Project Management Institute

Leadership principles for mastering agility in a disciplined environment

Tim Wasserman

CLO, IPS Learning and Program Director, Stanford Advanced Project Management Program

Balancing the dynamics of discipline and agility is one of the greatest challenges in business management today. Faster response times are required, yet the need to follow procedure remains. In fact, agility requires discipline. All companies must be able to focus on agility to reduce time-to-market, as well as achieve innovative product breakthroughs. Due to extensive regulatory requirements to which many industries are bound, organizations must also rely on plan-driven methodologies, such as the more traditional waterfall approaches, to ensure specific requirements are met. The combination of a rapidly changing marketplace, constantly evolving technology, and business requisites press companies to respond faster than ever.

In the end, it's all about being versatile and recognizing that you may need to take one approach today that is very different from the one you use tomorrow. Mastering agility in a disciplined environment requires the need to recognize the implications of going one way versus the other at the project, program, and portfolio levels.

The Strategic Execution Framework – A Model for Decision Making

Adapting the right tools and methodologies for each project can help companies in their overall strategic execution and their reconsideration of organizational structure, culture, and change management. Without a guiding set of principles to help project management leaders and their organizations with execution, however, fundamental organizational changes cannot occur easily.

The Strategic Execution Framework (SEF) (Exhibit 1), developed by IPS Learning and the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, is designed to help companies align their strategies to execution. The SEF is a powerful tool that project management leaders can apply to their decision-making processes to determine whether to be disciplined, agile, or a blend of both.

Applying the SEF to decision making helps identify areas of alignment and misalignment in the business, team, and strategy. The SEF helps guide the alignment of the whole organization for the successful execution of the effort. It consists of six domains that have been proven to help companies effectively determine, articulate, and execute their strategies.

Let's take a look at the SEF within the context of whether your team, organization—or yourself—is best served by a disciplined, agile, or blended combination of both approaches:

Ideation – Know who you are, why you exist, and where you're going.

Having a strong ideation at the project and program level—as well as the organizational level—provides a clear definition of the work to come, allowing employees to understand the impact of their individual and group efforts. Ideation is made up of three key areas:

  • Purpose: Why are we here?
  • Identity: Who do we want/need to be?
  • Long-range intention: Where do we need to go in the future?

Exhibit 1: Strategic execution framework (SEF).

Ideation can be applied at the individual, project, program, or portfolio levels. At the organizational level, ideation is set by the executive team and is designed to have long-term shelf life. As a project management leader, you need to deconstruct the organization's ideation, its structure, culture, and vision so you can rebuild your own ideation to support your project or program. Your ideation should serve the greater goals of the organization in a friendly, customer-oriented way.

At the individual level, the project management leader should determine how adaptable, flexible and responsive a project or program needs to be. Having the mindset to understand what you need and don't need within the project or program will help set parameters as to how traditional or flexible the approach should be and how that should be incorporated into your ideation.

Nature – Align your strategy with the larger company's culture and structure.

Discovering and articulating the culture and structure improves alignment between the organization, the work, and the team, enabling its members to produce at their highest levels. The nature domain explores the following:

  • Culture: How we do things, such as collaborating, cultivating, controlling or competence-focused. Typically, organizations have a mix of these with one predominating. Do you have the right pieces and parts set up to support ideation?
  • Structure: There are a wide variety of organizational structures. Does the structure support flexibility, discipline or a combination of both? Structures vary across the organization and need to be consistent with culture and the adopted strategies.
  • Strategy: Strategy is the route we take to get from where we are to where we want to be and depends on how we want to organize ourselves (structure) and how we do things (culture).

Nature is the ecosystem of the organization. Different organizational structures allow for different organizational cultures to exist. If you have a traditional structure, you're going to have a controlled, slow moving culture and structure. If you want to become more responsive and flexible, you have to change the structure first, which will change the way the organization thinks and eventually changes behavior.

Vision – The translation of long-term intention into short- and medium-term goals, metrics, and strategies.

A strong vision helps project management leadership define and measure its organizational contributions, allowing team members to align their work focus to outcomes and deepen their understanding of how their roles contribute to the organization.

While developing your vision, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a clear strategy, goals, and metrics?
  • Is the strategy disciplined or not?
  • Are the goals for the project, team, or culture aligned?
  • How are you being measured? Will the systems allow it?
  • Do you need different metrics for agile versus disciplined approaches?

Vision is the roadmap, not the total plan. Of the many different ways you can approach a project or program, vision helps you shape your methodology and provides you with the best way to achieve your goals.

