Disciplined Agile

Introduction to Disciplined Agile® (DA™)

True business agility comes from freedom, not frameworks. Disciplined Agile (DA) is an agnostic, hybrid tool kit that harnesses hundreds of Agile, Lean, and traditional strategies to guide you to the best way of working (WoW) for your team or organization. DA is context sensitive; rather than prescribing a collection of "best practices," it teaches you how to choose and later evolve a fit-for-purpose WoW that is best for you given the situation you face.

The DA tool kit provides straightforward guidance to help organizations streamline their processes in a context-sensitive manner, providing a solid foundation for business agility. It does this by showing how the various business functions such as Finance, Portfolio Management, Solution Delivery (software development), IT Operations, Enterprise Architecture, Vendor Management and many others work together. DA also describes what these business functions should address, provides a range of options for doing so, and describes the trade-offs associated with each option.

This article is organized into the following topics:

  1. Why Disciplined Agile?
  2. A Quick Primer on Disciplined Agile
  3. The Disciplined Agile Mindset
  4. Supporting Enterprise Agility: Process Blades
  5. The Freedom of Choice
  6. How Teams Apply the Disciplined Agile Tool Kit
  7. True Agility at Scale

Why Disciplined Agile?

There are several reasons why Disciplined Agile (DA) is crucial to your organization’s success:

  1. DA enables you to get better at getting better. DA is focused on helping you to become a learning organization, rather than simply providing a collection of “best practices” that may not be applicable to your context.
  2. DA provides a solid foundation for enterprise agility. People and teams across your organization, regardless of business function, can all benefit from straightforward guidance to streamline their processes. DA addresses the entire enterprise, not just software development.
  3. DA starts where you are. Your organization has made a large investment in your current way of working (WoW), and with DA you can build upon that investment. If your organization is currently following Scrum, Kanban, SAFe®, LeSS, or other mainstream approaches then DA shows you how to improve upon and extend those frameworks. For your teams still working in a more traditional manner, and rightfully so, DA offers advice for how they can improve their WoW because DA is a hybrid that doesn’t expect everyone to work in the same manner. Sometimes the best WoW isn’t agile – but it is still disciplined.
  4. DA teaches you to become a learning organization. Adopting an agile framework might be a good first step but it isn’t your end goal. A true transformation results in you becoming a learning organization that is able to continually improve through experimentation and learning, thereby enabling you to better serve your customers/citizens.

Our fundamental advice is to start where you are, do the best that you can in the situation that you face, and always strive to get better. Read Why Disciplined Agile? for a more detailed discussion.

A Quick Primer on Disciplined Agile

Disciplined Agile (DA) is very much a tool kit, not a framework. An agile framework will present you with a collection of what it considers to be “best practices,” but the reality is that all practices are contextual in nature, working well in some situations and poorly in others. DA takes a more sophisticated approach, surfacing the decisions that you need to consider, the options available to you, and the trade-offs associated with these options. In short, DA is a process-decision tool kit that enables you to easily choose your own WoW that is fit-for-purpose for you. Where frameworks prescribe what to do, regardless of whether it’s appropriate for you, the DA tool kit instead provides you with freedom of choice.

Within any given team you can use DA to identify the intents and the activities you should address so you can make context-specific choices that are the best for your situation. DA addresses four views:

  1. Mindset. DA builds on the foundations of agile and lean to address enterprise realities.
  2. People. DA describes the roles, responsibilities, and team structures you should have in place.
  3. Flow. DA describes the dynamic aspects of processes via lifecycle and workflow diagrams.
  4. Practices. DA outlines the techniques that move your team forward, using straightforward goal diagrams that provide a high-level picklist of practices.

The Disciplined Agile Mindset

The Disciplined Agile (DA) mindset is captured in the form of principles, promises, and guidelines – as you see in Figure 1. Disciplined agilists believe in the DA principles, so we promise to adopt these behaviors and follow these guidelines when doing so. There is a purpose for each aspect of the mindset:

  • Principles. The principles provide a philosophical foundation for business agility. They are based on both lean and flow concepts.
  • Promises. The promises are agreements that we make with our fellow teammates, our stakeholders, and other people within our organization with whom we interact. The promises define a collection of disciplined behaviors that enable us to collaborate effectively and professionally.
  • Guidelines. These guidelines help us to be more effective in our way of working (WoW) and in improving our WoW over time.
Diagram of the Disciplined Agile mindset

Figure 1. The Disciplined Agile (DA) mindset. 

