Running Upstairs - What Fighter Pilots Know About Agility

The esteemed Paul Graham of Y Combinators wrote this vivid and compelling story of "running upstairs":
Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him.

What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we'd always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground. Like guerillas, startups prefer the difficult terrain of the mountains, where the troops of the central government can't follow. (Graham, Paul. "How to Make Wealth")
This is a useful picture, but it isn't enough. Innovating on hard problems isn't enough. Agile Development is not agile enough.

Hidden inside this story is the story of how fighter pilots like the USAF strategist, Col. John Boyd, defines agility: "asymmetric fast transients". It's not about being able to run upstairs faster than the big, fat bully. It's about changing directions faster while big fat bully has to heave his bulk and stop his inertia. It's not just about zipping around and changing directions faster, it's about changing intentions faster than the big, fat bully can decide and predict what you are up to. It's not just about changing intentions faster, it's about creating ambiguity and disruption to paralyze the big, fat bully into unactionable analysis while you seize whole market ecosystems.

It's not just about creating ambiguity and disruption, it's about moving with internal harmony. That requires a level of mutual trust you'd find in a startup team, and rarely in a bureaucracy. That requires a vision so compelling, so powerful, that you attract customers, you attract a star team, and you might even attract that big, fat bully into coming up to bat for you.

It's about people, then ideas, then technology.

An engineering team might execute their Agile process brilliantly, yet be adversarial with management. To be truly agile in the Boyd sense, you need agility pervading throughout the whole startup, self-similar like a fractal. Invisible, yet vital like air.

You need agile people, agile ideas, and agile technology.

And so, Agile Development is not agile enough, not when you start competing with other little, nimble startups -- and the insanely great.

For Further Study: Chet Richard's Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business