Agile transformation throughout Military History

As a huge military history buff I always find it interesting to stumble onto random waterfall vs agile snippets. Here are a few recent ones I wanted to share


In 197 BC at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Roman army met the forces of Macedon. Looking back on the battle its hard to imagine how the traditional legionnaire tactics of the Roman military could deal with the mighty Macedonian Phalanx but the answer is much more surprising when viewed in the context of Waterfall vs Agile development.

At the time the Macedonian Phalanx was very much the unmovable object, very similar to waterfall development. From a command and control standpoint there wasnt much finesse to an army based around the Phalanx. Much like waterfall development once the battle started the Phalanx was a large unwieldy freight train that lacked the ability to pivot regardless of the environment around it. Macedonian Generals were often faced with new intel once a battle started very similar to how a Project Manager might field changing requirements while being powerless to make changes to the current project

The Roman army on the other hand organized itself into much smaller and more Agile manipular formations, with each commander afforded some battlefield flexibility to pivot and adjust as the battle unfolded. The hallmark of the Roman army as well as its greatest asset was the ability for a General to relay an overall strategy to each cohort commander and then once the battle begin each commander had the flexibility to pivot as needed as conditions changed, this very similar to how a product owner might deal with the churn and flux of requirements, directing the dev team on how to react to the changing landscape


Another great example of this can be found during the Battle of Trafalgar. Here Nelson took a smaller fleet up against a superior Franco-Spanish fleet. Again as in our previous example its very easy to draw some waterfall vs agile parallels

The Franco-Spanish Fleet under the command of Admiral Villeneuve looked to use its numbers advantage and relied on well established naval battle traditions. Information was very silo’d with only Villeneuve knowing the full battle plan . A plan he couldn’t share with his other captains ahead of time. As the battle begun to play out Villeneuve used a flag and smoke system to attempt to send his orders to fellow captains. A system that in the fog of battle proved impossible to follow

Lord Admiral Nelson on the other hand used a bit of an outside the box strategy in this battle. Not just in the way he deployed his ships but in how he communicated and shared his battle plan with his other captains. In the days leading up to the battle Nelson spent time with each captain addresses all concerns raised while placing great trust in each commander’s ability to ultimately make the right choice. When a captain challenged Nelson on the play Nelson famously told the captain “No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy” Nelson had patiently installed the idea in his own commanders that he allowed and, indeed, expected his subordinates to use their own initiative. The trust Nelson placed in his commanders to execute his overall strategy by whatever method they deemed best would become known as “The Nelson’s Touch”


It really does amaze me how often you can be researching something completely unrelated to business transformation and stumbled into some truly historic examples of just how long the age old battle of waterfall vs agile has been raging on!


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