Continuous ImprovementProject Management Office

Survive vs. Thrive: Embracing Disciplined Agile in the New Norm

In January your organization had its strategy in place. Critical projects were underway, several were just wrapping up, and some were just starting. 2020 was clearly going to be a great year. Then COVID-19 struck.

The pandemic was completely unexpected and unleashed successive waves of uncertainty as the situation continued to evolve. Many markets went into lock-down, and most project teams began working remotely – at least part of the time. If that wasn’t enough, the pandemic wreaked havoc with project scopes, budgets and timelines – if it didn’t cause them to be cancelled outright.

These factors have placed enormous strains on project teams and have required great flexibility and resilience on the part of team members. Many teams are still recovering.

One reason for that is because teams today are increasingly involved in projects that are characterized as “high complexity.” According to a recent report from my organization, Project Management Institute, 42 percent of all projects today are defined as high complexity and are staffed by an average of 24 core team members. That contrasts with low complexity projects, which are staffed by an average of just eight team members.

Managing projects of this scale and complexity is daunting even with all hands-on-deck. But what do you do when you’re managing a large team that’s pivoting between on-site and remote work, while also, in some cases, home-schooling their kids and caring for elderly relatives?

Every team has reacted differently to the COVID challenge, but we’re finding an increasing number of project managers migrating to an agile way of working (WoW). Others are doubling down on the agile approach and are adopting Disciplined Agile (DA) as their preferred WoW.

Agile Enables You to Survive

There are several reasons why an agile WoW is best suited for the environment we find ourselves in. First, agile is geared for change. Agilists have long recognized that customer needs change, sometimes rapidly, and the environment in which we operate also evolves. Agile frameworks such as Scrum, Scale Agile Framework (SAFe), Scrum at Scale (S@S), Extreme Programming (XP) and others are based on the idea that teams should work together in a collaborative, evolutionary, and often experimental manner. Working this way better enables teams to sense what is happening and respond quickly to changes – as we’ve all had to do since the pandemic up-ended our lives.

Second, agile teams focus on outcomes, not on rigid plan execution. Agile teams strive to fulfill their customers’ needs, and Disciplined Agile teams take it one step further and strive to delight their customers. As a result, it’s easier for them to evolve their strategy when the situation evolves. Their focus isn’t on conforming to an out-of-date plan, it’s on being successful. For example, a courseware development team that I was working with when COVID-19 hit quickly pivoted from developing face-to-face (F2F) instructional material to focusing on online self-paced offerings. Had they decided to stick with their original plan, they would have spent months developing a product that would have had no market demand.

Third, agile is flexible. In responding to the pandemic, agile teams were quick to adopt remote techniques and technologies – which was surprising given that agilists prefer F2F collaboration. But their penchant for embracing change and their willingness to experiment with new WoW, have enabled them to move past their preferences and adapt quickly to the new context.

Disciplined Agile Strategies Enable You to Thrive

Of course, there are trade-offs with agile frameworks. That’s because agile frameworks help improve the way you work in the specific situations they’re designed to target. Scrum, for example, describes how small teams work together, while XP addresses software development and SAFe helps organize large agile programs.

Disciplined Agile is not a framework, but rather a toolkit that focuses on the decisions you need to consider, the options available to you, and the trade-offs associated with these options. Within any organization 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.

For example, a government organization struggled to blend Agile and Waterfall approaches in response to a large-scale transformation initiative. Quickly it became clear that this government-run organization could not adopt a one-size-fits-all agile framework due to annual planning cycles and other unavoidable bureaucratic processes. They needed an enterprise solution that incorporated agile where possible while accommodating the broader challenges inherent in the organization. Disciplined Agile was the only solution that provided both flexibility in project delivery and scale. The results? After a combination of DA training and coaching, the organization saw improved speed, better execution and seamless integration.

If your problem doesn’t fit neatly within a given framework, applying that framework isn’t likely to increase your effectiveness. Nor is every problem best addressed by agile strategies. There are many traditional techniques that are still well suited for “the new normal.”

The reality is that every team and every situation is unique, and those unique situations evolve over time, sometimes swiftly. While agile frameworks may help initially, they aren’t panaceas.

To truly thrive in our new environment, you need to become a learning organization that takes responsibility for evolving your own WoW.

For example, the DA teams working in a large telecom firm were able to quickly replace their F2F collaboration strategies with remote collaboration practices called out in DA’s Coordinate Activities process goal. For them it was a quick look at a diagram, a brief discussion of the options that were most likely going to work given their new situation, and an agreement as to which strategies to adopt.

Becoming a true “learning organization” requires a more disciplined approach to agile in which teams are taught to identify and choose a WoW that best reflects the situation they face. Earlier in the year when COVID struck, most agile teams had to quickly determine new WoW the hard way, while Disciplined Agile teams had process options at their fingertips and could quickly shift to remote agile strategies as appropriate. In the new normal, agility enables you to survive; disciplined agility helps you thrive.

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