As I write posts and white papers on agile software development and business agility, I find myself surprisingly often reminded of sayings by or about General Grant during the Civil War. I am not recommending Grant as a model of agile thinking – I think we’ve had enough books about Jesus Christ being an ad man and Attilla the Hun being a master business strategist (although if you want repulsive characters who were good generals, Subodai the Mongol would be a much better choice). I am, however, suggesting that Grant showed some interesting “agile” traits.
Let’s start with a remark by someone when Grant showed up to
take over in Tennessee (I am paraphrasing): Grant didn’t come in with a lot of
show and effort. And yet, when he came on the scene, everything seemed to start
working like clockwork. He seemed to
have a plan and everything he did played into that plan.
The plan, by the way, was mostly not Grant’s. The idea of
attacking downstream positions to free up the Union lines was General Thomas’. The spontaneous attack on Southern positions
at the end was not in anyone’s plan.
However, Grant adopted and adapted to realities on the ground and
changes in plan immediately. So, I
suggest, Grant had (a) ability to reach out to a “customer” and change plans
based on feedback – reactive agility – and (b) ability not just to adapt to
unexpected change but also to incorporate it immediately in an overall
Now let’s reach back a little earlier, to the attack on
Vicksburg. Catton in his superbly
written history states that Grant during the winter was trying various methods
to get downstream, and while almost all of these didn’t pan out, the constant
trying of different things had the effect of bewildering his opponent Pemberton
so that Pemberton perceived himself as being under potential attack from many
directions at once. As a result, when the real attack happened, Pemberton was
constantly one step behind. To me, that’s
a bit like evolving the nature of a product constantly during development,
compared to a competitor sticking to a fixed plan.
However – and, to me, here’s a key point – Grant was
proactive rather than reactive. Not only
was he constantly thinking about attacking; he was constantly thinking about
changes in his attacks. At Vicksburg, he
had already committed to operating without a supply line once across the river;
he then changed his plans in order to attack Jackson once he saw an opportunity,
and then turned around once Pemberton finally came out and changed his attack
plans again in order to attack and defeat Pemberton “in detail”. So Grant could be proactively agile.
That Grant thought this way is apparently confirmed by an
incident later in the war, at the Wilderness.
Lee was pressing Grant hard, and staff officers accustomed to previous
Union commanders were panicked over whether Lee could destroy the Union
army. Grant blew up at them: some of them seemed to think, he said, that
Lee was going to do a giant somersault and attack the army from behind. Instead of concentrating on what Lee was
going to do to them, Grant said, they should concentrate on what they were
going to do to Lee.
Now, I can’t say that Grant was completely agile – because he
apparently sometimes did not spend enough time taking care of potential
counter-moves by his opponents. Thus, in
Shiloh, he chose to hasten the arrival of reinforcements for an attack rather
than be on the scene getting folks dug in to receive one before he had a chance
One final thought – and here I admit I’m really
reaching. An interesting characteristic
of Grant’s attacks was that, given the chance, Grant would attack “up the
middle”, but not to split the enemy’s lines, as Lee attempted to do with
Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Rather, the main purpose was to hold the enemy
in place as he then detached an equal force to hit the enemy on or behind one
end, like a jab immediately followed by a roundhouse swing. If the enemy then
detached too many to deal with problems on the end, the up-the-middle attack
could then succeed, as in Tennessee. There is a vague analogy here to agile
new-product development, in which one “fixes the competitor in place” with a
strong product in an existing market, and then “hits the competitor on the end”
with major innovative features, as the iPhone did.
I conclude that Grant was not a modern agile strategist, not
fully. However, compared to others in
the Civil War, and many generals since, he thought in a much more agile
way. And note that it had nothing to do
with how hard he worked. He spent less
effort than most, and achieved much more.
He was not efficient, he was effective.
As Lincoln once said about Grant, I can’t spare this general, he fights.