How Military Tactics Made Me a Better Scrum Master


It’s a powerful tool, and it’s a point of honor that a scrum master has no control, only influence, within a team.  I prefer it that way, and I hope you do too.  I recently reflected on how I conceptualize influence, and I realize that I operate in one of three contexts.  Before I share those contexts, a caveat.  Before my life as a scrum master, I was a Marine.  I served as an intelligence operative and martial arts instructor for 10 of the most formative and adventurous years of my life.  Even now, I still find myself using military language to explain my thoughts.  In my opinion, it makes for a more vivid metaphor.

Frontal assault.  When you know you won’t face much resistance, lay out your idea, explain what you’re looking to do, gain buy in, and execute.  No subtlety is involved, and it’s usually the quickest method to implement an idea.  However, use caution.  Never let bias for your idea convince you that others will love it.  If you conduct a frontal assault and find support is lacking, the losses can be substantial.

Rules of engagement:

  1. You’re doing the majority of the speaking while others are listening.
  2. Most of your sentences are statements, not questions.

In short, you’re attempting to sell the group on your idea.

Flank.  This is usually the context in which I choose to operate.  It allows a great deal of flexibility and ensures you have the most information at your fingertips.  However, it requires a higher level of subtlety, patience, and time.  Additionally, this is the appropriate tactic to use when you know you’ll face some measure of resistance. Timing is important, and it’s also useful to understand the group’s frame of mind.

Rules of engagement:

  1. Usual conversation starters are “Help me understand” or “I need your help.”
  2. Your audience is doing most of the talking.
  3. When you do talk, it’s usually to ask a question.
  4. When it’s not a question, you’re usually explaining what it’s it for them.

In short, you’re attempting to have them sell you on your idea.

Guerilla warfare. This is the long-play.   This tactic works well with a group you know will strongly resist your idea, but you expect they will come around with time.  Here, the intent is to take a shot at the enemy and retreat with no intent of winning the battle.

Rules of engagement:

  1. A conversation is quick and to the point .  The entirety of it could look like this: “I wonder if doing x would have helped.”
  2. Avoid passive aggressive body language or inflection.
  3. Enter with no agenda and never attempt to sell them on your idea.
  4. Let them come into the idea naturally. They’ll bring the idea up in conversation when they’re ready.

When the proper moment arrives, adjust to a flank. The more the group feels the idea is their own, the better.

In many cases, you will fail to convince a group, and that’s okay.  Retreat, regroup, and reconsider your approach.  Maybe you chose the wrong tactic, picked the wrong day, or maybe your idea just needs more work.

Do you want to get notified when new posts are published? Leave your email below.

14 thoughts on “How Military Tactics Made Me a Better Scrum Master”

  1. Most excellent; neat to see your leadership experience in the military experience flow into your work with Agile. I see each of these scenarios when working with my teams; I’ve done Frontal Assault for changes to Standups, lots of Flank is necessary during Sprint Planning, and Guerilla for convincing the team that Pair Programming is good. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kurt. I have a few more blog posts on my mind that draw on my military experiences. I’m curious myself how they end up out of my head and onto virtual paper.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience Tanner, I am prior service and an Officer in the Army Reserves. I agree that what we have learned in the military lends well to the Scrum Master role but it definitely takes some creativity and adaptation to utilize those skills in the civilian sector.

  3. Thanks Tanner – Hoorah!
    I am a USAF Veteran and many of the disciplines we learned can be applied to technology. My career in information technology started in the military.
    Leadership requires courage and discipline.

    Thank you for your Blog and your service.
    PMcCain USAF 76-80

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *