Wargames and the Agile Manifesto

In July and August of 2002, the most expensive and far-reaching military exercise in history was launched. Costing nearly $250 billion, it simulated a military leader in the Persian Gulf – one believed to be sponsoring terrorist organizations – that the American forces were assigned to destroy.


The Pentagon knew that no enemy would be so foolish as to clash with American forces head to head (as with Desert Storm), and foresaw the next conflict as being urban and guerilla in nature.


To counter this, they had some impressive tricks up their sleeve designed to overwhelm enemy resistance on multiple levels. The best planners and tacticians in the world were assigned to the exercise, armed with an unprecedented amount of information in real-time – giving a comprehensive, real-time battle map that dispelled, once and for all, the “fog of war” that has plagued generals throughout history.


No movement of the enemy would go untracked; any resistance would be anticipated and crushed with overwhelming might from aircraft carriers and mobile battle groups. Force Blue, as the US forces were called, represented not just power but intelligence – logical, systematic, rational, capable of executing any plan flawlessly.

The problem was, the Pentagon needed a patsy. The general put in charge of Force Red (representing the rogue dictator) needed to be innovative and resourceful to offer up any sort of resistance; the Defense Department needed someone that could last for a day or two so the results would look sufficiently impressive to outsiders and give the Blue forces a chance to deploy every weapon in their impressive arsenal. They chose Paul Van Riper, a retired Army general that had served in the Vietnam war and had displayed a talent for disrupting enemy forces.

The results were one-sided, but not in the way intended by the Defense Department. Von Riper had no intention of laying down, and anticipated several moves of the Blue team from the outset. When Force Blue knocked out their microwave towers and fiber optics, they confidently sat back and waited for a stream of messages to go through satellites and cellphones that they could intercept and read – as Bin Laden mistakenly did.


The Red Team immediately switched over to manual systems, including light signals, couriers on motorcycles, and hidden messages in prayers. Immediately a ripple of discontent spread through the Blue ranks – their multibillion dollar computers had little data to go on. Worse, Team Red was not acting as it was supposed to; instead of lying paralyzed and dormant, they were circling Force Blue’s carrier strike force with PT boats and cheap jetboats. It looked almost like they were tracking their movements.


On Day 4, a barrage of cruise missiles were launched from every direction at the Team Blue’s ships, targeting their most vulnerable ships – overwhelming their missile defense systems. Aghast, the Navy and Marine generals looked at each other across their planning board; almost every major ship in the fleet was “sunk”. If this had been a real shooting war, 20,000 men and women would have died – without firing a shot.

This exercise and its aftermath are much better described in the book Blink; however, for us Agile aficionados, there’s lessons to be learned. Look at Rip’s tactics and a pattern emerges:

  • Rituals have their place. For example, in the Vietnam War, Paul’s squad was cut up badly in a fight for Hill 55 – suffering 45 casualties and 12 dead in a series of rocket attacks. Immediately following this though Van Riper didn’t let the team go lax back in Saigon, but put the squad through inspection/tactics and physical training drills – in the bush! (So, the rituals of scrum – the daily standups, the retrospectives – may appear aimless and never ending, but the routine has a purpose.)
  • Self-empowered, self-reliant and capable teams. A story is told of Van Riper notifying a team of 9 that an enemy squad of 120+ were heading their way, and their job was to intercept them. He said, “We will send a reactionary force, if you need one.” The hint was, the squad should be able to deal with the enemy, unaided.
  • Agile teams hate orthodoxy. Force Blue was almost mesmerized by the volume of data they had to process and assimilate; they loved acronyms and allowed their focus to drift. Van Riper said, “They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically.” When Force Red started to not react the way they expected, they were too constrained by their processes and dogma to counter quickly enough to remain in control of events. Force Red, in contrast, hated introspectives, long meetings, and military jargons. Paul said later, “We would not get caught up in any of those mechanistic processes. We would use the wisdom, experiences, and good judgment of the people we had.”
  • Agile teams are proactive, and don’t get bogged down in firefighting. Paul Van Riper said that he followed the “five minute rule” in Vietnam; on hearing gunfire, he wouldn’t radio any units for at least five minutes; if they needed help, they would call. “You’ve got to let people figure out the situation. The danger in calling is that they’ll tell you anything to get you off their back, and if you act on that you could make a mistake. Plus you are diverting them… they’re looking upward, not downward. It’s preventing them from resolving the situation.”

In short, it’s a great lesson on principles #1 and #4 of the Agile Manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan


On the first day of the exercise, Van Riper said to his commanders, “We will be in command but out of control.” He explained, “The overall guidance and intent was provided by me and senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn’t depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward.


In their meetings, Paul would set the general theme – to overwhelm Force Blue from multiple directions, air and sea – but the commanders and teams were responsible to come up with how to get the work done. No commander in Force Red ever got specific guidance from Paul or anyone on his staff on how to accomplish the project – just the intent.

This approach was messy in its implementation in the wargames; Van Riper never had a clear picture of where his forces were or exactly what they were doing. What seemed like a disadvantage, however, soon worked to build up trust among the team – and the valuable facility of rapid cognition.


Force Red could read and react, and anticipate moves without relying on tools; Force Blue was paralyzed when the project began to not go as planned.

I’ve often thought it unfortunate that Scrum is expressed in sporting terms, and not in military ones. Frankly, war is a more natural fit for what we project managers see in the field than anything you see on a rugby field. Paul Van Riper thought the central idea the Pentagon was trying to prove of trying to dispel the “fog of war” was foolish in the extreme – and impossible.


Worse, and most dangerously, it seduced military commanders into making that greatest of mistakes, the one Napoleon warned against first and foremost – forming a “picture” of what the enemy will do once battle is joined.

Agile allows us to react nimbly to events and new developments, taking advantage of new opportunities and shedding unproductive development paths. It’s not a ‘golden bullet’ by itself, and I’ve seen scrum teams get as bogged down in tools, meetings and minutiae as any waterfall-driven project.


Spend a few minutes today to think about your teams and their values, capabilities and rigidity. Ideally, over time, your groups will become more like Force Red than Force Blue.


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