To address the various business functions within your organization the DA tool kit is organized into what we call “process blades” such as Finance, Marketing, Governance, Data Management, Security, and many others. Because the professionals who work in these areas have different backgrounds, different priorities, and different ways of looking at the world the DA mindset is extended with specific philosophies for each process blade that respects their unique and diverse backgrounds.

Supporting Enterprise Agility: Process Blades

The Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit is overviewed in Figure 2. Process blades are shown as hexagons and are sometimes called process areas, key process areas (KPAs), or business functions. A process blade encompasses a cohesive part of your overall organizational way of working (WoW). Each process blade addresses a specific organizational capability such as Enterprise Architecture, Product Management, and Vendor Management and each blade is described in terms of the four views described previously. 

Onion diagram of the Disciplined Agile tool kit

Figure 2. The Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit. 

You can see in Figure 2 that each process blade appears in one or more layers.  For example, Program Management is part of the Value Streams layer whereas Strategy is part of both the Value Streams and Disciplined Agile Enterprise (DAE) layers because you may choose to develop a value stream specific strategy as well as an enterprise strategy. The four layers of the DA tool kit are:

1. Foundation. The Foundation layer provides the conceptual underpinnings of the DA tool kit. This includes the principles, promises, and guidelines of the DA mindset; fundamental concepts from both agile and lean; fundamental concepts from serial/traditional approaches; roles and team structures; and the fundamentals of choosing your WoW.

2. Disciplined DevOps. DevOps is the streamlining of software development, what we call Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), and IT Operations activities. DevOps is typically presented as you see in Figure 3. This is a great start, and in Disciplined DevOps we extend this to take an enterprise-class approach that integrates Security and Data Management so as to provide more effective outcomes for your organization. We also recognize that for organizations with hundreds, and sometimes thousands of systems in production that Support (help desk) and Release Management activities need to be robust. The workflow for Disciplined DevOps is shown in Figure 4. 

Diagram of classic DevOps workflow

Figure 3. The classic DevOps workflow. 

Diagram of the Disciplined DevOps workflow

Figure 4. The workflow of Disciplined DevOps

3. Value Streams. The Value Stream layer is based on DA FLEX, the workflow of which is shown in Figure 5. DA FLEX is the glue that ties an organization’s strategies in that it visualizes what an effective value stream looks like, enabling you to make decisions for improving each part of the organization within the context of the whole. It’s not enough to be innovative, you also need to increase value realization – this layer shows you how to do exactly that in the environment that you face.

4. Disciplined Agile Enterprise (DAE). A Disciplined Agile Enterprise (DAE) is able to sense and respond swiftly to changes in the marketplace. It does this through an organizational culture and structure that facilitates change within the context of the situation that it faces. Such organizations require a learning mindset in the mainstream business and underlying lean and agile processes to drive innovation. The DAE layer focuses on the rest of the enterprise activities that support your organization’s value streams.

Diagram of the Disciplined Agile FLEX workflow

Figure 5. The DA FLEX workflow. 


The Freedom of Choice

Different contexts require different strategies – teams need to be able to own their process and be enabled to experiment to discover what works in practice for them given the situation that they face. This is why the DA tool kit presents people with choices through the application of process goal diagrams, as you see in Figure 6 which depicts the options for addressing risk at the team level. The idea is to make important decision points explicit, such as when to accept changes, and then present teams with their options and the tradeoffs surrounding those options. This enables teams to make effective process choices given the situation that they face. To make better choices teams need to know: what each option is, the tradeoffs associated with each option, and in what situations each option is and isn’t applicable.  

2021 Project Management Institute Address Risk v5.2 Choose Risk Strategy Identify risk appetite Identify risk attitude Identify risk threshold Risk/value life cycle Tailor your approach Identify Risks Collaborative discussions Expert judgment Formal risk session Informal risk session Interviews Patterns/common lists SWOT analysis Categorize Risks Architecture Dependency Economic Environmental Legal Life cycle Political Quality and testing Requirement Schedule Socio-cultural - Teams Security Identify Compound Risks Identify aggregate risks Identify dependent risks Classify and Score Risks Assess probability Assess impact Assess severity Qualitative analysis (prioritization) Qualitative analysis (quantification) Quantitative analysis Address a Threat Avoid Mitigate Transfer Escalate Accept Address an Opportunity Exploit Escalate Share Enhance Accept Document a Risk Sticky notes/index cards Lightweight description Detailed description Track Risks Work backlog Risk burndown Risk backlog Risk list Risk register/database No tracking Monitor Risks Information radiators Informal reviews Audit/formal reviews

Figure 6. The process goal diagram for Address Risk.

