The Disciplined Agile Mindset
By Scott Ambler | Vice President, Chief Scientist of Disciplined Agile at Project Management Institute
The DA tool kit supplies straightforward guidance to help you, your team, and your enterprise increase your effectiveness. The DA tool kit shows you how to apply and evolve your way of working (WoW) in a context-sensitive manner with this people-first, learning-oriented hybrid agile approach. We describe DA in terms of four views: Mindset, People, Flow, and Practices. In this blog I describe the mindset behind PMI’s Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit, overviewed in Figure 1. PMI’s approach to describing the DA Mindset is straightforward: We believe in these principles, so we promise to adopt these behaviours and we follow these guidelines when doing so.
Figure 1: The Disciplined Agile Mindset.
The principles of the Disciplined Agile mindset provide a philosophical foundation for business agility. The eight principles are are based on both lean and flow concepts:
- Delight customers. We need to go beyond satisfying our customers’ needs, beyond meeting their expectations, and strive to delight them. If we don’t then someone else will delight them and steal our customers away from us. This applies to both external customers as well as internal customers.
- Be awesome. We should always strive to be the best that we can, and to always get better. Who wouldn’t want to work with awesome people, on an awesome team for an awesome organization?
- Context counts. Every person, every team, every organization is unique. We face unique situations that evolve over time. The implication is that we must choose our way of working (WoW) to reflect the context that we face, and then evolve our WoW as the situation evolves.
- Be pragmatic (reworded from Pragmatism). Our aim isn’t to be agile, it’s to be as effective as we can be and to improve from there. To do this we need to be pragmatic and adopt agile, lean, or even traditional strategies when they make the most sense for our context.
- Choice is good. To choose our WoW in a context-driven, pragmatic manner we need to select the best-fit technique given our situation. Having choices, and knowing the trade-offs associated with those choices, is critical to choosing our WoW that is best fit for our context.
- Optimize flow. We want to optimize flow across the value stream that we are part of, and better yet across our organization, and not just locally optimize our WoW within our team. Sometimes this will be a bit inconvenient for us, but overall we will be able to more effectively respond to our customers.
- Organize around products/services (new). To delight our customers we need to organize ourselves around producing the offerings, the products and services, that they need. We are in effect organizing around value streams because value streams produce value for customers, both external and internal, in the form of products and services. We chose to say organize around products/services, rather than offerings or value streams, as we felt this was more explicit.
- Enterprise awareness. Disciplined agilists look beyond the needs of their team to take the long-term needs of their organization into account. They adopt, and sometimes tailor, organizational guidance. They follow, and provide feedback too, organizational roadmaps. The leverage, and sometimes enhance, existing organizational assets. In short, they do what’s best for the organization and not just what’s convenient for them.
The promises of the Disciplined Agile mindset are agreements that we make with our fellow teammates, our stakeholders, and other people within our organization whom we interact with. The promises define a collection of disciplined behaviours that enable us to collaborate effectively and professionally. The seven promises are:
- Create psychological safety and embrace diversity. Psychological safety means being able to show and apply oneself without fear of negative consequences of status, career, or self-worth—we should be comfortable being ourselves in our work setting. Psychological safety goes hand-in-hand with diversity, which is the recognition that everyone is unique and can add value in different ways. The dimensions of personal uniqueness include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, agile, physical abilities, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and other ideological beliefs. Diversity is critical to a team’s success because it enables greater innovation. The more diverse our team, the better our ideas will be, the better our work will be, and the more we’ll learn from each other.
- Accelerate value realization. In DA we use the term value to refer to both customer and business value. Customer value, something that benefits the end customer who consumes the product/service that our team helps to provide, is what agilists typically focus on. This is clearly important, but in Disciplined Agile we’re very clear that teams have a range of stakeholders, including external end customers. Business value addresses the issue that some things are of benefit to our organization and perhaps only indirectly to our customers. For example, investing in enterprise architecture, in reusable infrastructure, and in sharing innovations across our organization offer the potential to improve consistency, quality, reliability, and reduce cost over the long term.
- Collaborate proactively. Disciplined agilists strive to add value to the whole, not just to their individual work or to the team’s work. The implication is that we want to collaborate both within our team and with others outside our team, and we also want to be proactive doing so. Waiting to be asked is passive, observing that someone needs help and then volunteering to do so is proactive.
- Make all work and workflow visible. DA teams will often make their work visible at both the individual level as well as the team level. It is critical to focus on our work in process, which is our work in progress plus any work that is queued up waiting for us to get to it. Furthermore, DA teams make their workflow visible, and thus have explicit workflow policies, so that everyone knows how everyone else is working.
- Improve predictability. DA teams strive to improve their predictability to enable them to collaborate and self-organize more effectively, and thereby to increase the chance that they will fulfill any commitments that they make to their stakeholders. Many of the earlier promises we have made work toward improving predictability.
