Leadership Principles for Mastering Agility in a Disciplined Environment (Part 1)

Balancing the dynamics of discipline and agility is one of the greatest challenges in business management today. Faster response times are required, yet the need to follow procedure remains. In fact, agility requires discipline. All companies must be able to focus on agility to reduce time-to-market, as well as achieve innovative product breakthroughs. Due to extensive regulatory requirements to which many industries are bound, organizations must also rely on plan-driven methodologies, such as the more traditional waterfall approaches, to ensure specific requirements are met. The combination of a rapidly changing marketplace, constantly evolving technology, and business requisites press companies to respond faster than ever.

In the end, it’s all about being versatile and recognizing that you may need to take one approach today that is very different from the one you use tomorrow. Mastering agility in a disciplined environment requires the need to recognize the implications of going one way versus the other at the project, program and portfolio levels.

The Strategic Execution Framework – A Model for Decision-Making

Adapting the right tools and methodologies for each project can help companies in their overall strategic execution and their reconsideration of organizational structure, culture, and change management. Without a guiding set of principles to help PM leaders and their organizations with execution, however, fundamental organizational changes cannot occur easily.

The Strategic Execution Framework (SEF) (Exhibit 1), developed by IPS Learning and the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, is designed to help companies align their strategies to execution. The SEF is a powerful tool that PM leaders can apply to their decision-making processes to determine whether to be disciplined, agile or a blend of both.

Applying the SEF to decision-making helps identify areas of alignment and misalignment in the business, team, and strategy. The SEF helps guide the alignment of the whole organization for the successful execution of the effort. It consists of six domains that have been proven to help companies effectively determine, articulate, and execute their strategies.

Let’s take a look at the SEF within the context of whether your team, organization—or yourself—is best served by a disciplined, agile or blended combination of both approaches:   

Ideation – Know Who You Are, Why You Exist, and Where You’re Going

Having a strong ideation at the project and program level—as well as the organizational level—provides a clear definition of the work to come, allowing employees to understand the impact of their individual and group efforts. Ideation is made up of three key areas:

  • Purpose: Why are we here?
  • Identity: Who do we want/need to be?
  • Long-range intention: Where do we need to go in the future?
Exhibit 1: Strategic Execution Framework (SEF)

Ideation can be applied at the individual, project, program or portfolio levels. At the organizational level, ideation is set by the executive team and is designed to have long-term shelf life. As a PM leader, you need to deconstruct the organization’s ideation, its structure, culture and vision so you can rebuild your own ideation to support your project or program. Your ideation should serve the greater goals of the organization in a friendly, customer-oriented way.

At the individual level, the PM leader should determine how adaptable, flexible and responsive a project or program needs to be. Having the mindset to understand what you need and don’t need within the project or program will help set parameters as to how traditional or flexible the approach should be and how that should be incorporated into your ideation.

Nature – Align Your Strategy With the Larger Company’s Culture and Structure

Discovering and articulating the culture and structure improves alignment between the organization, the work, and the team, enabling its members to produce at their highest levels. The nature domain explores the following:

  • Culture: How we do things: collaborating, cultivating, controlling or competence-focused. Typically, organizations have a mix of these with one predominating. Do you have the right pieces and parts set up to support ideation?
  • Structure: There are a wide variety of organizational structures. Does the structure support flexibility, discipline or a combination of both? Structures vary across the organization and need to be consistent with culture and the adopted strategies.
  • Strategy: Strategy is the route we take to get from where we are to where we want to be and depends on how we want to organize ourselves (structure) and how we do things (culture).

Nature is the ecosystem of the organization. Different organizational structures allow for different organizational cultures to exist. If you have a traditional structure, you’re going to have a controlled, slow moving culture and structure. If you want to become more responsive and flexible, you have to change the structure first, which will change the way the organization thinks and eventually changes behavior.

Vision – The Translation of Long-Term Intention Into Short- and Medium-Term Goals, Metrics, and Strategies

A strong vision helps PM leadership define and measure its organizational contributions, allowing team members to align their work focus to outcomes and deepen their understanding of how their roles contribute to the organization.

While developing your vision, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a clear strategy, goals, and metrics?
  • Is the strategy disciplined or not?
  • Are the goals for the project, team, or culture aligned?
  • How are you being measured? Will the systems allow it?
  • Do you need different metrics for agile versus disciplined approaches?

Vision is the roadmap, not the total plan. Out of the many different ways you can approach a project or program, vision helps you shape your methodology and provides you with the best way to achieve your goals.

Engagement – Knowing the Right Project-Based Work Required to Execute the Organization’s Strategy

For the PM leader, it’s not about understanding your strategy. You first must understand your portfolio and where you’re investing your time and money. Engagement is about making sure your intended strategy and portfolio are aligned. Deciding how and where to invest in a portfolio of work is the heart of converting strategy into action.

  • Strategy: Strategy consists of knowing where we are, where we want to be, and the path to take to get there.
  • Portfolio: Every organization has a portfolio of project-based work (projects, programs, initiatives, and similar non-operations activities). Leaders must align the portfolio with goals based on strategy, i.e., connecting the dots. To maximize return on investment, leaders must make tough calls, set limits and learn when to say “no.”

Creating alignment in the engagement domain requires using selection criteria, relative weight between criteria, and scoring anchors to differentiate one set of project-based work from another. Without clarity around goals, metrics or strategy, an organization has no way to determine how to decide, so the process becomes a guessing game, a political battle, or is simply abdicated. The goal is to achieve portfolio management by design, not by default.

Engagement requires you to regularly revisit the portfolio or the scope of the program to ensure you are aligned throughout the project management process. Continuous reality checks will confirm that you have the right work in place to effectively execute the plan.

Synthesis – Executing Projects and Programs in Alignment With the Portfolio

Organizationally, synthesis is about how project-based work gets accomplished through methodologies, governance, and other processes so that it is aligned with your portfolio. Project management approaches span the spectrum from traditional waterfall to agile—making it critical that the approach chosen is consistent and aligned, particularly in regard to strategy, culture, structure, goals, and metrics.

Simply dictating a change without fully recognizing the implications will lead to a decrease rather than improvement in performance. Attention must also be paid to reconciling different approaches in organizations that are employing both traditional and agile practices.

Synthesis allows you to weigh the advantages of agility and discipline within your project and determine what makes the most sense, whether it be one over the other or a combination of both.

Transition – Moving the Results of Projects Into the Main Stream of the Operation

Transition occurs when you arrive at the end of a project and you deploy it. At this point, you have aligned the strategy to your portfolio, adopted the appropriate methodology (disciplined, flexible, etc.) and transitioned it to your day-to-day behavior.


Be sure to check out part 2!

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Tim Wasserman
Tim Wasserman is the chief learning officer for TwentyEighty Strategy Execution and the program director for the Stanford Advanced Project Management (SAPM) program. He is responsible for leading the strategy and content of all Strategy Execution learning solutions. Mr. Wasserman is an expert in the successful implementation of large-scale organizational behavior change, with more than 25 years of experience developing and implementing enterprise-wide initiatives for Fortune 500 companies. He has led design and implementation teams to improve execution capabilities for organizations including Cisco, Google, Medtronic, Nordstrom, Prudential, and Boeing. He has delivered workshops globally and is on the SAPM faculty delivering on campus at Stanford on the topics of organizational change and transformation and global team effectiveness.