Disciplined Agile 101: Your comprehensive guide to DA

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Does it ever feel like following an agile approach isn’t as, well, agile as it’s supposed to be?

For all the advantages agile delivers, there are trade-offs. And sometimes, the framework ends up getting in the way of business agility.

Some are turning to a hybrid approach in an effort to achieve better adaptability — and greater agility — throughout the delivery lifecycle.

This hybrid approach is a scaled agile framework called Disciplined Agile.

If you’re wondering whether Disciplined Agile is the right next step for your agency, this guide is for you. We’ll help you understand the approach, its core principles, and the benefits it can unlock for agencies that are ready to give it a test run.

Agile vs. Disciplined Agile

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Before we dive deeper into Disciplined Agile, let’s explore the key differences between it and regular Agile.

Agile is a project management framework born out of the software development industry. It focuses on incremental improvements through iteration, providing continuous feedback that allows teams to adjust quickly throughout the course of a project. 

Agile (and many of its variations) can get a little rigid or inflexible, though, such that some teams eventually feel like they’re conforming to an illogical or unnecessary sequence of steps, just in the name of staying agile.

That’s where Disciplined Agile, or DA, enters the picture. It builds on a base or foundation of agile principles, using similar terminology and concepts. However, Disciplined Agile recognizes that teams and practitioners are best suited to decide what methods make sense in which contexts. DA allows for other techniques and tools borrowed from dozens of other methodologies or approaches.

Think of it this way: DA is Agile, but with much more freedom. And that freedom only works if you’re disciplined. 

A brief history lesson of Disciplined Agile

Disciplined Agile, or DA, is an agile project management methodology first developed at IBM in the late 2000s. 

Originally focused on organizational process decisions, DA quickly evolved into a process framework embraced by enterprise software development and delivery, DevOps (sometimes termed Disciplined DevOps), and general IT.

In 2012, IBM published Disciplined Agile Delivery, a technical tome by Scott Ambler and Mark Lines, explaining DA to a broader audience of developers and practitioners. 

In the decade-plus since, Disciplined Agile has gained a foothold among experienced agile teams. Other organizations, including the Project Management Institute (PMI) have begun to build resources and systems surrounding DA.

A second edition of Ambler and Lines’ book was released in 2020, this time by PMI. A simple definition of DA occurs in the book’s introduction:

“DA is a hybrid of existing methods that provides the flexibility to use various approaches, as well as plugging some gaps not addressed by mainstream agile methods. In a nutshell, [Disciplined Agile] is ‘pragmatic agile.’”

~Scott Ambler and Mark Lines

The Disciplined Agile framework puts individuals first and pulls from the best principles of multiple project management methodologies, including lean, agile, kanban,  and scrum

DA is intended to be a flexible or loose framework and isn’t recommended for agile beginners. The “Disciplined” part of DA implies that practitioners will need discipline — and a solid foundational understanding and mindset — to keep things running smoothly. 

If “vanilla” agile feels too limiting or constrained, an experienced, disciplined practitioner may find the freedom and flexibility they need within DA.

The core principles of DA

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DA is, by definition, a flexible framework, so it can be hard to define in absolute terms. Instead, most DA practitioners establish a set of core principles. Here are the standard eight core principles underlying the Disciplined Agile methodology.

1. Delight customers

DA goes beyond merely meeting customer needs or solving customer problems. Following the DA approach means going further, fulfilling your customers’ expectations, and leaving them delighted — not just satisfied.

The primary reason for this core principle is competitiveness. Organizations and agencies that don’t delight their external customers will eventually be replaced by those that do.

This core principle of DA applies to both external and internal customers. 

2. Be awesome

“Be awesome” is a call to be interesting, enjoyable, and the best version of yourself. It applies to both soft skills and hard skills. Be the best developer or designer or marketer or coder you can be — and be the best person you can be, too.

This principle applies at the individual level — you (yes, you) need to be awesome. But it also applies to teams and organizations. Everyone would rather work on an awesome team than a mediocre one, and it’s a lot more fun to do business with an awesome agency than a mediocre one.