Let’s explore the process goal notation used in Figure 6.  The process goal, Address Risk, is indicated using a rounded rectangle on the left side of the diagram. A decision point, indicated as a squared rectangle, is an intent that you need to consider addressing, such as how to classify and score risks and how you intend to address a threat. You may choose not to address some decision points, but you should at least consider them. Each decision point is potentially addressed several options, techniques such as practices or strategies, which are shown to the right of the decision point. For example, when addressing a threat you may choose to avoid it, mitigate it, transfer it, and so on. A “default option” is depicted in bolded italics, which is a suggested starting point for a team that is tasked with a relatively straightforward domain problem to address.  Some option lists are ordered, this is indicated by an arrow to the left of the list, in that the options appearing at the top of the list are more desirable from the point of view of agile and lean thinking and the less desirable options are at the bottom of the list. For example, when tracking risks it is typically better to capture them as work items on your backlog rather than not tracking them at all.  Finally, some option lists are unordered (there’s no arrow to the left of it). While each option has its advantages and disadvantages, we can’t say that some options are generally more effective than others.

DA takes a similar, goal/choice-driven approach to every process blades as well.

How Teams Apply the Disciplined Agile Tool Kit

A fundamental philosophy of agile is that teams should own their own process, or, as we like to say in DA, teams should choose their way of working (WoW). This is easier said than done in practice. The challenge is that every team is unique and faces a unique situation – in other words, context counts. Furthermore, there are no “best practices,” rather, every practice has tradeoffs and works well in some situations and poorly in others. Worse yet, you really don’t know how well a technique will work for you until you actually try it out in your environment. Given all of this, how can a team choose its WoW?

We’ve developed a DA technique that we call guided continuous improvement (GCI). GCI is based on a proven lean strategy where teams improve over time by making small changes to their WoW.  There are various versions of this strategy, including both Gemba Kaizen and Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA).  The process flow of GCI is depicted in Figure 7 and it is mapped to PDSA. 

GCI Process

Figure 7. The Guided Continuous Improvement (GCI) flow. 

The basic idea is that the classic continuous improvement loop can be improved upon via application of the DA tool kit. The critical point is the second step, the identification of potential improvements to experiment with. Left to their own devices, teams will do their best to identify a new technique to experiment with. This technique will often prove to be something they’ve heard about from friends or one of the latest process fads currently popular amongst practitioners of the current framework they’re following. Unfortunately people generally don’t have broad process knowledge, and even when a team has an agile coach providing direction to them they will identify limited options (granted, having a good coach is definitely better than not having one). Without broad process knowledge they will then choose to experiment with a new WoW that has a lower chance of success than if they had been able to choose something that was a better fit for their context – they’re more likely to fail, expending time and money in the process.

With the DA tool kit, and with the skills and knowledge required to navigate the tool kit that are easily acquired through a bit of training, they can easily identify a strategy with a greater chance of success. Although your teams are unique and face a unique situation, the reality is that they face issues that are very similar to ones that have been faced, and successfully addressed, by many others before them. Recognizing this, they can leverage the learnings from these other people, learnings that are captured by the DA tool kit. You’ll still make mistakes and choose to experiment with strategies that won’t work for you, but you’ll have fewer failures because you’re now making better decisions regarding what to experiment with. This in turn leads to a faster rate of improvement that is less expensive to achieve.

Don’t let the rhetoric around “failing fast” and “failures are really learnings” blind you to opportunities to learn and improve more effectively.

