As part of my 2020 Agile Certifications Challenge, I wanted to learn about and get certified in Disciplined Agile (DA) the decision toolkit that was recently purchased by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Some Background on Disciplined Agile
I wrote about about PMI’s Acquisition of DA back in 2019. At that time, I had a hard time wrapping my head around Disciplined Agile. Was it a framework? Scaling approach? Methodology? It was hard to say just by navigating the extensive website.
Many people think of it as a scaling framework and I would tend to agree. In fact in the 13th Annual State of Agile report from Collabnet VersionOne, it was the 5th most popular approach to scaling Agile (see below). Though I am not sure how valid this scaling question is in the report because the “Don’t Know” Approach took 2nd place and the Spotify Model was listed as the 6th most popular approach to scaling.
The authors call it a process decision toolkit, rather than a methodology or framework.
The Disciplined Agile (DA) process-decision toolkit provides straightforward guidance to help people, teams, and organizations to streamline their processes in a context-sensitive manner, providing a solid foundation for business agility. It does this by showing how the various activities such as Solution Delivery (software development), IT Operations, Enterprise Architecture, Portfolio Management, Security, Finance, Procurement and many others work together. DA also describes what these activities should address, provides a range of options for doing so, and describes the tradeoffs associated with each option.
Speaking of the authors, Scott Ambler and Mark Lines are the founders and thought leaders behind Disciplined Agile.
- Scott Ambler was an early adopter of object modeling and became an instructor on the Rational Unified Process (RUP). He joined IBM Rational as Chief Methodologist from 2006 to 2012. He is a prolific author having written or co-authored over 20 books on a wide range of topics.
- Mark Lines is the co-founder of Disciplined Agile. Like Scott, he was a RUP fan and worked at IBM during the acquisition of RUP. Mark left IBM in 2007 and cofounded UPMentors with two others before joining Scott at Scott Ambler and Associates which became Disciplined Agile.
The DA toolkit enables teams to choose and evolve the processes they follow or “way of working” (WoW) in DA lingo. Here are some of the elements of the toolkit:
- 7 DA Principles – Delight Customers, Be Awesome, Pragmatism, Context Counts, Choice is Good, Optimize Flow, and Enterprise Awareness.
- 5 Agile Values – The DA authors took the 4 original values of the Agile Manifesto, edited them and added a 5th. This is part of what they call the Disciplined Agile Manifesto.
- 17 Agile Principles – The DA authors took the 12 original principles behind the agile manifesto, edited them and added five more. This is also part of what they call the Disciplined Agile Manifesto.
- 7 Delivery Lifecycles (or Value Streams as they care called)
- 6 Disciplined Agile Certifications
- Lifecycles sometimes include Phases like Inception, Construction, and Transition (which remind me of waterfall phases)
- 6 Milestones Applicable to projects – Stakeholder Vision, Proven Architecture, Continued Viability, Sufficient Functionality, Production Ready, Delighted Stakeholder
- 22 Process Goals
- Process Blades – A concept that is not explained well either in the training or in the Choose Your Way of Working Book.
- 5 Primary Roles and 5 Supporting Roles
- Tools for Assessing Context
- Flow charts for Guided Continuous Improvement
- Lean Governance
- Pragmatic Agile
As I stated previously, DA represents a soup to nuts approach to agility and even more, it portends to provide everything you need not only for project delivery but for Dev Ops, IT and scaling across multiple teams or the entire organization. It is the agile equivalent of PMI’s PMBOK Guide. Which is probably why PMI Acquired them.
My Disciplined Agile Training Class Experience
I have vaguely known of Disciplined Agile for years. It wasn’t until 2019 when I had a brief discussion with Scott Ambler that I began to learn what it meant. I poked around the website and bought the Choose your Way of Working book. Just reading the book or navigating the website proved more frustrating for me than educational.
I didn’t really get it until I took the training which I think is a must if you want to understand DA. And even then, I would rate my understanding of Disciplined Agile as only Fair or Good after taking the two-day training class. So the class was valuable to me to understand the framework, though even after day 1 of the class I was still a little lost.
The actual course was named: 2-Day Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master (DALSM) Certification Prep Workshop. Which is an ironic name since DA doesn’t include a role for Scrum Master – more about that in a moment.
Day 1 consisted of the following topics
- Learning Objectives
- The DA Mindset
- Team Agility
- Value Streams
- Disciplined Agile Enterprise
- Disciplined Agile IT
- Disciplined Agile Dev Ops
- Lean Governance
Day 2 consisted of the following:
- Choose your Way of Working
- Pragmatic Agile
Like the website, I found the first day’s presentation of the course material as more of a blob than a structured presentation of the material. It was like we picked a random path through the DA body of knowledge and bumped into various topics. I did not find the organization of the class presented to me in a way that was digestible.
