In some respects, the “Choice is Good” principle is both the differentiator and the business case for transforming your organization within the Disciplined Agile framework. If one is to go through the other frameworks and delivery practices, inevitably you will find a more or less degree of prescription to the methods. And, once you put that within the organizational dynamic there is a tendency to prescribe that method across all projects, regardless of complexity and scale. The adage “to a hammer everything looks like a nail” you will find could unfortunately be applied to many organizations’ PMO and project delivery processes.

In fact, I can’t recall the number of times that I’ve been given a prescriptive list of project deliverables from a PMO, then told that if I felt one is not needed to justify why it should not be included. Face palm. What project manager wants to take the risk, much less has the time, to justify NOT doing something no matter how senseless that something is. Don’t even get me started on being provided a templated project schedule with the estimated deliverables and – timeframes? It’s almost like they feel like you can put a quarter in the slot and come up with a project management plan!

Wait, you may be thinking. I thought that’s a good thing since it enforces consistency and helps with efficiency, isn’t it? In order to answer this question we would do well to better understand the nature of projects. And to do that we can reference two key theoretical models – the Cynefin Framework and Stacey’s understanding of complexities and paradoxes.

It would take a different series with several discussions to address the impact of these two models on project delivery, but a brief summary is in order. But before we do, let’s take a look at two concepts that are often merged and misunderstood. Those concepts are value delivery and value realization. For the purpose of our conversation we will describe value delivery as that part of the value stream that delivers products and services to customers that satisfies their needs and, ultimately, the more satisfied the more value that was delivered. Although value delivery is applied to the entire value stream, for our purposes we’ll focus on when the uniqueness and complexity is such that it drives us to projectize our work. Value realization is where we extract value along the way, in other words, getting the maximum Return on Investment (ROI) for the value that has been delivered.

Which brings us to paradoxes and complexity. Projects create paradoxes because of their uniqueness, something we’ve discussed previously in the principle “Context Counts” and more in-depth in the article Uniqueness is the Whole Point!”. The paradox is in that it requires us to step outside of our highly efficient normalized value delivery stream into a parallel stream that can adapt to the uniqueness. Otherwise it becomes disruptive to the normalized stream, or as we call it in the project management field – projects vs. operations.

In the below example, we describe the relationship between two variables, uniqueness and experiential, both of which we have more or less in project situations. We can’t deliver in chaos, that’s why we need things like a project charter, business case or some way to put a loose structure around what we need to deliver. The more unique and less we’ve experienced the situation the more it tends to chaos and prescriptive approaches are impractical. The less uniqueness and the more we’ve experienced the situation the more prescriptive methods will help us deliver effectively and efficiently. Projects are not necessary when we are in normalcy (highly experiential, little to no uniqueness), instead our focus is on optimization and value realization.

The goal of project delivery is to drive towards and eventually achieve normalcy with the delivered value so that value realization can then be optimized. This is where Disciplined Agile brings the greatest benefits. Within the framework there is a means of working through the chaos to arrive at the right “recipe” to deliver the project, or whether a project is even required. All contained within the six separate lifecycle choices, the team can make even more precise choices around how it will organize itself, the work, and the deliverables.

In order for these choices to create the maximum benefit, the organization is best served to have some transformative characteristics in how it approaches work. Here are three that we’ll explore in this discussion; the characteristic of organizational flexibility, the characteristic of organizational intelligence and the characteristic of organizational excellence.

The characteristic of organizational flexibility – Often when I hear someone in management get “on the Agile bandwagon”, they speak of agile as if it’s a characteristic rather than a set of methods or frameworks. This is why I choose not to speak as if the organization can become agile, but rather the term I use is that the organization can gain flexibility by adopting Agile practices. In academic terms this is to say that Agile is a noun, not a verb.

There are two examples of this that fall on the two ends of the spectrum between normalcy and chaos as we’ve described. The first is an organization that interpreted Agile as being that they can do whatever they want when they want since, in their mind, it was the absence of project practices. They were revolting against traditional project delivery methods by simply removing all methods. As a result, the Product Owner felt no obligation to do anything other than what they viewed as right by the product, and saw customers begin to move off their platform as a result. By rejecting any sense of normalcy they introduced chaos.

The second was a company that desired to substitute the normalcy of traditional project delivery methods with a new normalcy of Agile practices. However, by substituting one set of processes with another they missed out on the behavioral changes that needed to occur for them to become more responsive to their customers. No sooner had they begun the organizational Agile transformation than when we, as a customer of the product, began hearing from the team members that – “I’m in a scrum so I can’t talk to you anymore”. Huh? The team member can’t talk to the customer? We certainly want some norms to put in place, but one of the primary objectives of Agile practices is to get regular and consistent feedback from the customer.

