Agile Project Management and a Naval Bombardment in Newport, South Wales


This is actually about the game Battleships and not some sinister plot (probably by Cardiffians) to obliterate Newport in a naval bombardment.

Last week I went to Newport to learn about agile project management from James Scrimshire of and got involved in a game of Battleships. It was at a Port80 event organised by all round good guy (and web strategy gun-slinger) Joel Hughes. The methodology for what we did can be found here on James’ site, and here is a link to James’ slides. This is what I took from a very illuminating exercise, thanks James and Joel.

The idea behind the exercise is to demonstrate that when you are delivering a large complex project, small cycles where you repeatedly; plan act and review are far more effective than a single ‘big bang’ approach. I found the phrase ‘waterfall’ used to describe the project management approach of designing and specifying everything at the beginning of the project and then delivering it all together a useful analogy. This was a big contrast to the agile approach where there are repeated cycles of planning, taking action, reviewing and moving into the next phase of action based upon the feedback you have gathered. It’s similar to the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle used in continuous improvement methods.

If you’ve never played the original game of battleships read the instructions here. This is how the battleships exercise with James worked:

  • Both players placed their ships in secret as required.
  • Player A then launched all of their bombs in one go. There is no feedback between bombs.
  • Player B then launches their bombs. Following each bomb they are given feedback, “was it a hit or a miss?”
  • The game ends when Player B has sunk all of Player A’s ships or run out of bombs.
  • The result? Player B scores more than Player A, because they have more effectively targeted their bombs based on the multiple feedback cycles. It was certainly the case when the results were taken across the approximately 20 pairs of players in the room.

Playing the battleships game it became obvious that the process of pausing, getting feedback and planning the next bomb position in response to the information was far more effective than the single ‘50 bombs in one go’ approach. Playing battleships this way is a very useful practical exercise to demonstrate the difference between the agile and waterfall approaches to project management.

The big question that remains is do we actually recognise this in real life? I don’t think I would have to look very far to find a few complicated projects that are sticking to the ‘waterfall’ approach, tightly specifying everything up front and rigidly sticking to the plan. I have written about something similar previously where I mentioned safe to fail pilots and Trojan Mice. Recognising that the world is a complex and unpredictable was at the heart of what James spoke about, and the title of the presentation, ‘Welcome to Uncertainty’. Unfortunately in lots of cases simplistic and highly rigid project management approaches are applied inappropriately.

James and I did speak about complexity and project management and the Cynefin Framework came up. By sheer coincidence I’d listened to Dave Snowden speak about Cynefin the day before at this seminar in Cardiff.. Dave mentioned that Cynefin has been highlighted by Gartners who said that “By 2016, the Cynefin framework will be used in 10% of IT operations organizations as a sensemaking methodology.” Good news and something to chat more about over a game of battleships.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. No battle plan survives the first engagement with the enemy. The same is true of project plans so why stick with a rigid out of date plan?
  2. Utilising rapid feedback loops to plan, act, sense and respond is an effective way of getting a better result.
  3. This version of battleships was very useful at illustrating the advantages of taking an agile approach to project management.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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