Disciplined Agile: To Agility and Beyond

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Disciplined Agile and PMI logo.

Disciplined Agile (DA) has the potential to become a leading agile framework because it creates harmony in this congested thought-space.  DA recognizes practices from across the spectrum and offers a pragmatic and context-driven approach to agility.

Currently, DA is not widely used.  In the State of Agile Report,  it does not make the list of top methodologies.  Until recently, the extent of my DA knowledge was also very limited. 

In August 2019, the Project Management Institute (PMI) acquired Discipline Agile to provide its members with expanded capabilities in the increasingly agile world. In November, I attended the first course for new instructors and felt as if I had discovered the agile codex. 

Scott Ambler and Mark Lines are the creators of Disciplined Agile.  Scott’s experience as the chief methodologist at IBM Rational laid the groundwork for the toolkit.  DA is considered a 2nd generation methodology because it leverages and builds upon the foundations of Scrum, Lean, Kanban, XP, SAFe®, and others.

I find agile practices to be natural and organic.  They remind me of how we learn to play, cooperate, and collaborate as children.  Some of the methodologies have become highly formalized and prescribe a unitary path to agility.  My experience is that all methods contribute valuable ideas, and a hybrid approach of borrowing and blending is better. 

Disciplined Agile is built on the principles of:

  1. Be awesome
  2. Pragmatism
  3. Context counts
  4. Choice is good
  5. Optimize flow
  6. Delight customers
  7. Enterprise awareness

In this article, I explore a few of these principles and share why I think DA can lead organizations to that next level of agility.

Be Awesome

Who doesn’t want to be awesome?”  Being awesome means creating an environment where people are allowed to do their best work and be their best selves.  Agile promotes empowered, self-organizing teams that unlock the members’ creative energy. 

Gallup surveys find that companies with engaged employees are 21% more profitable.  This echoes the State of DevOps Report that shows employee net promoter scores for high-performing companies are 2-times higher.  Engaged employees are more dedicated and willing to develop innovative solutions.  As Sir Richard Branson says, “Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.”

I had the experience of working for a company with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and an empowered employee culture.  Decisions were made at the lowest responsible level.  Large, strategic programs were built around self-organizing teams using a networked organizational model.  We launched new and innovative products every few months.  We were awesome!  All of my former colleagues remember those days as being the best in our careers.

Context Counts

Every team, project, and organization is unique.  The size of the team, their tenure, physical proximity, and culture are essential factors in how they work together.  The product, industry, and regulatory environment also constrains and governs how the team operates. 

Disciplined Agile understands that context plays an essential role in defining the current-state and path of an organization’s agile journey.  DA recommends assessing team, organizational, industry, and complexity factors when selecting a lifecycle (methodology) and set of practices. 

By embracing context as a core principle, DA sidesteps the one-size-fits-all trap.  It frees teams from trying to fit their agile practices into a pre-defined format.  It creates the opportunity to broaden perspectives. 

One of my students is a facilities manager for a government agency and is responsible for renovating and building office space.  He kept trying to define and describe his practices within the Scrum framework, which was a poor fit.  As we discussed his context, I helped him see how Lean and Kanban were a more compatible paradigm for his work. 

Choice is Good

The corollary to recognizing that context counts is concluding that making informed choices is good.  Most agile frameworks prescribe a single methodology.  By contrast, Disciplines Agile incorporates 6-lifecycles and integrates best practices from others.

Disciplined Agile provides teams with a rubric for selecting the lifecycle that fits their context and also recommends several paths for maturing over time.  The lifecycles include:

  • Agile.  Teams follow a modified version of the Scrum methodology;
  • Continuous Deliver – Agile.  Scrum for long-standing teams where delivery cycles are less than a week and completed work is deployed immediately; 
  • Lean.  Teams follow Kanban and flow-based practices where work is pulled, and work-in-process (WIP) is minimized;  
  • Continuous Delivery – Lean.  A version of flow-based agile for mature and long-standing teams where completed work is deployed immediately; 
  • Experimental.  Experimental follows the principles of Eric Reis’ “Lean Startup” where teams quickly iterate through product designs to identify customer needs and wants; and
  • Program.  A lifecycle that allows an organization to scale using a team-of-teams approach. 

Within these 6-lifecycles, DA also incorporates concepts and best practices from XP, Spotify, SAFe®, and others.  One of these foundational practices is establishing a test-first mentality that embraces Test-Driven (TDD) and Behavior-Drive (BDD) Development. 

Disciplined Agile has identified 21-process goals.  These process goals reflect key decision points throughout the phases of a project: Inception, Construction, Transition, and On-Going.  While this seems like a lot of choice, DA encourages tailoring and finds that 80% of the choices are limited to five areas.

For each of these process goals, DA has identified multiple choices that the team can make.  These choices represent the full range of options, often from “Do Nothing” to leading practices.  In “Choose Your WoW!” the trade-offs and considerations for the choices are well articulated. 


Disciplines Agile advocates pragmatism over purism.  Many of the popular methodologies are prescriptive and provide a well-defined and structure.  These methodologies are often easy to adopt for organizations moving from a traditional environment. 

Agile purists often insist on strict adherence to standards as if they represented natural law.  An experienced, highly functioning 15-person team does not have to be split into smaller teams because it cannot be fed on two pizzas.  The simple solution is to order a third pizza.  While this may sound silly, I have observed similar debates.

At its core, agile is a mindset.  The various agile methodologies all contribute to a rich body of knowledge.  Recognizing that context counts and choice is good leads to the principle that sensible and realistic (pragmatic) solutions are better than dogmatic ones. 

I am still in the early stages of incorporating Disciplined Agile into my agile and project management tapestry.  My first impressions are that DA offers a robust, flexible, and ever-evolving framework. 

The primary downside I see is the steep learning curve.  “Choose Your Wow!” is a 400-page book.  While it is easy to read, it is information-dense.  However, the book is not intended to be memorized, but rather serve as a handbook.  Practitioners will regularly return to the book as a reference helping them identify and select practices for their evolving teams.

© 2020, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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Image courtesy of: Disciplined Agile Consortium

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