Both of these situations underscore how the desire for flexibility was subverted by the movement towards chaos or towards normalcy. True flexibility lies in being able to deliver projects in that area between the two. The goal being to work towards normalcy until we are comfortable we can start realizing the value for what we’re delivering. This is where Disciplined Agile brings great benefit, it allows for many variations of methods and practices to appropriately handle value delivery in this area between chaos and normalcy.

The characteristic of organizational intelligence – Have you ever seen a mechanic with a huge toolbox? I asked a mechanic who had not just one four foot toolbox, but three, if they had ever used all those tools. His answer was, “yes, at least once!”. The ability to find and apply the right tool for every situation differentiated him as a master mechanic. And if he found a situation that didn’t fit with his current toolset, he would go out and find one that would do the job. This is much like organizational intelligence.

Organizational intelligence can be paraphrased as the capability the organization has to create and consume knowledge. The more the organization can interpret and act in value-added ways when faced with complex situations the greater the organizational intelligence. Another way of thinking of this is the capability of efficiently navigating from chaos to normalcy is a function of organizational intelligence. Regardless of the experiential void, or the uniqueness, the organization knows enough to adapt and move.

In short, we can only act upon what we know we can handle. Again, Disciplined Agile, is a significant enabler in supporting organizational intelligence. Rather than have a prescriptive model for every situation, the organization has a large toolkit from which to choose how to solve for that unique problem they are facing.

What this does require is not only open minds to new ways of doing things, but it also requires a core training of the fundamentals of many practices. And if faced with the unique problem with little experiential knowledge, go get the training. This is why we say at Projects by Design – LEARN|TRANSFORM|DELIVER – it starts with learning. Once we learn methods, practices, and models we can then transform our way of working accordingly. Only then will we begin to see the benefits begin to roll in, value delivery leading to value realization. As W. Edwards Deming once said, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.”

The characteristic of organizational excellence  Which brings us to organizational excellence – doing our best. I doubt you would ever get someone who would disagree that organizations are to be excellent! That is certainly the desire of all that serve in management that I’ve come across. That’s not in dispute, but what is in dispute, very much so, is how to measure excellence.  

Although there are many different lists of characteristics of an excellent organization, the first attribute in most lists is “Leadership”. They then go on to describe their own sets of quality measurements on excellence. But how do you quantify leadership? When you do a general search on this concept you find a lot of what we think good leaders do, or the behaviors they practice, rather than an empirical measurement. 

When you think of this, it makes sense that a consistent measurement cannot be nailed down. There is such a large swath of different industries, functions, products, services touched on by the field of project management that it can’t be quantified. What we can say is that there are some attributes that are typical of excellent organizations, all of which include leaders who are exceptional in their own way and in their own right. 

People like to work there. Organizations that have employees that enjoy being a part of the culture and mission generally outperform those with lower employee satisfaction. For example, I know that if there are staff that want to work for the company, they are naturally more motivated to buy into the project objectives. They want to see the company succeed; therefore they want to help the project succeed. I once had a manager that evaluated us as PMs in how many times a resource asked to be on our project team. This is a clear indicator of the quality of the project management when people see a personal benefit for participating. Thereby, good leadership. 

People like who they work with. When a team comes together, carrying with them their broad background, culture, and perspectives, and unites around a common goal – such as a project objective  it can be one of the most gratifying of their professional experiences. Who doesn’t want to be part of a high-performing team?  Following the Tuckman’s Ladder model of team development will result in teams that enjoy being with each other as they participate in achieving beyond what the sum of the individual parts can create. The effectiveness of this model is based in the acknowledgement that people can get past their differences (storming), and establish behaviors that are mutually supportive (norming) in order to take themselves to a performing state, each member supplying what is necessary for the team to supply the end product with a high degree of quality and efficiency. 

People like the work they do. For most people, it takes some time to understand themselves well enough to know what it is they really want to do. When I was young, my aspiration was to be an astronaut. Although that was aspirational, there was no clear path to that goal and I learned to love jumping out of airplanes instead. This led me into some of the most rewarding moments in my life, being a member of the US Army Parachute Team, providing freefall demonstrations around the world. When I retired from the Army, that started the cycle all over again. Although I didn’t know that I would love project management when I started, I was part of an organization that supported the employees in the roles they put their staff within. With both tangible support, such as formal training, and with intangible support such as coaching and mentoring, I eventually grew to love project management and all that it entails. Excellent organizations do just that – invest of their resources and knowledge in the employee to help them navigate into what they do best, which they do when they love what they do. 

In this discussion we meandered a bit like a slow, lazy river through some intellectual, philosophical and even personal subjects to arrive at what “Choice is Good” means. The return on your investment in Disciplined Agile can be found here, choosing from a large toolbox of options on methods and practices, supported by training and coaching, which enable the organization to deliver value frequently and effectively. This enabler avoids the mistake of attempting to form a “one size fits all” approach which is not only unrealistic, but introduces inefficiencies by it’s very nature. Unless your organization only desires value realization in one thing, and one thing only, then Disciplined Agile and the principle “Choice is Good” is right for you!