The Relationship Between Agility and Discipline

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating.

What civilians call agility the Marine Corps calls leading Marines.

I’ve compared my decade in the Corps to my experiences as an agile coach in a pair of blog posts here and here, and I think it’s time to revisit this theme.  Today we’ll focus on the relationship between agility and discipline, and I firmly believe there is one.  I’ll go so far to say that an agile team is inherently a disciplined one, and without discipline, it’s highly unlikely a team will reach any worthwhile measure of agility.

To make the point, I suppose we could point to trivial indicators of discipline.  For example, is our team consistently showing up on time for stand up?  That’s important, right?  I suppose, but in my opinion there are  better indicators to examine that can accelerate a team toward greater effectiveness.

However, before we talk about what discipline is, let’s talk about what it’s not.  First, it’s not rigid or blind adherence to the orders of those above us.  Second, it’s not asking “how high” after someone tells us to “jump.”  In fact, it’s not most of the stereotypical military we see on TV.

On the battlefield, decentralized leadership is a prerequisite of victory.

After all, if we don’t own the tempo, our enemy will.  Leaders must have access to knowledge communicated in a rich, high-bandwidth manner, and they must be trusted to make critical decisions in the absence of higher authority. 

As leaders, we must recognize and address our own shortcomings.  We must surround ourselves with the intelligent and disagreeable to appreciate opposing views.  Finally, we must accept that the world around us is messy.  It’s non-linear and coloring outside the lines is sometimes inevitable.  Let me explain.

Moving Beats Stationary

I’ve been consistently working out since I was in my teens.  However, as I get older, it gets harder and harder to stay active. Nonetheless, I keep at it because I’m certain that as soon as I stop hitting the gym, I’ll immediately morph into an old man.  (I’m sure I’m being dramatic.)  Conversely, I engage my mind on a frequent basis learning new ideas and concepts and attempting to apply them in different contexts.  I find the time daily to read something new, and on weekends, I’m working to earn my pilot’s license.  

Standing still engenders decay.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us as much.  Take a moment and examine a process in the organization that’s been left unchanged for some time.  Is it beginning to degrade?  Why?  In some cases, I’d venture to guess that it’s because it’s remained static for too long.

Opportunity Beats Ad Hoc

Working ad hoc is inefficient, and I’m truly puzzled why so many organizations choose to do so.  I believe managers are responsible for defining the “rules” of the organization and then responsible for managing any exceptions.  However, if everything is the exception, managers are buried in directing the work leaving no time for what matters most: mentoring their people. Not long ago, I began to call this adhocracy, and here’s how I define it.

The act of crafting organizational process that addresses today’s crisis and disregards tomorrow’s consequence

So what’s the opposite of adhocracy?  In my opinion, it’s a thorough appreciation of opportunity cost.  In other words, if we spend 30 minutes on this problem, that’s 30 minutes we can’t spend on another problem.  Here’s two common circumstances where we see this play out.

  1. Someone stops by the desk of a team member and asks him/her to complete a piece of work that’s not part of the team’s current focus.  Our team member has a choice.  S/he can choose to do this new work with little consideration of the priority or take the time (possibly with fellow team members) to consider how this compares to their current priorities.
  2. We are blocked on a piece of work, and we must decide on our next course of action.  Do we stay the course, owning the blockage and doing whatever we can within reason to get us unstuck?  Do we see what other work is in progress and lend a hand, where appropriate?  Do we grab the next unstarted work item that interests us with disregard to priority?

Some options are more popular than others, some are the paths of least resistance, and some take a measure of fortitude especially in cases where we have to politely tell someone no.  I like how Esther Derby puts it.

Double Beats Single

More specifically, double-loop learning beats single-loop learning.  It can be described as the difference between addressing the symptom versus addressing the root.  (Read more here.)

I’ll give you an example.  I have two kids, and we assign them daily chores.  As kids do, they put off doing them as long as possible, and we would hound them about getting them done.  After repeating that cycle many times, we decided on a different tact.  We told them that if they didn’t have their chores done by 1pm every day, we wouldn’t pay them for their work, but they’d still have to get them done.  I’m happy to report that we haven’t had to hound them since.  This hounding was single looping while the expectation and consequence setting was double looping.

Unfortunately, double looping isn’t easy.  It usually requires solid systems thinking, a good dose emotional intelligence, and it certainly requires more time and exploration than single looping.  Discipline is necessary to look past the superficial, have candid discussions, and solve the problem instead of simply addressing the symptoms.

Important Beats Easy

I’ll let a U.S. President and 5-star general sum this point up for us:

What’s important is rarely urgent, and what’s urgent is rarely important.

Dwight Eisenhower

Too many of us–myself included–get distracted by the noise and lose sight of the signal.  It’s easy. After all, it’s satisfying to solve problems and mark them off our to do lists.  However, is that to do list ordered?  Are the most important problems at the top?  In my case, not always.  How about yours?

Take the case of estimates.  I’ve seen many teams obsess about them.  Should we change them if it turns out the work takes more effort than we expected?  If we do change them, should we preserve the old estimate so we can look back and see how many estimates we’re changing?  Whenever I see this, I usually end up repeating myself:

If estimates were supposed to be accurate, they’d be called actuals.

So how do we end up fixated on estimates?  Because it’s easy.  It’s easy to discuss, easy to understand, and if we just put more time and conversation into it, easy to change.

Or so we think, and I go into more detail here.