GCI is one of many improvement techniques taught by PMI’s Disciplined Agile (DA) certification training workshops. DA training teaches people how to improve their WoW at different levels:

  1. Personal improvement. As an individual you can use DA to identify new skills to learn. Goal diagrams such as Address Risk of Figure 6 provide an easy to navigate summary of potential techniques that you may choose to explore. The primary advantage of this approach is that goal diagrams help you to realize that there are far more options available to you than the handful of “best practices” prescribed by your current method. The Disciplined Agile Scrum Master (DASM) certification training introduces you to DA’s goal diagrams and how to navigate them.
  2. Team improvement. The GCI technique is focused on team-level improvement. DASM teaches how to be involved in team-level improvement and Disciplined Agile Senior Scrum Master (DASSM) teaches how to lead such improvement activities (and more).
  3. Multi-team improvement. In DA we recognize that teams are semi-autonomous and self-organizing, that sometimes your team will need to collaborate with other teams to achieve your outcomes. For example, your team may be part of a larger program, an explicit team of teams. Improvement across similar teams is reasonably straightforward, although it does have a few unique challenges, because the teams are already reasonably well aligned. DASSM training covers improvement strategies across similar teams.
    A bit more difficult is implementing improvements across disparate teams, teams focused on different process blades. For example, your team may need to work with other groups within your organization, you work with Finance to fund what you’re doing, you work with People Management to hire new people onto your team, and you’re overseen by your Governance team. The challenge is that your team will have different priorities, different ways of working, and even a different mindset than these other teams – yet you still need to find effective ways of working together.
    The DA tool kit is architected to support this very thing, and Disciplined Agile Coach (DAC) certification shows how to negotiate potential improvements across disparate teams. For example, your team needs to collaborate with Finance to negotiate an appropriate way to fund your team, and the traditional approach currently preferred by Finance is a poor match to your agile WoW. The Secure Funding process goal describes a range of options, from very traditional strategies to very agile ones, and provides a bridge to the enterprise-level budgeting and financial governance strategies of Finance. As a DAC you can apply the tool kit to facilitate a coherent discussion between the two teams, with the tool kit providing insight into the needs, priorities, and options of both teams.
  4. Value stream improvement. As you saw in Figure 5, a value stream encompasses a wide range of activities from beginning to end. In many cases, particularly for major value streams in large organizations, a value stream is addressed by a collection of disparate teams that must work together in order to bring value to your customers. Improvement across an entire value stream is taught in our Disciplined Agile Value Stream Consultant (DAVSC) certification. Furthermore, this certification training teaches techniques to evolve the WoW prescribed by common agile scaling frameworks such as SAFe, LeSS, and [email protected] to make them work more effectively for your organization.
  5. Organizational improvement. The DA tool kit addresses all aspects of your organization, not just software development, as you see in Figure 2. Organizational improvement encompasses a combination of the other four levels of improvement, applying the types of skills taught in all of the DA certifications.

True Agility at Scale

Agile scaling frameworks tend to take a rather narrow view of what it means to scale agile, choosing to focus on either program-level agility for the development of a software-based product or on applying agility across all (or at least most) software teams in your organization. While those are both good starts, they’re clearly not sufficient. What about teams that aren’t focused on software development? What about teams that are in reasonably straightforward situations? What about teams dealing with other complexity factors than just size, but also struggling with geographic distribution, regulatory compliance, or others?

The DA toolkit distinguishes between two types of “agility at scale”:

  1. Scaling agile at the team level (tactical agility at scale). This is the application of agile and lean strategies on individual DA teams. The goal is to apply agile deeply to address all of the complexities/scaling factors (team size, geographic distribution, organizational distribution, domain complexity, solution complexity, compliance, and skill availability) appropriately. Agile scaling frameworks tend to focus on the issues of team size and geographic distribution.
  2. Scaling agile at the organizational level (strategic agility at scale). This is the application of agile and lean strategies broadly across your entire organization. This includes all areas and teams within your organization, not just your IT department.

Summary

The Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit straightforward guidance to help organizations streamline their processes in a context-sensitive manner, providing a solid foundation for business agility. DA is an agnostic, hybrid tool kit that harnesses hundreds of Agile, Lean, and traditional strategies to guide you to the best way of working (WoW) for your team or organization. DA is context-sensitive, rather prescribing a collection of “best practices” it teaches you how to choose and later evolve a fit-for-purpose WoW it is best for you given the situation that you face.

True business agility comes from freedom, not frameworks. DA helps you learn about your options and guides you to your best next step. DA teaches you how to get better at getting better.

What is Disciplined Agile?

The DA tool kit is the foundation for enterprise agility, providing contextualized advice for all aspects of your organization.  

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