Self-organisation with mercenaries

We know that already. We ‘ve heard it multiple times by senior executives and managers: “Our employees are not able to manage themselves. We have to step in and show them what to do and how to do it.” But let’s have a look at a historical event from 401 BC.

The Persian Empire is in unrest. Ten thousand Greek mercenaries were recruited (along with other forces) by Prince Cyrus, brother of the Persian King Artaxerxes, to overthrow his brother and claim the throne of the Persian Empire. Back then the heavily armoured Greek mercenaries had the reputation of very skilled and fierce warriors.

During the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC (on the left side of the river Euphrates), the army of Cyrus was defeated, despite the fact the division of the Greek mercenaries did not suffer many casualties. Actually only the Greek mercenaries remained intact and did not retreat. Long story short, the Greeks were in the middle of a huge empire, without food, employer or supplies, surrounded by enemies. On top of that, their leadership was executed after they foolishly accepted an invitation to a feast by an Artaxerxes’s leading Satrap, Tissaphernes.

Many could say that the mercenaries had no chance of surviving. However, they had a great motivator to back them up: Survival. Without losing much time, they elected new leaders and decided to march towards the Black Sea. By being skillful warriors and by staying together and they managed to reach the sea. This story is known as the “March of the 10 thousand” and you can read about it in more detail in the book of Xenophon “Anabasis”.

Now let’s come back to the contemporary world and enter a development room at an IT company. They are determined to implement Scrum. The CTO is allocating developers to the respective teams that he established. When asked why he is doing so and violates the self-organisational spirit of the teams he replies by supporting the view that developers are not able to determine for themselves. As they are not used to and besides, he has a better overview of the processes, the skills and area of expertise for each developer. Then I think; ten thousand mercenaries (they were fighting for money, not self-improvement, purpose or something else), surrounded by enemies in a vast area of land, with no supplies or any kind of support and with their leadership dead, managed to self-organise and lead themselves to  rescue. In 401 BC, with no internet, no interactive communications, no transportations and with a questionable moral and intellectual status. And they did it. Therefore my question is why can’t (or to be more precise why do you think that they can’t) the developers organize themselves into team alone?

In short: Show them the way you wish to go to, give them the equipment they need and let them do the rest. Now you feel worried about taking that risk. I totally understand you. That’s why we use Sprints. To control risk. But this will be part of another post.10000-03

(Image showing the painting by Bernard Granville Baker. The mercenaries shouting “Sea, Sea”, as soon as they reached the shores of the Black Sea)

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