How Does Disciplined Agile Support Agile and Digital Transformation
One of the major issues that manifests as a result of senior management decisions to conduct an organizational transformation process, regardless of the segment in which it operates, is the uncertainty inherent in potentially desired results―whether due to the dimension of the challenge proposed in view of the organizational rigidity (Staw et al., 1981) found in multiple layers of management, or even due to fragilities of the present business model, which is often unsustainable in times of extreme rivalry and technological disruption. After all, only those who have had to change their tires with the bus in motion will know how difficult it is to overcome the “business model dilemma” (Tongur & Engwall, 2014), a term brilliantly addressed by Clayton Christensen who left an invaluable legacy when he passed away in late January 2020.
Obviously, digital transformation drives organizations in a search for business agility in a quasi-cause-and-effect relationship, whereas I prefer to believe that, in fact, we will end up surprised to find that one leads undeniably to the other. As effects of agility also emerge, the demand for new technologies increases, forming a cycle in which the intense use of technologies in different business processes aiming to optimize customer experience generates data and information, which to be properly analyzed, demands agility in decision making―and just guess how to get it: more applied technology!
Another key aspect is that, as per the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) perspective, considering a successful agile transformation process, we will see that only between 5 and 10% of work refers to utilizing the right tools (Ambler, 2020), adapting them to the context, or even abandoning them if they have not propitiated the targeted effect on the product, service, or desired result. The same phenomenon in equal proportion occurs with techniques or practices (agile, hybrid, or traditional) that teams are using in each department or even in the entire organization. However, a large portion of the success (80 to 85%) of any transformation journey is due to interactions between people who will need to develop new skills, advance into a mindset that is adaptable to constant change, and ultimately, adopt more effective collaboration strategies for the context in which they exist (Ambler, 2020).
Well … the best known jargon on the market (the agile mindset, itself!) sheds light on the fact that a great barrier to any transformation process is, in fact, an old acquaintance of many CEOs and CIOs: culture and people’s inherent resistance to changing the status quo, which requires caution, fail-safe recipes, or even the propagated silver bullets that the market usually prescribes.
We shall not forget yet another famous quote frequently attributed to a giant in management thinking that also helps us in such scenario: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Schein, 1985).
In this article, I seek to analyze the specific contributions of Disciplined Agile™ (DA), acquired by PMI in 2019, in supporting agile and digital transformation initiatives.
Once resistance to change—the real “enemy”—is understood, I think some of the very interesting key concepts that make up this process-decision tool kit are worth exploring. DA is not about a new methodology or even a method (Ambler & Lines, 2020). The idea is to provide guidance to help people, teams, and entire organizations optimize their processes in a context-sensitive manner in their quest for agility. DA should be understood as a tool kit, as opposed to a toolbox, which is typically more, shall we say, disorganized (at least mine is!). The idea is to help you choose the way you work. As Ambler and Lines aptly phrase it in the title of their book, we must consider our WoW, or way of working, for each unique situation we come across with our teams. That is, in each situation, you should know which tool is the most suitable, its advantages, and, above all, its disadvantages, accelerating the decision on which path to take. After all, it may happen that the team needs to adapt again to another scenario, and a tool that had worked so well in the past may quickly become a restrictive factor to the team’s performance, which is, in essence, a complex adaptive system. Disciplined Agile calls this “Evolve your WoW”; simply put, you have to evolve the way you work (Ambler & Lines, 2020).
This obviously requires knowing where to look for each solution in the kit, and that teams have autonomy over these important decisions, such as using combinations of Lean, Scrum, SAFe®, Kanban, and many other frameworks in different areas (such as enterprise architecture, where the open group architecture framework, or TOGAF ®, stands in DA as a process blade) in an adaptive and scalable way. It is, therefore, an agile hybrid approach oriented to organizational learning (Senge, 2014) that was born from the delivery of IT solutions (its cradle, therefore). In its eight principles, Disciplined Agile brings a solid framework that helps us to establish order to many, sometimes chaotic but nevertheless interesting, practices that are not always directly applicable to the cases in which we experience them in organizations. This is precisely where DA can make a difference!