- Keep workloads within capacity. Going beyond capacity is problematic from both a personal and a productivity point of view. At the personal level, overloading a person or team will often increase the frustration of the people involved. Although it may motivate some people to work harder in the short term, it will cause burnout in the long term, and it may even motivate people to give up and leave because the situation seems hopeless to them. From a productivity point of view, overloading causes multitasking, which increases overall overhead.
- Improve continuously. The really successful organizations—Apple, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, and more—got that way through continuous improvement. They realized that to remain competitive they needed to constantly look for ways to improve their processes, the outcomes that they were delivering to their customers, and their organizational structures.
The guidelines of the Disciplined Agile mindset help us to be more effective in our way of working (WoW), and in improving our WoW over time. The eight guidelines are:
- Validate our learnings. The only way to become awesome is to experiment with, and then adopt where appropriate, a new WoW. In guided continuous improvement (GCI) we experiment with a new way of working and then we assess how well it worked, an approach called validated learning. Being willing and able to experiment is critical to our process-improvement efforts.
- Apply design thinking. Delighting customers requires us to recognize that our aim is to create operational value streams that are designed with our customers in mind. This requires design thinking on our part. Design thinking means to be empathetic to the customer, to first try to understand their environment and their needs before developing a solution.
- Attend to relationships through the value stream. The interactions between the people doing the work are what is key, regardless of whether or not they are part of the team. For example, when a product manager needs to work closely with our organization’s data analytics team to gain a better understanding of what is going on in the marketplace, and with our strategy team to help put those observations into context, then we want to ensure that these interactions are effective.
- Create effective environments that foster joy. Part of being awesome is having fun and being joyful. We want working in our company to be a great experience so we can attract and keep the best people. Done right, work is play. We can make our work more joyful by creating an environment that allows us to work together well.
- Change culture by improving the system. While culture is important, and culture change is a critical component of any organization’s agile transformation, the unfortunate reality is that we can’t change it directly. This is because culture is a reflection of the management system in place, so to change our culture we need to evolve our overall system.
- Create semi-autonomous self-organizing teams. Organizations are complex adaptive systems (CASs) made up of a network of teams or, if you will, a team of teams. Although mainstream agile implores us to create “whole teams” that have all of the skills and resources required to achieve the outcomes that they’ve been tasked with, the reality is that no team is an island unto itself. Autonomous teams would be ideal but there are always dependencies on other teams upstream that we are part of, as well as downstream from us. And, of course, there are dependencies between offerings (products or services) that necessitate the teams responsible for them to collaborate.
- Adopt measures to improve outcomes. When it comes to measurement, context counts. What are we hoping to improve? Quality? Time to market? Staff morale? Customer satisfaction? Combinations thereof? Every person, team, and organization has their own improvement priorities, and their own ways of working, so they will have their own set of measures that they gather to provide insight into how they’re doing and, more importantly, how to proceed. And these measures evolve over time as their situation and priorities evolve. The implication is that our measurement strategy must be flexible and fit for purpose, and it will vary across teams.
- Leverage and enhance organizational assets. Our organization has many assets—information systems, information sources, tools, templates, procedures, learnings, and other things—that our team could adopt to improve our effectiveness. We may not only choose to adopt these assets, we may also find that we can improve them to make them better for us as well as other teams who also choose to work with these assets.
Whence the Agile Manifesto?
Until recently, we described the DA mindset as the combination of the DA Principles and the DA Manifesto. The DA Manifesto in turn was described in terms of five values and 17 principles behind the manifesto. The DA Manifesto was based on the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, or more colloquially known as the Agile Manifesto. But, as you can imagine, people were confused by two levels of principles. We also found the Agile Manifesto to be constraining, mostly due to the cultural baggage that has built up around it for the past two decades. And most importantly, we realized that we could describe the mindset in a far more robust and understandable manner as you’ve seen in this blog.
The DA Mindset provides conceptual background required for business agility and is an important part of the foundation of the DA tool kit.
For further reading about the details behind the Disciplined Agile Mindset, please read Chapter 2 of Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Choosing Your Way of Working.
About the Author Scott is the Vice President, Chief Scientist of Disciplined Agile at Project Management Institute. Scott leads the evolution of the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit and is an international keynote speaker. Scott is the (co)-creator of the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit as well as the Agile Modeling (AM) and Agile Data (AD) methodologies. He is the (co-)author of several books, including Choose Your WoW!, An Executive’s Guide to the Disciplined Agile Framework, Refactoring Databases, Agile Modeling, Agile Database Techniques, and The Object Primer 3rd Edition. Scott blogs regularly at ProjectManagement.com and he can be contacted via