Engagement – Knowing the right project-based work required to execute the organization's strategy.

For the project management leader, it's not about understanding your strategy. You first must understand your portfolio and where you're investing your time and money. Engagement is about making sure your intended strategy and portfolio are aligned. Deciding how and where to invest in a portfolio of work is the heart of converting strategy into action.

  • Strategy: Strategy consists of knowing where we are, where we want to be, and the path needed to get there.
  • Portfolio: Every organization has a portfolio of project-based work (projects, programs, initiatives, and similar non-operations activities). Leaders must align the portfolio with goals based on strategy (i.e., connecting the dots). To maximize return on investment, leaders must make tough calls, set limits, and learn when to say “no.”

Creating alignment in the engagement domain requires using selection criteria, relative weight between criteria, and scoring anchors to differentiate one set of project-based work from another. Without clarity around goals, metrics, or strategy, an organization has no way to determine how to decide, so the process becomes a guessing game, a political battle, or is simply abdicated. The goal is to achieve portfolio management by design, not by default.

Engagement requires you to regularly revisit the portfolio or the scope of the program to ensure you are aligned throughout the project management process. Continuous reality checks will confirm that you have the right work in place to effectively execute the plan.

Synthesis – Executing projects and programs in alignment with the portfolio.

Organizationally, synthesis is about how project-based work gets accomplished through methodologies, governance, and other processes so that it is aligned with your portfolio. Project management approaches span the spectrum from traditional waterfall to agile—making it critical that the approach chosen is consistent and aligned, particularly in regard to strategy, culture, structure, goals, and metrics.

Simply dictating a change without fully recognizing the implications will lead to a decrease rather than improvement in performance. Attention must also be paid to reconciling different approaches in organizations that are employing both traditional and agile practices.

Synthesis allows you to weigh the advantages of agility and discipline within your project and determine what makes the most sense, whether it is one over the other or a combination of both.

Transition – Moving the results of projects into the main stream of the operation.

Transition occurs when you arrive at the end of a project and you deploy it. At this point, you have aligned the strategy to your portfolio, adopted the appropriate methodology (disciplined, flexible, etc.), and transitioned it to your day-to-day behavior.

Balancing Agility and Discipline at the Organizational and Individual Levels

No matter the industry, project management leaders need to recognize that agility and discipline are a continuum. Most organizations see this as one or the other, which is what makes it so difficult to move fluidly from one end to the other. You have to be comfortable living in both realities and position your organization, whether it is your company, division, department, or team, somewhere in the middle in order to find the right balance of agility and discipline.

Each end of the continuum has a very different structure and culture, requiring a different set of skills to lead and manage in each environment. Achieving balance in the continuum demands having the breadth of knowledge, as well as versatility and dexterity, allowing project management leaders to seamlessly shift from a rigid, traditional approach, to being able to be responsive and make quick decisions.

At the organizational level, creating an environment that needs both predictable planning and the ability to implement with agility can be realized through the Contingency Framework, developed by Barry Boehm and Richard Turner (2004). As illustrated in Exhibits 2 and 3, the project management leader must assess all the environmental factors (worker skill levels, consequences of failure, stability of requirements, team size, and organizational culture) to help determine if disciplined or agile is the best methodology.

In the software development example below (Exhibit 2), the ratings for each factor fall close to the center, which means the project management leader should create an agile environment where:

  • Decisions can be made quickly within a small, highly skilled team.
  • The team expects change and innovation to drive the process in a somewhat chaotic environment.
  • Failure is encouraged in order to learn and innovate.
  • The consequences of failure are financially related with a moderate amount of risk involved, should the project fail completely.

Exhibit 2: Software development “CRM in the cloud.”

In the hospital design and construction example (Exhibit 3), the ratings for the factors fall farther away from the center, which means the project management leader should create a disciplined environment where:

  • A detailed, strategic plan is developed first; one that mitigates risk, identifies specific milestones, and guides the team through the project from beginning to end.
  • The team is larger and made up of low- to mid-skilled workers with specific roles and responsibilities. Team members anticipate very little change in roles and direction, since the strategic plan is driving the project on all levels.
  • Failure is associated with risk, which is minimized through planning.
  • The organization's culture is highly structured.
  • Consequences of failure are fairly high and are associated with potential loss of life, meaning there is a very small margin for failure or error.

Exhibit 3: Hospital design and construction.