In many cases though, we’re looking over what’s important.  Why was that story just one sentence with little detail?  Did we truly invest the right amount of time discussing what was involved keeping in mind opportunity cost?  Why didn’t we consistently jot down what done looks like as we’re discussing the work?  If we are writing down our done, why aren’t we holding ourselves to it instead of consistently violating yagni?  I guess my point here is this.

It’s easy to change a number; it’s hard to change a system.

Wow.  1,200 words today.  For those who read my posts, you’ll know that I typically stick to 500-700.  So why the change?  Simple.  Moving beats stationary. I thought it was time to stretch myself and try something new.  After all, who would I be if I didn’t enact my own advice?  Well, I suppose that’s not entirely the reason. After I finish here, I intend to hit the gym, and at the moment, I’m doing all I can to procrastinate.

Discipline is hard.  It reminds me of something my grandmother taught me as a child.

Anything worth having is worth working for.

Special thanks to a host of people who inspired this post:

  • To colleagues like Chris Peterson and Chad Lake for disagreement and debate surrounding some of these ideas.
  • To LinkedIn for allowing me to sit on on an eye-opening conversation between Ried Hoffman and Dan Pink.
  • To Harald Kreher for a timely comment that helped me articulate leadership in words that had alluded me for years.
  • To an outstanding team who saw me fail miserably the first time I attempted to articulate the relationship between agility and discipline.

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6 thoughts on “The Relationship Between Agility and Discipline”

  1. Hi Tanner

    Nice write up. Still wondering though what discipline is in your view (besides hard)? Would it have any relation with integrity? Which in Brené Brown’s words is: “You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.” From everything you’ve written here I get the idea that you see discipline as “choosing what is important (effective) over what is fun, fast, or easy.”

    Something else: you may have heard the ‘no’ quote from Esther Derby, but I don’t think it’s originally hers. Certainly, William Ury has used similar words in his books on negotiation, for example “The Power of a Positive No” and probably his earlier books as well. It’s been around for some time – if perhaps in different wording. Just google the phrase and it brings up quite some hits, none of them Esther’s. I guess its one of those age old wisdoms that gets repeated over and over and over and ascribed to many people because nobody can remember the original 🙂

    Esther’s or not, it remains very true. I usually put it like: “You need to say ‘no’ to make your ‘yes’s count more,” or “Your ‘no’s empower your ‘yes’s.”

    Please keep writing. The longer essays read fine, even if they are a way for you to procrastinate on going to the gym 😀

    Kind regards, Marjan

    1. Let’s start with the easy stuff. First, thank you. This experiment with a longer post was an interesting one. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll keep doing it, but I definitely intend to keep writing.

      What’s discipline’s relationship to integrity? I’d say integrity is an integral part of discipline. Like a commanding officer of mine taught me years ago, integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you. It can only be given away. In order to foster trust and transparency, you must be honest with others and especially with yourself.

      As far as Esther’s quote, I didn’t realize it had a different origin. Then again, I’ve probably misattributed a number of quotes I know to the wrong person. I know as much because from time to time, I’ll try to chase down the origins and find I misunderstood. Thus, the journey of knowledge continues, right?

      Now to the hard stuff. Defining discipline is hard, which is why I approached it from a perspective of values:

      * Moving beats stationary
      * Opportunity beats ad hoc
      * Double beats single
      * Important beats easy

      Now that I’m forced to define it, I realize it’s like agility. You know it when you see it. Defining what it isn’t is usually easier than defining what it is. It’s never accepting good enough as good enough. It’s accepting a few sleepless nights facing the realities of your own shortcomings over sleeping soundly in ignorance. It’s sometimes painful, mostly pleasant, always present. As the Japanese proverb says, “fall down seven times, get up eight.” It’s both a gift and a curse. Some are born with it. Others learn it through upbringing. Others more are indoctrinated in it. (Boot camp comes to mind.)

      Hmmmm …. I still don’t feel I’m doing it justice.

  2. As always a wonderful read! I always say that Scrum gives us nothing but discipline but then Scrum is not Agile and I’m sure that either Agile or Scrum, whichever came first, is offering us the best way be more innovative and constantly focus on delivering Value.

    1. Thanks, Aamir. And I saw your message. I intend to stop by and have a look before today ends. I still remember publishing my first article. It was both exciting and frightening.

  3. Philippe Bourgeon

    Nice one. Indeed in the software development field where come from this agility buzzword nowadays, people’s discipline make the difference between an amateur and a professional. The funny part is that Agile Manifesto was not written by a bunch of lazy geeks as some people could think neither against authority and discipline but to foster smart leadership at any level that fit well with the relationship you made with the battlefield. I read indeed that Napoleon (I am French) success was because of shortener communication lines and self directed units. He took time for the opponents to inspect and adapt but they did and fight back against this strategy. One thought just came to my mind, this is not because some organisation succeeded to implement agility that they will take over their opponents, they need to continously learn not to copy or follow but to lead indefinitely.

    1. Agreed. We’re often busy putting labels on things. For example, this thing is agile; this thing is not. I appreciate that labeling helps to enrich conversation by crafting a short hand. Still, such labels should be used to communicate, not to alienate.

      For example, your last sentence immediately brought Toyota to mind. However, what comes to mind for me (continuous improvement, lean, systems think, growing leaders through katas, etc) could be different than another (hybrid cars).

      Short hand is both useful and dangerous.

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