3. Pragmatism

Disciplined Agile is all about doing what works. This is why DA pulls principles from various project management styles and doesn’t necessarily use them consistently. If a principle works in a given context, use it. If it doesn’t, pick something else.

Put another way: The goal isn’t to be agile or to follow scrum or to use a Gantt chart or waterfall method. The goal is maximum effectiveness, being awesome, and delighting customers. If agile is the way to reach that goal, use it. The same goes for every other tool in your project management toolkit.

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4. Context counts 

Tying in with the previous core principle is context. Context is why the strategy you used with the last client or deliverable is (or isn’t) the right one to use this time. Every team, every project, every task, every subprocess has its own context. Teams following DA recognize this context and allow it to affect decisions on the way of working (WoW).

In other words, if the way you do the work never changes, even when the context does, you’re not following DA.

5. Choice is good 

You’ve heard the golden hammer rule (or the law of the instrument), how every problem looks remarkably like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. If you’re like most professionals, you’re probably tired of hearing it!

So why do we bring it up anyway? Because nothing could be more relevant in the realm of DA.

Here, choice is a good thing. You want to have access to a wide range of tools so that you can solve creative problems with the right tool — not whatever tool you’ve arbitrarily committed to using.

6. Optimize flow

DA is built around the concept of a value stream, and optimizing flow grows out of that concept. Instead of optimizing the way you work based on the specific tasks you have, optimize workflows to best delight clients and most efficiently reach big-picture goals.

This all might sound a bit obvious, but here’s the big reason to include this core principle. Sometimes, a truly optimized flow isn’t the thing that makes the most sense for an individual or department. 

There may be times when committing to an optimized flow means inconveniencing yourself (or your designer or copywriter, and so on). In the DA framework, choosing the less optimized option in this case is more than okay — it’s the right thing to do.

7. Enterprise awareness

Staying aware of the big picture is key. DA is usually framed with large enterprise businesses in mind, which explains the wording of this core principle. But if you’re not a part of an enterprise, you can still pursue this concept.

Whatever your organization or agency looks like, you can maintain awareness of its big-picture goals and needs. Those may affect the decisions you make individually or as a team, leading you in a different direction than you would’ve chosen in isolation.

8. Organize around products, services, or both 

Delighting customers is hard work, but it’s easier to do when team members using Disciplined Agile practices keep their work and projects oriented to products and services. That’s because, in the end, the things that you make and do are what delight your customers.

In other words, this Disciplined Agile principle teaches that everything should be organized around your organization’s value streams, not other concerns. 

Benefits of implementing DA

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DA isn’t right for every project or every business, but when it’s a good fit, it unlocks powerful benefits.

More flexibility and scalability

DA is an extremely flexible model, empowering teams to find the ways of working that best fit the project, its context, and its customer requirements. 

Experienced agile practitioners can also leverage that enhanced flexibility into better scalability. When teams can choose the best methods and approaches, they can scale without heavy oversight — as long as they have the experience and skill to make those choices properly.

Greater stakeholder satisfaction

Because DA focuses on delighting customers (both internal and external), those customers tend to be more satisfied. 

Stakeholders are one type of customer in this model, and they usually don’t want to hear about how frameworks or methodologies complicate the work. They want to hear about the results. 

When your agency consistently delivers above expectations, stakeholders (including client stakeholders) are pleased. That your team used DA to achieve those results may not matter to the stakeholder, but improving stakeholder satisfaction certainly matters to you and your team!

Faster time-to-market and increased efficiency

Project management frameworks bring order to chaos but add a layer of structural complexity that can risk slowing down a project. DA bypasses this risk, allowing teams to choose the best principles and structures for the creative work they’re currently engaged in. The result is a faster time-to-market and more efficient work all around.

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Teamwork.com is built differently. It doesn’t lock you into a single approach, giving you project visibility no matter how you set it up. A huge catalog of templates helps you adapt and adjust quickly, and robust project planning tools help you map out projects from the simple to the complex.

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