A Disciplined Agile Approach to Business Agility — Opening Statement

Posted April 9, 2018 | Leadership | Amplify
Scott Ambler


Business agility is something that emerges over time through a lot of hard work. Excelling at it requires true agility across all of IT, not just software development, as well as a disciplined organization that can leverage the IT capability. And, because the environment in which your organization operates evolves over time, and your competitors and partners also evolve, business agility proves to be a moving target in practice.

Why business agility? We believe there are three fundamental forces in the marketplace today:

  1. Every business is a software business. We used to say that software is eating the world, but the fact is that for most companies software is the world. Tesla’s competitive value isn’t electric cars, it’s its ability to upgrade and enhance those cars through software. Starbucks now competes on software; people pay — and even order — via their smart­phones, and they’re being motivated to buy more to earn loyalty stars. Gone are the days when IT could be treated like a utility that could be outsourced in the belief that you needed to focus on your core competencies — and IT didn’t make it onto that list. These days being competent at IT is mere table stakes at best; you need to excel at IT if you hope to become an industry leader.

  2. Every industry is being disrupted. When we start working with a new customer, one of the first questions we ask is, “What keeps you up at night?” Interestingly, it’s been over two years since anyone told us they were afraid of their traditional competitors. Everyone tells us they’re afraid of disruptors — new competitors entering their market space using technologies in new ways. Financial firms fear disruption by new fintechs. Retailers are being disrupted by online shopping, and healthcare is being disrupted by artificial intelligence and 3D printing. Clearly, your organization needs to make a difficult decision very soon: do you want to be the disruptor or the disrupted?

  3. Agile firms dominate. Becoming an agile business — an adaptive, responsive, and learning orga­nization — is your true goal. There isn’t a single industry today that either isn’t dominated by agile businesses or isn’t under the threat of disruption by new agile competitors. Not one.

Organizations require a continual focus on discipline to remain agile in today’s rapidly changing environment. But what does it mean to be disciplined? Well, to be disciplined is to do the things that you know are good for you, things that usually require hard work and perseverance. It requires discipline to regularly delight your customers. It takes discipline for teams to become awesome. It requires discipline for leaders to ensure that their people have a safe environment to work in. It takes discipline to recognize that you need to tailor your approach for the context that you face and to evolve that approach as the situation evolves. It takes discipline to recognize that you are part of a larger organization; that you should do what’s best for the enterprise and not just what’s convenient for you. It requires discipline to evolve and optimize your overall workflow, and, finally, it requires discipline to realize that you have many choices regarding how you work and organize yourselves. So choose carefully.

Sound hard? It is. But luckily, others have successfully transformed their organizations to become agile businesses. To do so they have overcome cultural challenges, they have invested in their people, they have experimented with new ways of working, and, most important, they have recognized that they have only just begun. In this issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal, we present seven articles that share some hard-earned lessons from the trenches.

Got Discipline?

The Disciplined Agile (DA) process decision framework provides lightweight guidance to help organizations streamline their processes in a context-sensitive manner, providing a solid foundation for business agility. It does this by showing how various activities such as solution delivery, IT operations, enterprise architecture, portfolio management, finance, procurement, and many others work together. The framework also outlines what these activities should address, provides a range of options for doing so, and describes the tradeoffs associated with each option. In short, it provides a holistic roadmap of how an Agile business operates.

The DA framework is based on seven principles crucial to business agility:

  1. Delight customers. We delight our customers when our products and services not only fulfill their needs and expectations but surpass them.

  2. Be awesome. Awesome teams are built around motivated individuals who are given the environment and support required to fulfill their objectives.

  3. Pragmatism. Let’s be as effective as we can be, and that may mean we go beyond just “being Agile.”

  4. Context counts. Every person, team, and organization is unique. Let’s find and evolve an effective strategy given the situation we actually face.

  5. Choice is good. Different contexts require different strategies. Teams need to be able to own their own process and to experiment and discover what works in practice for them given the situation they face. Having process options to choose from, and understanding the tradeoffs of those options, enables you to home in on better options sooner.

  6. Optimize flow. Your organization is a complex adaptive system of interacting teams and groups that individually evolve continuously and affect each other as they do. To succeed you must ensure that these teams are well aligned, remain well aligned, and, better yet, improve their alignment over time.

  7. Enterprise awareness. When people are enterprise aware, they are motivated to consider the overall needs of their organization; that is, to ensure that what they’re doing contributes positively to the goals of the organization and not just to the suboptimal goals of their team.

