Long reads

Agile Series: SAS Rogue Heroes - the original agile team

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

Founding CTO, RTGS & ClearBank

Currently airing on the BBC is a superb series that takes you through the origins of the SAS (Special Air Service). Though some of it has been made for our viewing, the vast majority of the storyline and characters is very much true. If you have not watched it, I highly recommend you look out for SAS Rogue Heroes. But how is this in any way shape or form, linked to agile culture?


When I talk about agile culture, I often discuss certain principles, such as value delivery over predictability, value principles over specific practices. I also talk to the benefits of autonomous empowered teams. To follow these principles, you need to make sure you have the right culture in your organisation; it all starts with culture.

The formation of the SAS is very much about culture and autonomy. The TV series brings this to life constantly on our screens, following how the three main founders of the SAS fight for their unit’s ability to be totally autonomous, and how they look to remove the typical command structure, even within the SAS itself.

The culture that they create within the SAS is key to their success. Questioning why certain decisions are made is encouraged. In fact, over-communicating, sharing strategic goals, and tactical plays is all information encouraged to be shared. The result is a unit of soldiers that are 100% aligned to a strategic goal and are given total freedom on how best to achieve it.

Add in that the SAS look to operate in small teams, allowing them to tackle multiple problems at once – such as raids on multiple airfields all at the same time in the series - and you start to see a lot of similarities between the SAS and an agile culture.

These founding principles behind the SAS are very much aligned with a key agile principle that I constantly speak to: the empowerment and autonomy of agile teams.


Autonomy is only possible if you have the right culture. In SAS Rogue Heroes, the founders of the SAS, (mainly David Stirling) fight for the right culture and their unit’s autonomy. Within the SAS itself, the leaders instil that culture across every member of the unit.

Autonomy allows faster decision making, but it also means making the most of what is at hand. The over-communication and alignment bolsters this autonomy. In the TV series, the SAS works as small autonomous teams. As teams are disconnected from a command hierarchy, and often each other, they have to make the best of the situations they find themselves in, using the tools they have to hand. As a truly autonomous team, they really are on their own.

This is a tad extreme when compared with agile teams in the workplace, nonetheless, the concepts of doing as much as you can with what you have available, and solving problems as a small team is agile in practice.

As with agile engineering, greater autonomy is often given by execs when they start to see results. With the SAS in the series, as they start to show results they are given even greater autonomy, allowing them to purchase and bring in better equipment so they can be even more effective and deliver even greater results.

Agile within an organisation is no different. Teams should be aligned with a shared goal, should be given the information of ‘why’, and there should always be the right culture in place for teams to be able to ask questions. Communication is key.

The right agile culture means teams are given the freedom to solve problems themselves, build solutions how they best see fit, master their craft, question ideas, decisions, direction, and make significant contributions to shared goals; the freedom to deliver effectively.  

When I talk about agile, agile culture, empowerment, and autonomous teams, I now find myself drawing a direct line between the founding principles of the SAS and the principles that I am so passionate about for agile teams. All because of a TV series showing on the BBC.

The SAS, empowered, autonomous, agile

What is the point of this post?

Primarily to show that agile is not only about engineering, it can be applied to almost every aspect within an organisation and in all forms of life, even warfare.

My second point is that we can draw inspiration and parallels with what we do in engineering (even within engineering within the financial services sector) with other aspects of life. Being in the financial services industry does not mean we are as unique as we think.

My final point is that agility in the workplace, when you boil it down, is about culture and principles. This is the same as the events that unfold in SAS Rogue Heroes. An organisation must have the right culture (maybe even be bold and brave enough) to allow the agile approach to flourish.

You can compare everything that I have said about agile in this post, or in previous posts, and link with the SAS. Is the SAS not the first, and some would say ultimate, empowered, autonomous agile team? There is a culture that allows the SAS to flourish. There is no prescription to a specific practice, or command structure that dictates what they should be doing, and how they should be doing it. The culture calls upon them to question everything, to understand everything, and to communicate. The SAS is full of small empowered, autonomous, and highly focused teams, all perfectly aligned on the same goal.

Now tell me, is the SAS not the creator of agile? Is the SAS not the first example of an effective autonomous agile team?

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