Girl-in-Corner-for-Blog-resized-182x182Undertaking any activity requires a certain amount of discipline, yet why do Agilists constantly point out the need for discipline in Agile projects? Surely it is needed in traditional waterfall projects as well?

Yes of course it is needed in traditional projects! To have the self-discipline to raise one’s hand when things are slipping, to attend status meetings on time, to deliver completed status reports on time so that management hierarchy can (re-) act to accurate timely information. To start on time the correct piece of work according to the overall project plan.  All of these require discipline.

Some People Just Cannot go Agile

Statistically speaking though 15-20% of the working population prefer to be told what to do and by when.  That does not need much discipline, other than being open to being told and delivering on time.  Thus inherently, individuals with this preference rely on the discipline of others to track and chase.  These individuals will also be very happy in a traditional waterfall team.  They will however, hinder an Agile team.  They will become unhappy and it becomes very easy to recognise due to the daily stand-ups and ultimately it may be necessary to involve Human Resources. They will have to address the issue together with the team leader / line manager with a view to moving the individual on to a position that suits them better.

Everybody has Different Levels of Discipline

There is then another academic dimension to the topic.  It is obvious that classic waterfall does require discipline yet discipline is a human soft-skill that exists in unequal quantities in every individual.  Some people just cannot keep to plans (even if they create them) and others who are more disciplined will find it a challenge to work with them.  This is where team-profiling systems such as Margerison-McCann will clearly show the preferences of individuals in a team.

In this system, the creative types (with a preference for Reporter/Advisor and Creator/Innovator) would prefer not to work to deadlines.  So teams with individuals with this type of profile need to be offset with those that are more structured and disciplined (a preference for Concluder/Producer and Controller/Inspector).  A well balanced group will need all profiles (plus others not mentioned here).

The creative type are often better in touch with the ‘right-side’ of the brain with most I.T. professionals and project managers heavily fixed on the left analytical side of the brain.  Yet without creative-types projects would not have a vision, innovation would be poor and the world we live in would be very dull place indeed.

Without Discipline Agile Teams Can Abuse their New Authority

So, how does that relate to Agile projects? Well obviously a well-balanced team needs creative types and structured types as described above.

Agile projects need not only a balanced team but also require more discipline at the lower-levels of the project.  Think about it for a moment… people are suddenly given freedom to decide for themselves.  They have the authority to do what is necessary.  This can lead to problems if the team is new and trust has not yet been built through the forming-storming-norming-performing cycle or if the team comprises of primarily inexperienced staff.

The team-members may start to cut corners (typically low quality documentation, less than reasonable level of error handling in code, omitting to fix defects that they believe are un-important, skip commitments) as that type of work is no longer interesting work (remember most developers want to develop new functionality).

It Takes Discipline to *Do* the Work

As listed below (which also applies to traditional projects) it takes discipline not being tempted to move on as fast as possible to the next ‘interesting’ task:

  • Write good code that handles errors well
  • To provide good accurate and relevant documentation
  • To fix defects as soon as they arise
  • To correct the dumbest spelling mistake
  • To correct an inconsistency in a field name
  • To keep to the projects standards (coding etc)

Sustainable Discipline is Required when it comes to *How* the Work is Done

The team also has to be able to sustain its discipline in how it works, which for Agile projects has additional demands:

  • Attend Stand-ups at the same time everyday
  • To plan and execute planning and review meetings in every timebox
  • To develop test scripts and documentation within every timebox
  • To prepare and give client demos in every timebox
  • To keep the task board up-to-date, daily

Add to that the fact that all of the above needs to be done over the duration of 6 or more months.  Now that requires stamina and discipline!

Keep the People “Fresh” after Each Release – Change their Seats

It is also a good idea to chop and change the teams (at a minimum move desks) at the end of each release, to further cross-train, to stop people become stale, to reduce the risk of prima-donnas being allowed to evolve, basically to keep people engaged and “on the edge of their seats” so-to-speak.

In Summary

The topic of discipline is multi-faceted.  Some people are happier in a traditional project than an Agile one.  They will have to be moved on.  The Agile team needs to be well balanced, if not the team will either be full of ideas but not able to deliver or is over structured but cannot create or innovate.

In Agile projects, more responsibility is placed onto the teams so the teams need to recognise this and avoid abusing their new gained power.

Ultimately, discipline is needed now and for the entire duration of the project.  It thus requires explicit thought by the organisation to identify ways to maintain stamina and thus maintain discipline.