As I explore some of the above principles properly interconnected by lean governance and established by Disciplined Agile, I hope to show how DA can leverage agile and digital transformation initiatives in organizations.
1. Organize around products/services: Considering the current stage of technological disruption of many businesses and their evident inability to compete with those based on digital platforms, it is very likely that, in the short and medium term, we will have a significant part of businesses in a higher degree of dependence on platforms directly or indirectly, since it is through them that scalability and efficiency gains materialize faster. Therefore, even if the business is traditional, a portion of it will have to connect to large, emerging technological infrastructure that allows the flow of products and services, whether digital or physical. More and more, our physical products have a whole structure of microservices, APIs, and platforms that impact the perception of quality and customer experience gravitating toward them. You will not only buy a neat noise-canceling headset, but also all the supporting software that enhances your experience with such a product. After all, it is much easier to enhance software upgrades for a specific product (the famous releases) transparently than to recall them. Speaking of recalls, I do not think I need to tell you that very soon your car will have them directly from the web, without having to go to an authorized dealer.
2. Choice is good: In an emerging startup, it can make total sense in its initial stages that the work is developed using only—and exclusively—a certain technique or agile approach with design thinking working very well. However, when your minimum viable product (MVP) matures and reaches the market, demands increase, and, as such, a more structured approach will be needed. Possibly, some departments that will have been created with the growth will differ to the extent of some UX (user experience) techniques used by the marketing people compared to those on product teams. Therefore, it is vital to collaborate intensively and effectively with your continuous delivery teams (after all, the product is a success and the demand has grown) instead of imposing something on this team. Governance achieved collaboratively by the group works better than any top-down arguments.
3. Optimize flow: A continuous value stream emanates from our customers, and we must realize that we are part of this whole system. As complex as this is, it is necessary to understand that teams need to absorb strategic direction clearly, so that the purpose is not only to satisfy the customer but also exceed customer expectations (preferably in an overwhelming way). Although, with MVP, we work hard on hypothesis testing with early adopters, we need to evolve and ensure that we can structure something that captures feedback generated and then adds, as quickly as possible, value to the customer. In Figure 3, you will notice around the eight principles some DA life cycles where the project (the Lean and Agile life cycles) and the continuous delivery teams coexist, along with a specific approach to explore new concepts (Exploratory life cycle, as in Lean Startup), or even work with more numerous teams (as in a Program life cycle).
4. Maintain corporate awareness: It is important to perceive an organization broadly, in addition to agile teams, so that it is possible to consider the long-term evolutionary needs of the business. Having said that, adjustments or adaptations to multiple contexts that shall appear are part of the Disciplined Agile proposal, as scaling agile from DA’s perspective is envisioned in tactical and strategic terms. The tactical scaling factors will allow consideration of nuances, such as team size, complexity of the product/service under development, compliance, and geographic and organizational distribution, among others. The strategic scaling factors deal with issues, such as competencies, organizational rigidity (previously mentioned), and the culture of teams and the organization, in addition to any restrictions that the present business has and any considerations that limit scope of agile adoption at higher levels.
5. Context counts (a lot!): As much as we try to homogenize our understanding that there are patterns of behavior within our teams―whether they are financial, engineering, marketing, technology―the truth is that people, teams, and organizations have very particular dynamics. In a VUCA world like ours (i.e., marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), the situations faced in projects for delivery of products and services tend to become more challenging every day, and therefore, teams must evolve in this context and start to see change as something natural and desirable. It may be that Scrum worked well while we were only 20 people spread among squads, but how can we continue to work in the same way if the business has grown and the requirements are distinct, demanding higher levels of capacity and velocity of response to changes. Perhaps with a lean approach, it makes more sense to “Kanbanize” the current system … and the team is sovereign in this matter!
Finally, I believe that much more information will develop about the great possibilities that arise throughout the book Choose Your WoW: A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Optimizing Your Way of Working, freely available to all PMI members. The new version of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition (which brings, interestingly, 12 principles) will surely have a fruitful dialogue with the whole concept of the tool kit established by Disciplined Agile.
by Alexandre Caramelo
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