How to manage the tension between agility and discipline in IT

Agility requires a new level of discipline that is redefining IT project management

According to the National Apprenticeship Service, the IT sector in the UK has seen a 13% growth in IT apprenticeships within the last year alone. The IT industry, and the required skills sets of the professionals that serve it, are changing fast.

With this explosive growth comes the need for new ideas to manage demand. More often than not, organisations and their employees are required to pursue an array of project-based work simultaneously.

Some IT projects are well defined and can be approached with pre-determined processes, tools and techniques. In traditional terms, it is a methodology based on a rigid structure or discipline. Other IT projects, however, require a new kind of agility to adapt to rapidly changing scope, emerging technologies and evolving markets.

Agility and discipline are not mutually exclusive. Agility requires a new level of discipline that is redefining IT project management leadership in particular.

The definition of agility and discipline

Agility is the natural by-product of the speed with which business is conducted today, thanks in great part to evolving “software in the cloud” industries.

One need only think of the emergence of disruptive technologies such as software as a service (SaaS), as exemplified by Developers replaced overly performing products and systems with simple, online business solutions that have since revolutionised the way organisations operate.

Project management 2.0

Agility is the cornerstone to a more innovative, adaptive, highly responsive approach to project management (PM), an approach professor Raymond E. Levitt of Stanford University coined as PM 2.0.

In the more traditional sense, discipline translates into a top-down approach with pre-set structures – the PM 1.0 way of conducting business.

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PM 1.0 was developed in the 1950s for complex projects in stable, slow-changing environments that required centralised decision making and control, particularly where critical failure was not an option.

Industries such as pharmaceutical, defence, aerospace and construction industries established PM 1.0 principles, and many organisations still require fundamental process-oriented structures today.

Yet agility is creeping into every industry, including manufacturing and engineering. Response time matters, regardless of the industry.

To be agile, an organisation still needs discipline. In fact, it is essential that organisations integrate both agility and discipline to respond to today’s business environment.

The challenge

The greatest challenge for leaders when asking their organisations to adopt more agile practices and mindsets is that this approach reverses paradigms.

Senior IT executives are required to relinquish a certain level of control to those on the front lines. Scope is more loosely defined and there is an absence of detailed long-range plans.

It can feel like discipline is being abandoned to enhance agility. No doubt this calls for trust, flexibility and a new kind of leadership adaptability.

Why agility requires discipline

The need to integrate agility and discipline requires a whole new set of skills

Agility requires discipline. The medical device industry, for instance, focuses on agility for reducing product development time-to-market, as well as achieving innovative product breakthroughs.

However, due to regulatory requirements to which the industry is bound, it also relies on plan-driven methodologies such as “Waterfall” planning to ensure specific requirements are met.

In the financial services industry, understanding the business needs and requirements by interacting with business partners requires IT to take a structured, disciplined process to architect solutions and assess cost, performance and risk.

At the same time, a rapidly changing marketplace, and constantly evolving technology and business requirements all require fast reaction time. Agility is equally important.

How to integrate agility and discipline

The need to integrate agility and discipline requires a whole new set of skills for business and project leaders, including an improvement in organisational execution capability as well as a reconsideration of organisational structure, culture and change management.

Collaboration, feedback and constant project monitoring have become crucial to day-to-day operations.

Leaders need to manage interfaces and interdependencies between teams by determining how best to work together.

Agility can only be integrated in a disciplined environment when the entire team is on the same page

In the planning phase, teams might work with the traditional “Waterfall” approach while the agile approach is more appropriate during the product development and delivery phases.

GE capital

GE Capital has found a way to integrate agility and discipline in its approach to new application development.

Once known for its strict three-month product delivery review cycle, GE Capital has now adopted a more agile approach, allowing for continuous delivery of new applications.

With a radical shift in its mind set, GE Capital is now positioned to respond to customer needs more quickly.

None of these fundamental organisational changes can occur without a set of principles to guide leaders and their organisations in their quest to improve execution capability.

Agility can only be integrated in a disciplined environment when the entire team is on the same page.

Leadership principles for mastering agility in a disciplined environment

Establishing the following principles will help balance discipline with agility. Certain types of organisational and human resource practices can equip managers to lead in "ambidextrous" project-based organisations. Organisations that adopt these leadership principles will encourage a more agile mindset.

Most project-based work relies on cross-functional contributions

1. Establish transparency and visibility
It starts with the leader, who must create an environment of transparency. Issues and problems must be allowed to be made visible as they arise so they can be addressed in the moment.

2. Define value from the customer‘s perspective
Identify how the customer defines value and use this to guide decisions about what to do and how to do it. Keeping the team focused on the user helps eliminate excess effort. 

3. Enable cross-functional collaboration
Most project-based work relies on cross-functional contributions. Break down silos. Involve others early and often. Cross-team communication and collaboration enriches, informs and accelerates project delivery.

4. Demonstrate success frequently
Show teams that what they do matters. Highlight how their efforts are delivering value. People want to understand how their work is contributing and having an impact.

5. Create a learning organisation

Support the time and effort required for continuous learning and knowledge sharing among the organisation and its team members.  

Informal gatherings, centres of excellence, targeted training and documenting lessons learned and best practices builds individual competence and organisational capability.

While there are no guarantees in this world, attitude contributes significantly to altitude

6. Acknowledge and embrace change
Nothing ever stays the same. Tolerance for ambiguity is often required. A prepared team is a solid one that can deliver its very best when given the tools to adapt to the current environment.

These principles start with the leader, but also must be adopted by the team. Allow them to discuss, refine and collaboratively generate these leadership principles for their projects.

Obtaining their buy-in and support is essential to achieving improved organisational alignment and success.

Bringing both discipline and agility into alignment will ensure not only higher customer value, but more efficient operations.

Focusing on establishing a great team, powerful leadership principles, rituals to reinforce them and a feedback process will contribute to a higher level of business success.

While there are no guarantees in this world, attitude contributes significantly to altitude.

Our goal as leaders is to create an environment that allows our teams to succeed. When applied correctly, blending discipline with agility can assist IT organisations to reach higher heights.

Tim Wasserman is the chief learning officer at IPS Learning and the program director of the Stanford Advanced Project Management (SAPM) program.

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