A history lesson for Software Development: How to build an Agile empire
By Stephen de Villiers Graaff, DVT principal agile consultant
If you had any designs on transforming your organisation into an Agile empire, you could do worse than look back through history to the examples set by the greatest empire builder of them all.
Born in (or around) 1162, Temüjin – better known to you and I as Genghis Khan – was one of seven siblings in a royal tribe that was soon to lose its patriarch. Like any chaotic organisation going nowhere, Mongolia at the time was a haphazard collection of factions and sub-factions consistent only in their disdain for each other and the goal of eliminating one another in an aimless quest for domination.
“One arrow alone can be easily broken, but many arrows are indestructible.”
So when young Temüjin was cast out with his widowed mother and told to fend for himself in this bleak and directionless wilderness, his chances of survival were slim. But the child held on to the unshakable belief that only together could his family survive. This focus on the collective, one of the first and most important Agile parallels in this story, became the foundation for what he was ultimately to achieve, and why we remember him so vividly more than eight centuries later.
So strong was his belief in unity over individuality that when he caught his oldest brother stealing food from the family, he killed him. But instead of fleeing from this shocking act, he confessed to it immediately and justified his reasons.
The deed, brutal and unconscionable as it was, also demonstrated the great courage and vision of the boy – two otherwise admirable qualities often lost in the retelling of the Khan’s bloodstained rise to power. It also demonstrated his commitment and the price he was willing to pay for it.
The following years brought mixed fortunes for the soon-to-be emperor. He was at one point enslaved, enduring great hardship but gaining great strength. So much so that by his early twenties he had transformed into a great warrior with a small but growing following of his own. He gained immense loyalty and respect by welcoming followers as family, and was willing to die for them in battle if it came to that.
“There is no such thing as individual honour in battle if the battle was lost.”
Our story jumps two decades to a time when Temüjin is no more, replaced by the great Genghis (he modestly changed his name to mean ‘universal ruler’), a leader of men and ruler over the largest empire the world has ever known.
Built on the foundations of togetherness fostered in childhood, and the drive to win (or lose) as a collective, there was little place in Khan’s vast hierarchy for individuality.
He led from the front; in fact, in most battles he could be found among his men, fighting side-by-side, with no regard for his own safety. He would never send anyone to do something he wouldn’t have the courage to do himself.
In 1201, in the midst of the Battle of Thirteen Sides, Khan took an arrow to the neck – a minor wound but an injury nonetheless. Following the inevitable victory, he gathered the remaining enemy survivors and demanded to know who had shot his horse in the neck. Understandably he believed that were he to ask who had shot him in the neck; no one would come forward.
You can imagine his surprise when a man called Zurgadai came forward and pronounced: “I did not shoot your horse, I shot you. It is within your rights to put me to death, but if you let me join you, I will serve you with loyalty.” Such was Khan’s amazement at this ballsy display of courage and honesty that he named him Jebe (meaning arrow) and, years hence, made him one of his greatest generals.
“A leader can never be happy until his people are happy.”
What Genghis Khan did he did for the betterment of his people, and he would never place himself above them. If his people were cold, he was cold; if they were wet and homeless, so was he. There was no differentiation between him, his people and his nation.
Everything was shared among the people, down to the finest gems from the many fortunes pillaged from their enemies. He took nothing special for himself, and his people knew they weren’t fighting for Genghis, they were fighting for each other.
Khan in today’s world would almost certainly not be a ‘leader’ prone to sitting in the corner office enjoying the view. In Khan’s thinking, leaders sat among the people, taking the hits and sharing the rewards. You fail together, you succeed together, and while individuals are important, they are only important in their service to the group.
He also believed in the mastery of everything. The children, Khan believed, should learn how to ride a horse before they can walk, so by the time they’re grown, the horse is an extension of the person. But Khan wasn’t satisfied with good; he drilled into his men the mastery of the horse. And so the Mongols became famed for many things, among them the uncanny ability to hit the seam of otherwise impenetrable Russian armour with an arrow from the back of a galloping horse.
As a leader, he had an instinctive understanding of what his people needed (not wanted – needed). A poor and illiterate child, he instead encouraged formal learning among his people. Everything he saw he critically examined and retooled to make it better.
In the 1930s, this approach would be known as Kaizen, ‘pioneered’ by the Toyota Production System’s architect, Taiichi Ohno, and evolved into the principles of Lean we know today.
“People conquered on different sides of the lake should be ruled on different sides of the lake.”
Genghis Khan understood that cultures were intrinsically different. He accepted them for what they were, learned from them, and allowed them to self-govern (once conquered and loyalty sworn, of course).
During his conquests in China he discovered canons and gunpowder; in the Middle East, he encountered chemistry and astronomy. In doing so, his Agile empire expanded through assimilated knowledge, much like modern organisations do today.
History paints him as a ‘barbaric, bloodthirsty maniac’ because he encouraged it; he knew it was a great idea because in most cases it diffused the battle quickly and he wouldn’t need to kill anyone.
Such was his determination to conquer ‘in peace’, he devised a system of three tents before a battle: white, red and black. On day one he raised a white tent, which signaled to the besieged city that on that day, its leaders were welcome to surrender and find a peaceful resolution without bloodshed. Failing which, day two would see a red tent erected, at which point he would kill every soldier in the city, but leave the women and children (and the city) unharmed. If both offers were rebuked, a black tent would signify the complete destruction of the city and its people.
Needless to say, more white tents were sewn than black, although tales of the black tents remained as examples to anyone that didn’t get the message. Ruthless yes, but with the hope that he wouldn’t need to be. As a modern leader of an Agile business you need the resolve to make hard decisions but give people every opportunity to find a solution on their own.
“Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life let alone the lives of others.”
Genghis Khan made the vision of the Mongol Empire crystal clear to everyone. He was an incredible communicator; you could walk up to anyone in any of his lands and ask about his vision and they would recount it precisely. It is this same foundation of understanding that underpins successful organisations today.
Whether you’re looking to transform an ailing business into a competitor among its peers, or build an Agile empire from the successful organisation you already lead, history is your greatest teacher. And no lessons are greater than those of a little boy called Temüjin who had the courage to change the world.
Stephen de Villiers Graaff
(+27) 21 467 5400
(083) 302 9494