The Contingency Framework can be applied at the program level as well as all the way down to the tactical level to identify how to approach each task. Look at what your project requires in order to determine the best way to approach it. Just because your overall approach may be disciplined, it doesn't mean that you can't incorporate an agile approach that is better suited to specific tasks.

Once you have determined what kind of environment offers the best approach at the organizational level, you need to look at how individuals will fit into that environment. Structure and mission criticality need to be clearly defined and communicated.

  • What roles and expertise are needed to support the structure?
  • Have you determined which tasks can be done using a traditional or agile methodology?
  • How will you teach your team to embrace failure and anticipate chaos?
  • How will you balance freedom with constraints?

The SEF and the Contingency Framework are effective tools to help you identify the culture, structure, and environment that will best match an agile or disciplined approach.

The Six Principles of Leadership – Mastering Agility in a Disciplined Environment

The essential element to becoming a more effective project management leader lies within your ability to be versatile and see the links between strategy and execution. To succeed, you need to hone your ability to zoom your perspective in—and out—as the situation demands.

These six essential strategic business principles will allow you to continuously zoom in as a tactical mechanic, and zoom out for a more strategic project management leader perspective.

#1 Establish Transparency and Visibility

Information is critical in a dynamic environment, but there are times when you don't have the best information and need to be transparent with the information you do have. Transparency and visibility are about being honest about what you do know and sharing the best data in order to make agile decisions. This approach builds trust among your team and leads to creating an environment where people become more comfortable and adaptive to change.

#2 Define Value from the Customer's Perspective

In business, we're constantly looking for beacons to guide us. As an external force, the customer is a guiding light and acts as a signal to success or failure based on its experience with a product or service. The reaction, good or bad, impacts decisions about how agile or disciplined you need to be, how quickly you need to react, and how an issue or idea impacts the organization as a whole.

#3 Enable Cross-Functional Collaboration

The way work gets done in an agile environment is completely reliant on teams that come together, collaborate, and then separate. The most successful businesses are finding that establishing cross-functional collaboration early on is important. From a leadership perspective, your ability to determine who needs to be involved—and when—can reduce resistance to change and help you obtain the right information at the right time. By enabling cross-functional collaboration, you ensure you have the right resources involved (HR, engineering, supply chain, etc.) in your project.

How do you enable cross-functional collaboration? Collaboration thrives when a friendly “sandbox” is created where teams can work together easily. This requires understanding the expertise that you're going to need, having the vision to map out who will be involved and when, and building the right kind of culture and environment. When teams are aligned, they show up, pay attention, and are engaged.

#4 Demonstrate Success Often

Whether you're taking an agile or disciplined approach, it's important to demonstrate and recognize success often. In an agile environment, dynamics are constantly changing and evolving; therefore successes, great or small, can be overlooked during the project management process. In a disciplined environment, celebrating success is often left to the end of a project or program, which could be months or even years off. No matter what the situation, it's important to demonstrate success and recognize it throughout the process.

#5 Create a Learning Organization

In an environment that is rapidly changing, you have to adapt quickly and learn from experiences. Learning organizations create the systems and support mechanisms at the team level, which are constantly evaluated, modified, and improved. The evaluation process enables you to watch for lessons learned, apply what you learned, and move on. Conducting reality checks as you go instead of when the project is completed helps balance agility in a disciplined environment. By creating an environment where people value gaining insight, they become more open to risk taking and appreciate the opportunity to learn.

#6 Acknowledge and Embrace Change

A good project management leader becomes the poster child for change, which emulates a higher level of comfort in a constantly dynamic and shifting environment. By becoming a role model in times of uncertainty, your team can look to you for direction and take cues from how you react and respond in different environments and situations.

These tools and principles will guide you as a project management leader and help you find balance between—or a combination of—agility and discipline within your project, program, or portfolio. In the end, you must recognize the implications of those decisions on how you lead and manage your team, while developing the skills needed to be versatile and dexterous in an ever-changing environment. Ultimately, this is how you will master agility in a disciplined environment.


The Strategic Execution Framework (SEF) was developed by the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, a partnership between IPS Learning and the Stanford Center for Professional Development. The SEF is described in detail in the book, Executing Your Strategy: How to Break It Down and Get It Done (2008, Harvard Business School Press).

Boehm, B., & Turner, R. (2004). Balancing agility and discipline: A guide for the perplexed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Morgan, M., Levitt, R., & Malek, W. (2008). Executing your strategy: Breaking it down and getting it done. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, IPS Learning, LLC
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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