisations and this includes the Army. There are things that they can take such as Kanban but this doesn’t equate to being Agile in its truest sense. That will require significant organisational changes for which there is little evidence of the Army taking at the moment. 

Our senior Officers should take care with their use of language as another Wavell Room article recently pointed out. We have Doctrine for the words that really matter to make sure that everyone has a common understanding and point of reference. 

Importing the latest business jargon may make them feel as though they are on the ‘bleeding edge’. Without proper definition and application it confuses personnel, creates cynicism and endangers reputations with external partners who truly understand it and also understand that the Army doesn’t understand it. 

The desire to become more innovative is hamstrung by a lack of diverse views and hierarchy. Getting external views from people who have spent their entire career in a single institution is going to be hard. CGS wanting toinvert the pyramid doesn’t mean that the pyramid has been inverted. There are plenty of people in the frozen middle who have a vested interest in it not being inverted as it diminishes their place in the hierarchy, a place which they toiled for many years to achieve

Reservists can bring diverse perspectives and experience with some understanding of the organisation. It is an easy, effective way to bring differentiated insights from (semi) external networks. The right Reservist brings a good education, business experience, and is free of the MS concerns that might bother a Regular that will prevent them from being a good ‘red team’. Giving them flexibility in how they work may allow continued long term engagement. As a bonus they will be much cheaper than your average management consultant. Their use is one innovation that the Army should definitely think hard about. 

British Army

Chris Has 17 Years leadership experience. Commanding on operations in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked on the Staff in MOD, Army HQ and Brigade HQs


  1. Some Reservists may take umbrage at the term amateur. In this context it refers to not being full time and therefore by definition not professional. I have seen Reservists that I would much rather have than Regular soldiers in many situations so would ask them not to take offence at terminology

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