In This Issue

We’ve organized this issue by principle. First up is John Hogan with some insights on delighting customers. He argues for a customer-focused organizational structure, with Agile teams supported by Agile leadership. Hogan describes the importance of goal setting to focus on delighting customers, supported by incremental planning and delivery to do so. He works through the implications for:

  1. People who face the customer. These people need to understand what customers need and then fulfill that need.

  2. People who face each other. They need to identify their internal customers, collaborate with them, and bring business value to them at the lowest possible cost.

  3. People who face suppliers. These people are effectively customers to that supplier and must collaborate with them as transparently as possible and should expect to be delighted.

  4. People who are managers and leaders. They must be customer-focused and empower your teams.

Next, Gene Callahan has some great advice for build­ing awesome people. Beginning with the idea of the division of labor, Callahan walks us through the history of how traditional organizations find themselves as a collection of specialists who struggle to be responsive to the changing marketplace. He then examines the need for people who are generalizing specialists (people who can collaborate effectively and learn from one another).

Then Matthew Ganis and Michael Ackerbauer describe how to build awesome teams. You want to be Agile (of course!) and adopt Agile practices. Awesome teams have the skills and resources to fulfill their mission and include the right mix of personalities. The authors argue that the organization is really a “team of teams” that needs a shared purpose and way of working to make the abstract concrete. According to them, awesome teams build on a common foundation based on the concept of Breakthrough Thinking/diversity of thought.

In his discussion of the five levels of a digital business ecosystem (DBE), Jaco Viljoen explores the idea that “choice is good because context counts.” The five levels, each with its own set of capabilities that build one on top of another, are: waterfall/traditional, hybrid Agile (a combination of waterfall and Agile), regular delivery, continuous delivery, and continuous exploration. The five DBEs provide insight into which process-building blocks to apply. Viljoen also discusses using a framework to achieve business agility at scale.

Next, Gill Kent and Robin Harwood provide a case study about linking Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) workflows and user stories. They focus on the importance of initial modeling during what they call the Discovery phase of a digital trans­formation project. In their example, they followed a pragmatic, Agile approach to modeling the business and their host systems to gain important insight into the enterprise transformation scope and a vision of the required system change for their endeavor. This enabled them to establish a business/stakeholder vision that captured a clear scope for the following phases. With an initial technical strategy/architecture identified, the team was able to name a backlog of architecturally relevant stories, mitigating the risk of late identification of system integration requirements and the potential for significant rework. In short, a pragmatic investment in initial modeling and planning paid off in huge divi­dends for their Agile team.

The principle of enterprise awareness appears in several of the articles, and Jutta Eckstein and John Buck walk us through an enterprise-aware approach that helps optimize the process flow of value streams. The authors show how to apply “Open Space” and “Sociocracy” to support enterprise Agile transformation. Open Space is a technique where everyone is invited to put forward ideas that they’re passionate about; if there is enough interest in the idea people will get behind it and make it happen. Sociocracy is a form of democracy for use in organizations, building feedback mechanisms into the organizational structure itself that ensure every voice is heard. Both strategies promote enterprise awareness, increasing collaboration between people in what would normally be disparate parts of the organization and helping optimize flow as the situation evolves.

Finally, Srinivas Garapati explores important philosophies and the mindset behind Agile and Lean. He starts with the thinking patterns required to be successful. He then considers the nature of an Agile organization and finishes with strategies for organizational design.

Our Parting Advice

As you read this issue, we’d like you to keep the following observations in mind:

  1. Business agility is a journey, not a destination.

  2. Every journey is unique; no definitive roadmap works for all

  3. Your organization requires a long-term Agile transformation, not a short-term Agile transition.

  4. Your goal isn’t to be Agile, it’s to serve your customers better.

  5. Business agility requires new, and evolving, behavior from everyone. This includes you.

  6. You can’t push change on people, they have to pull it in themselves.

  7. Your improvement efforts need to address people/culture, process, and technology issues in parallel.

  8. Others have done this, and you can too.

About The Author
Scott Ambler
Scott W. Ambler is a Cutter Expert. He is the cocreator of the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework and thought leader behind the Agile Modeling and Agile Data methods, working with clients around the world to improve the way they develop software. Mr. Ambler is coauthor of several software development books, including An Executive’s Guide to Disciplined Agile, Disciplined Agile Delivery, Agile Modeling, The Elements of UML 2.0 Style, Agile Database… Read More
Mark Lines
Mark Lines is Managing Partner at Scott Ambler + Associates. He is a Disciplined Agile coach, helping organizations all over the world transform from traditional to Agile methods. Mr. Lines also helps customize Agile governance practices to accelerate complex projects in large enterprises. He is coauthor (with Scott Ambler) of An Executive’s Guide to Disciplined Agile and delivers workshops on various Agile topics. He can be reached at mark at… Read More