Disclaimer: This post will be most enjoyable to you if you have read the books or at least watched the movies of the Lord of the Rings. If you are that guy/girl, who has no clue, I invite you to read the plot first. Needless to say; this blog post contains a heavy load of spoilers.
J. R. R. Tolkien started working on the books in the 1930s, so no way he plagiarized Jeff Sutherland’s or Ken Schwaber’s ideas, but agility has been around since the 1930s in Bell Labs too, so maybe he got a little inspiration there?!
The whole storyline of the Lord of the Rings (LotR) follows the same pattern like building up an agile team. To show you what you can learn from LotR for your work in an agile environment, I’ll guide you through the plot and show you seven steps that make agile teams successful.
In the first chapters of the LotR Gandalf visits an old friend of his, the Hobbit Bilbo, who is the owner of the “One Ring”; a powerful artifact that could destroy the world when held in the wrong person’s hands. The dreaded, evil wizard Sauron seeks the power of this ring to expand his territorial dominion over Middle-earth. In order to prevent this tragic fate, the ring needs to be destroyed and thus becomes the Product Vision of the book plot. However, who delivers this Product Vision?
Step 1: You need someone who commits to a vision.
In the agile world, this someone is called Product Owner. In LotR, this is the subject area of Gandalf the Wizard. He has the greater vision of defeating the greatest evil in the world, Sauron. He is also responsible for stakeholder management; for instance getting in touch with Saruman with the aim to build an alliance with him, convincing the Riders of Rohan or rallying the troops of Gondor. Further, he knows what needs to be delivered and how the tasks have to be prioritized to reach the goal. Speaking in agile you could say, he is responsible for keeping the product backlog in shape.
All in all, one can observe that he is strongly committed to his vision of defeating the evil at all costs. However, he can not execute it alone and needs a team, which takes us to the next step.
Step 2: Recruit a badass team.
The first team members of the agile team are Frodo, who in the meantime inherited the Ring from his uncle Bilbo, and Sam, his gardener. These two are Hobbits or halflings and therefore well versed with two skills: luck and stealth – skills, which come in handy for the first part of their mission, getting to the human city of Bree to find a guardian for their journey. In the first part, they get support from Merry and Pippin to navigate through the lands where they already encounter the evil forces of Sauron, only able to flee from the danger partially through wit and sheer luck. They reach Bree and meet their guardian.
Let’s recap this section in agile jargon: The Product Owner recruits a team that will bring his vision to life and makes sure that the team members have the required competences to deliver the first product increment. But he needs support for that, which brings us to the role of the guardian the four Hobbits meet in the city of Bree.
Step 3: Find a person willing to defend and unite the team.
In LotR the guardian’s name is Aragorn. In the agile world, Aragorn would be the ScrumMaster of the team. He protects the team from impediments and leads them as a servant leader. For example, after the expanded team leaves Bree, Aragorn hunts food, protects the team from the evil forces of Sauron and leads the Hobbits to Rivendell so that they can focus on their mission “to protect the ring.” In the subsequent sections of the book, the servant leadership traits of Aragorn become clearer as he recruits the Dead Men of Dunharrow to ensure that the team protects Gondor in one of the big fights at the end of the book.
Aragorn embodies the ScrumMaster throughout the book, he demonstrates servant leadership, ensures solutions to impediments and practices a retrospective meeting with the team after the “death” of Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. In short, he meets all expectations of a good ScrumMaster and supports the team’s path towards success.
Step 4: Upgrade your team “T-shaped style”.
After getting to Rivendell, Aragorn and the Hobbits take part in the circle of Elrond where the overall goal of the team becomes even clearer; through further deliberations and a lecture by Elrond. They have to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, a project that needs more and broader resources than only getting the ring in a safe haven like Rivendell. So, during the discussion the team around Gandalf, the Hobbits and Aragorn joins forces with
- the elf Legolas: good with the bow and equipped with heightened senses
- the dwarf Gimli: good in ax fight and sturdy
- Boromir: physically strong and mentally persistent
Together, they form a T-shaped team, each one having a rough understanding of the skills of the other team members but specialized in one specific skill. For example, in the Mines of Moria, the small Hobbits widen their skillset by engaging in fights. Although they are much less effective than the other combat-approved team members, they were able to learn from them.
It also seems to be no coincidence that they are nine team members, holding their needed communication and coordination at a manageable level; a size for a team that is also highly recommended in the agile world. So, in this form of an agile team, T-shaped and small, they start from Rivendell to realize the team’s vision.
Step 5: Embrace self-organization.
The team that sets off at Rivendell to put the “One Ring” into the fires of Mount Doom is certainly a non-hierarchical team. Each member of the team is at eye level with the other members, even the small Hobbits. Helping each other when needed, e.g., when the team opens the gates to the Mines of Moria. Nobody is forced to stay in the team and is free to leave at any time. The team members are bound by the vision and their commitment to accomplishing the goal. This cohesion gives the team the strength to overcome danger and reevaluate their strategy. In two instances this becomes crystal clear. The first is the “killing” of Gandalf in the fight against the Balrog: Every member of the team knows what to do bearing in mind the overall vision. Even in the face of the death of their Product Owner, they are still able to execute the plan. The second is the voluntary splitting of Frodo and Sam from the rest of the team after the battle on the hill of Amon Hen. The other part of the team recognizes the benefits of this drastic action for their mission’s success and chooses to embrace actions more suited for them, like pursuing or fighting the enemy troops.
Step 6: Iterate in small increments and get rid of impediments.
Our heroes deliver increments of their overall mission along their way. Every major fight in LotR is their way to deliver an end-to-end increment of their battle against the evil forces. They analyze the enemy’s weaknesses and adapt their fighting strategies before each fight but react to small changes during the fight. In short: They use an iterative approach to deliver their “fights” and simultaneously get rid of impediments during their mission, mainly led by Aragorn, their ScrumMaster. The concept of iteration is also unfolded in other scenes throughout the book. For example, when they use the passage through the Mines of Moria because Saruman blocks the Redhorn pass through the mountains. Or when Sam takes the ring from Frodo in dire need of protecting it. Every team member is truly committed to continuous improvement throughout the whole book.
Step 7: “Put a ring on it” a.k.a. hold on to your vision.
If there is no need from a market perspective to overhaul your vision – don’t do it. The vision of LotR grants the team a bigger picture, which gives them strength in distress and enables them to stand fast against the forces of Sauron. Especially the last part of the journey of Frodo and Sam makes this apparent. Only with the destruction of the ring, they can accomplish their vision, and the people of Middle-earth are free to live their lives peacefully. The vision of the team helps them to deliver a great product – the liberation of the world from all evil.
Reaching your goal is a unique experience. Agile frameworks like Scrum provide you with effective tools to iteratively achieve your set goals. Of course, your vision does not have to be the liberation of the world from all evil, although it is a great one. As the comparison with LotR shows, reaching your vision is a journey of hardship and struggle but also great joy and friendship. Keep that in mind if you are working in your teams the next time and try to support one another like the fellowship of the Ring.