Hooray for Disciplined Agile!

I have been working with Agile development for 10+ years and often in a variety of roles, such as Enterprise Architect, Solution Architect, Product Owner…. Since I work mainly as a consultant, I have had the privilege to work in several different sectors, companies and products. If there is one thing that all my assignments have in common, it is that each assignment is unique. Each assignment and organisation comes with its own culture, different people, different technologies and approaches to architecture. What works on one assignment, does not necessarily work on another.

This is why it was refreshing to see Disciplined Agile taking a different approach to agility. Many prescriptive Agile methods, for example, SAFE or Scrum, don’t really take business context into the equation. A framework is presented and the organisation has to try and bend itself into the framework. This can cause friction in the organization, problems with culture clash, and can lead to disillusion as results are not achieved as quickly as expected. Rather than a framework, Disciplined Agile provides a toolkit that can be used to help an organization develop its way of working and improve agility.

Disciplined Agile provides several principles, promises and guidelines to help foster an agile mindset. In this article, I would like to emphasise three of the principles which I think can help in developing scaled agile practices.

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.” – PMI, Disciplined Agile® (DA™).

The “Context Counts” principle is really important. If your business is a start-up company, adopting Agile practices is in many ways easier. There is no baggage from other methods, and the culture of the organisation can be developed from scratch.

Organisations that have established cultures, processes and methods have another challenge, this transformation is perhaps more of a long-term journey than something you transform in a short space of time. Organisations that operate in heavily regulated environments also have challenges with agility, for example, nuclear, pharmaceutical or medical industries. Heavily regulated environments often require time-consuming validation processes since the risk of errors can lead to life-threatening consequences. From a business perspective, non-compliance poses significant business risks with major financial implications, substantial planning up-front may be required to mitigate these risks. In many of these types of assignment documentation is as important as a working system, non-compliance of documentation may mean the product will not make it to market on time.

This is why context does count, there is no point trying to fit your organization into a way of working, which is not working. So instead select a way of working which works for the context of the organisation and continually improve the flow as you go.

Be Pragmatic

“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. In the past, we called this principle “Pragmatism.” ” – PMI, Disciplined Agile® (DA™).

This is a common-sense approach to developing a way of working, if it works well keep it, if it doesn’t try something else, but don’t restrict yourself to a specific framework or strategy. While organisations running with prescriptive frameworks may gain substantial benefits, they may feel that the framework is inflexible and that they cannot adopt a way of working that doesn’t quite ring true with the adopted framework.

Being pragmatic means that we should be open to adopting and combining ways of working that best suit our business context. As indicated, the aim of the business is not to be the best at following a particular agile practice, it is to be the best at delivering value to our customers.

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. They 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. ” – PMI, Disciplined Agile® (DA™).

This principle is perhaps what brings scale into the arena. As an organization becomes larger and complex, agile teams need to be aware of what is happening outside their team, as well as inside their team. Sharing assets across the enterprise provide a basis for making the organisation as effective as possible. If someone has already invented the wheel, we don’t need to invent it again, right?

Organisational guidance can support faster decision-making, and help avoid significant business risks. Common guidance, roadmaps and enterprise strategies provide a way to help the many different teams pull in the same organizational direction. This significantly contributes to making the organization effective as a whole.

Disciplined Agile and Architecture

In the same way that a way of working is unique to a particular business context, we can also conclude the same is often true about architecture. Every solution or enterprise has its challenges, its requirements and its constraints. This affects how we practice architecture within an organization. Since architecture often requires planning-up-front, in some cases quite a lot of planning-up-front, this can be a point of contention with some agile methods. This is not about architecting every detail of a solution before we start development, but rather making sure we cover enough of the fundamental architecture decisions to provide a stable platform for development and ensure that we reduce the significant business risks. With the significant design decisions in place, the architecture and design can then evolve as the solution develops through its lifecycle.

Disciplined Agile accounts for the business context, pragmatism and enterprise awareness, which aligns well with the practice of architecture. This flexibility means that architecture and agility fit together and complement each other, even as the architecture and agile practices scale with the organisation.

So “Hooray for Disciplined Agile”, a better fit for working with architecture, and perhaps just a better fit overall.

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