The Roman legion was one of the best-run organisations of the ancient world, and outright the most successful military unit for the better part of eight centuries. This in itself makes it interesting for some (like myself) as a topic for study, but understandably it’s not for everyone. It is possible to learn how to lead a product at a startup by studying the legion’s organisation and history, simply because there are more than a few common challenges when organising a big group of people, regardless of whether the group builds tech products or campaigns in foreign territory.
In this post, we’ll learn about what we as product leaders can learn from them.
There are three key similarities between the Roman Legion and working in a startup environment…
- Stakes and pressure are high: Running your business into the ground or getting your army destroyed are both undesirable outcomes.
- Responsibilities and goals are difficult to stake out: Whether commanding a platoon or a team of developers, the mission and goals of the team have to be clear for everyone.
- Uncertainty and changes are unavoidable: Any business has only a vague idea of what its competitors are currently working on, the military of any country is likewise not privy to what its “competitors” are planning.
Although the Roman legion faced these pressures, it was an active force for more than a millennium. As a consequence of this longevity, they changed drastically throughout the ages to adapt to constant challenges. However, during this constant age of change, there were three characteristics that were consistently maintained:
1. Clear ownership and reporting lines
The Roman legion had an extremely streamlined reporting and ownership line: As the lowliest soldier—a legionnaire—you would be responsible for your armour, weapons, and tools, you would share one tent and one pack animal with seven fellow soldiers. This group of eight formed the smallest unit of the legion: the contubernium. From within the contubernium a spokesman would be elected, one of 10 spokesmen who would report and talk with the centurion: a career soldier and the head of (you guessed it) a century, composed of 10 contuberniums, 80 men in total. All communication and reporting were done strictly through each selected spokesman.
In turn, centurions would be grouped with five other peers, the senior of them being in charge of a group of 480 soldiers: a cohort. Each legion would have 10 of these senior centurions, making up the 4,800 total soldiers who formed the legion. These centurions would report to the head centurion or Primus pilus, the highest ranked professional soldier within the legion.
Every individual within the legion would have known who he reported to and his exact responsibilities. Compare this to companies where C-levels and “heads of” attempt to get as much of their pet project done while their peers sabotage them, where teams argue about who is responsible for what, and where teams can be made responsible for areas of the business they have little or nothing to do with.
Ask yourself these questions: Do you know who you report to? Who reports to you? What services does your team own? What tools do they have? Are you all accountable ONLY for things you own and have control over?
2. Being rigid and flexible at the same time
There is a clear advantage in knowing what you’re expected to do and for whom, but such rigid structure must also stifle initiative, right? Well…not really. The Romans figured out a fact of life that was put into a short aphorism well after they were gone: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Centurions were not just allowed to make changes to the battle plans, they were expected to do so. They would have been properly briefed on what the legion commander wanted to achieve and the bigger picture, but within that scope, they were trusted to do what made the most sense at any given moment. The senior centurions were not presented with specific battle orders, but with goals. Their knowledge was also tapped into while drawing the battle plans; The commander might have had a better strategic understanding of a battle, but the tactical awareness of the centurions was essential for him to decide on one strategy or another.
While the Romans had their fair share of bad commanders who would go against this approach, they tended to get killed in battle or relieved of their command pretty quickly. Commanders who trusted their centurions and offered them enough liberty fared much better. Again, compare with organisations where top management writes down the OKRs for their teams, making them feature deliverables, or even worse, puts them into a self-defined Gantt chart and throws a tantrum when things are not delivered “on time”.
Ask yourself these questions: Does your organisation give you clear goals that are not specific deliverables? Can you share your input on those goals and your point of view? Do you get the liberty to change a plan to fulfill those goals if you think a different approach will work better?
3. Learn, adapt, keep what’s good, and let go of the rest
The longevity of the legions was cause and consequence of how much they changed over time. The Romans were a very pragmatic people. Whenever they encountered an obstacle they didn’t know how to deal with, they were happy to ditch their old system of looking at a problem and trying something new. During their history, they changed the structure and equipment of the legions many times, the catalyst for these changes being, more often than not, a setback in battle.
Likewise, whenever they encountered enemies that did something better than themselves (Gaulish cavalry or Iberian sword design, to name two) they were quick to absorb and adapt their own designs, or outright copy them. Tradition was only respected to the point it remained useful, and if it had to be ditched, so be it.
All too often I’ve witnessed product managers beating dead features that do not deliver on their promises, simply because a lot of effort was invested in them. Managers and C-levels also fall prey to the “but that is the business model that has made us successful!” trap: What made your product successful for its first three years might not work anymore, and you need to be ready to accept that and adapt.
To delve deeper into this topic, read this blog post: Only losers average losers
Ask yourself these questions: Is your organisation ready to drop an idea or feature when it stops working, no matter the resources put into it? Do you regularly check what your competitors are doing and “borrow” those ideas that you think can work for your business?
Answering affirmatively all of these questions might seem far-fetched, and it is. Even the legions would not always follow their own principles: No organisation is perfect, and even the best-run teams keep some antipatterns. But in the Roman legion, as in tech companies, clear ownership and understanding the chain of command, liberty within a common shared goal, and the capacity to adapt and learn, are characteristics that might save your life. And if you’re a product leader, they’ll make your team more efficient and your job stress-free.