The Art of Agile: The Art of War Interpreted with an Agile Lens

What do Agile and War have in common? More than you might think. When you think of war, think of it as a problem to be solved. Now, think about Agile. Agile is a way of working and thinking to collaboratively solve problems and figure things out you go.

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is a book of wisdom and strategy for warriors. But don’t be fooled. The book contains lessons that go far beyond the battlefield. Lessons for Agilists can be found within the text, when interpreting the words with an Agile mindset. The importance of planning, self-governance, and just-in-time information are a few examples of lessons that apply to both War and Agile.

If you want to discover the golden nuggets of Agile wisdom found in this ancient text, bring your agile mindset and join me to interpret “The Art of War” through an agile lens.

1 favorite thumb_down thumb_up 0 comments visibility_off  Remove from Watchlist visibility  Add to Watchlist

Outline/Structure of the Talk

Notes to Selection Committee

  • The slides referenced in the submission are from a 60-minute version of this talk, given at Capital Kanban in March 2019.
  • I'm reworking the presentation to pack in the most meaningful content into 45-minute. I believe the shorter format will provide more impact in less time. This is probably a better format for the content.



      • Short story on how this presentation came to be
      • Connections: Check-in Question: How do you feel about the idea, of a relationship between War and Agile?
        • Answered in a small group
      • Making the connection b/t War and Agile
      • Note on interpretations: Everybody has their own unique lens through which they view the world. While we all share the Agile Lens, our unique lens will cause some of us to interpret the same quote differently. That's expected and normal.

(7 Min)

3 Key Elements for Interpreting the Art of War with an Agile Lens

    • Based on Quote from Art of War “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt” 10:31, page 49

(2 Min)

1. Know the Enemy: Understand the Problem

    • The Art of War dedicates two whole chapters to understanding the situation that you are in
      • Chapter 10: Terrain and Chapter 11: The 9 Situations – or varieties of ground
      • High level summary: You must first know the terrain before you can make decisions and solve problems.
    • “We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country…” 7:13, page 38
      • The team needs an understanding of the problem before they can begin working on a solution.
        • What is the problem?
        • Why are we solving it?
        • What are the benefits of solving it?
        • Who’s involved?

(5 Min)

2. Know Yourself: Understand the Team

    • “The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy and does not require too much from individuals.” Page 29
      • We need to understand the power of the team
        • The Team as a whole,
        • The Talented individuals within
        • And how to best combine them into a team
      • Example: Looking at a Soccer team and players
    • “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbids it; If fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight, even at the ruler’s bidding” 10:23 page 48
      • Self-managing, self-organizing team.
        • Because the team is closer to the problem, they will know best if fighting will result in victory.
        • Assuming the team is empowered to make decisions and has been properly trained
    • “If in the neighborhood of your camp there should be any hilly country, ponds surrounded by aquatic grass, hollow basins filled with reeds, or woods with thick undergrowth, they must be carefully routed out and searched; for these are places where men in ambush or insidious spies are likely to be lurking.” 9:17, page 23
      • Importance of discussing Team Dynamics in Retrospectives.
        • I often find teams that don’t like to discuss team dynamic issues. They avoid them at all costs because the conversation is tough and lots of feelings are involved.
        • When team dynamic issues are not addressed, they hide within the team. Lurking just out of sight, ready to explode.

(8 Min)

3. Practices to Enable Victory

    • Chapter 13 of the Art of War is all about The Use of Spies.
      • “Be subtle! Be subtle! Use your spies for every kind of business” 13:18
      • When I read the chapter on spies I think about COLLABORATION.
        • Collaboration with the Product Owner, End Users, and the team itself.
        • Collaboration is one of the most important practices to enable victory, because Agile relies on Human interaction.
          • Lyssa Adkins Quote: “The Agile Manifesto has slime all over it… Human relationships are not only the goo all over the Agile manifesto. They are the glue that holds it together.”
    • Importance of Planning & Re-planning
      • “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move”
      • “So, the Student of war, who is unversed in the art of varying his plans… will fail to make the best use of his men”
      • Famous Quote: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”? Murphy's Law of combat
        • Accentuates the need for re-planning
    • Concrete Practice: In groups, interpret 1 of 4 quotes. Quotes will be spread out among the various groups. Debrief together as a group.
      • My interpretation of the quotes...
        • Work most valuable things 1st + Frequent Deliveries = Trust of Customer
        • Just-In-Time Inventory& Information
        • Go where there is Flow
        • Breaking down Stories

(15 Min)


(2 Min)


(6 Min)

Learning Outcome

  • Participants will be able to directly tie Agile principles and best practices, back to text in "The Art of War"
  • Participants will be able to use their agile mindset to interpret "The Art of War" or other books on their own

Target Audience

Anyone interested in using their Agile Mindset to find Agile concepts in unexpected places

Prerequisites for Attendees

General knowledge of Agile principles and practices may be helpful, but not required.

schedule Submitted 3 weeks ago

Public Feedback

comment Suggest improvements to the Speaker