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Bomber Command Vs. Drone Warfare: The Role of the PO

Posted by James Brookes on 27/10/16 09:52

Ever since I was a nipper, I’ve had a fascination with the RAF. The evolution from the Bi and Triplanes of WWI through to the modern day VTOL jets, whether it was watching the Battle of Britain or the The Memphis Belle, or pedalling my bike down Chapel Hill, the steepest hill in Rawtenstall, pretending it was a Spitfire Mark I on a top secret mission for RAF Fighter Command, I’ve been hooked. So to follow this passion I became a project manager in software development...

Over the course of my career to date as an agile project manager, I’ve often questioned how to get more a buy in from Product Owners (PO) - especially when the PO is remote to the rest of the team. In the spirit of Agile, I was recently told a great metaphor for the role of a PO using another of my favourite subjects - military history.

The metaphor compared the role of a PO in a waterfall project to that of Bomber Command in WWII. Let me first provide an overview of the role of Bomber Command and how this can relate to a more waterfall style PO, before looking forward to the aviation of today and how drone pilots work with a focus on agile.

Bomber Command: The Waterfall Approach

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During the darkest days of WWII, when squadrons of bombers sought to reduce enemy cities to rubble using some of the most devastating weapons they could muster,  Allied Forces controlled the sky from Bomber Command.

Bomber Command was a deep bunker where all the planning for the various squadrons was undertaken, well away from the combat zone. They were diligent and precise - which city, targets within the city, number of bombers required, success criteria, weather conditions, acceptable losses…the success criteria were clear.

You can see the parallels to the waterfall approach to tech projects - reams of documentation prepared in advance, passed to a team who go away, do their best and come back with the results of their labours. Of course there are huge differences between a tech project and a bombing run, but basic project management principles of deliverables, time frames and risks are the same. Often at the outset of a project a PO has a raft of requirements and may want to sit back in the initial skirmishes and see what happens.

Holding the metaphor, what POs sat in Bomber Command may not realise, is that while you were half way over the Channel en route to complete your mission, you may have been set upon by Messerschmitts and lost half of your planes, or bad weather caused you to be blown 30 miles off course.

Whatever the unexpected encounter, you missed the target. Unaware, hunkered down in their bunker, this information comes too late to POs for them to act and affect the outcome which had already been realised - much as with waterfall methodologies. So how do you fix this?

Drone Warfare: Agile Methodologies

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Agile, as with drone warfare, is no automatic, quick fix, silver bullet solution. However, it does significantly reduce ‘mission risk’ in terms of project development. It is also a significantly different experience from a PO’s perspective.

The preparation for take-off may well be similar, but agile accounts for the fact that plans may and often do change as the environment and circumstances change around a project.

Rather than being sat in the Flying Fortress B-17 bombers halfway over Europe with old school crystal-valve radios, the drone operator can be sat in the same room as the person running the mission.

Following the agile preference for co-location this work, should something unforeseen happen, enable the person running the mission to make the call and simultaneously feel the “pains” of the extended team.

This not only generates collaborative styles of working and immediate, more effective communication, but helps in the final stages of a project when briefing stakeholders as to why the actual outcome was different to the intended outcome.

Nothing in this changes with software development. Whether through co-location (the ideal) or via the various means of digital messaging used on projects, the continuous feedback cycles offered by daily stand ups in scrum,  feedback in XP or the cycle time of Kanban, a PO can consistently and transparently observe and assess project progression, and make informed, timely decisions on any aspect of a project.

So, if the PO has this level of involvement, where does the PM fit? In scrum there is no PM, a scrum master oversees the ceremonies involved with scrum and guides process. A PM has a more overarching role than just overseeing process, and reaching back to the metaphor, the PM can act in a variety of roles depending on what the team, client and project need.

A PM can be a mechanic that helps in advance to maintain the team and mitigate issues as early as possible, an early warning system, alert to pick up issues before they become major impediments, or a layer of armour for the team to shield from outside influences. Equally, the PM can assume a role as the stabilisation system to keep the project moving forward with due velocity, holding the process together and ensuring as smooth a flight as possible.

The list is long, but the role and responsibilities of  a PM can often be quiet and unassuming, so their added value isn’t always immediately visible, and thus goes unrecognised. That is  until something hits the fan and turbulence is experience on the project, when they get blamed for not checking the weather forecast! Even then the adverse impact is often reduced and managed because of the work a PM does behind the scenes to bring a project safely into land, even if there is some collateral damage to budget, timescales or developer egos.

So to conclude, the benefit of agile is often that you can react to short-term changes in a project environment in a much more effective and timely way. It t also give the PO access to see how their project is shaping up and unfurling, and be a part of both the peaks and troughs of the development lifecycle.

An agile approach enables collaboration and generates opportunities for joint-decision making with the PO, as to the decisions required to be made in the heat of a development debate, and defending those decisions  as they have been a part of making them.

As Pericles said, freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it. We owe much to those who served in Bomber Command, despite the flaws now alerted in their management and communication style because of modern technologies and project management tools and methodologies.. Having said that, the roar of a spitfire in the sky will never be replaced by the drone of a drone. I can’t see my son emulating me on his bike pretending to be a drone throwing himself down Chapel Hill.

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