Eventually I got it. As we plowed through the material in class I felt a little lost and wished there were more signposts to help me determine where I was in the material and class. I found myself flipping back to the table of contents in the participant guide and finally created my own table of contents afterward so I could easily determine where we were. I wanted a map of DA with “you are here” on it. To me, that map would improve the delivery of the training.
Given that a common theme is “context is key” you would think they would have provided more context. I am experienced and consider myself a fast learner so I imagine this training would be tough for people new to agile.
I also noticed that the materials were in a state of flux.
- DA Flex has not been fully integrated
- PMI branding
- Renaming and adding things
- Process blades are mentioned and referenced but not defined
- In class we were presented with 5 DA values and on the website there are 4 which are different
It seems like as agile continues to evolve, the creators evolve DA to try to cover all the bases. Unlike the Scrum Guide which stays at a high-level and is relatively static, the DA materials are detailed and that makes them hard to keep up to date and aligned internally.
One positive about my training class is that they provided a hardcopy of the Choose Your WoW book. I had already purchased the Kindle version but the hard copy is better for flipping around to find the specific process goals.
Getting the Disciplined Agile Certifications
Though not the most important thing, I was keen to get my Disciplined Agile Certifications because of the 2020 certifications challenge. It seemed from what I had read that by taking this one course, I would be able to achieve 3 or 4 of the Disciplined Agile certifications.
- Disciplined Agilist (DA) – Attend a DA class and this one comes with it.
- Certified Disciplined Agilist (CDA) – Attend the DA class and pass the assessment to get this level.
- Certified Disciplined Agile Practitioner (CDAP) – First earn your CDA and then if you have your PMI-ACP (or 2 years of experience) then you can apply for your CDAP.
- Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master (DALSM) – Earn your CDA and get 2 years of experience in a lead role to be eligible to apply for your DALSM.
You can see the relationship among these 4 certifications and 2 more advanced certifications in the diagram below:
Taking the CDA Assessment
As noted above, I was able to obtain 4 certifications by taking one class and passing one assessment. That is good and bad I guess.
The Certified Disciplined Agilist (CDA) assessment was both challenging and different. Challenging in the sense that I felt that I really needed to know the material. And different in that the approach they use is different than the approaches used by other certifying bodies.
My training class was on a Thursday and Friday and then it took a few days after the course to hear back from DA about taking the assessment. I stressed a little because I was concerned about retaining knowledge and preferred to take the assessment as soon as possible. After a couple of business days passed, I did get the emails and was cleared to take the assessment for the CDA.
Don’t be confused if the you take is called “Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master (DALSM) Certification Prep” yet the certification exam is called Certified Disciplined Agilist (CDA). That and the fact that they don’t have a Scrum Master role in DA is part of the inconsistency you will encounter that can prove confusing.
Disciplined Agile bucked the trend of most of the agile community by using “team lead” instead Scrum Master. They don’t have the Scrum Master role in DA but they have a certification called Agile Lean Scrum Master. And the test you take is called Certified Disciplined Agilist. This is one of those inconsistent areas that I think PMI will clean up as part of the acquisition.
DA does provide a 10 question practice test which provides a glimpse into the actual exam. It would have been nice if there were more practice questions but 10 was better than none. There were questions on the practice test that I did not remember covering in class like Test First Development and Cost of Delay. My score on the practice was 70% and that is what you need to pass the real exam.
From DA: The Certified Disciplined Agilist test is a closed book exam with 50 questions. The test has a 60 minute time limit. Once started, you WON’T be able to pause the test. We recommend a reliable internet connection, not a public location. You will not be able to go back to previously answered questions. You must achieve 70% to pass the test.
Prior to diving in with the exam I reviewed my notes and skimmed the website materials.
Then, I had an hour while between meetings and sitting in a public location and I thought I would go for it. Which is not something I would recommend given the steps I still had to go through.
Getting to the exam site to take the test was kludgy. It felt low tech and not integrated.
First, you get an email with a code. There is an attachment to that email that has the address you need to navigate to take the test which is a different than the DA Website. You need both the attachment and the email.
Then you to the test website and you need to register. During registration you both your DA membership and PMI membership numbers. For me this meant I had to log in and look up my DA member number and find my PMI number.
The test itself is different than any of the other assessments I’ve taken. It is 50 questions in 60 minutes which is sufficient time if you know the material but insufficient if you don’t. I think this is by design to keep people from googling or looking things up. (SCRUMstudy uses proctors and webcams to achieve a similar result).
During the exam, the time remaining is counting down at the top of the screen. Which I found a little unnerving frankly. On the one hand it was good to know exactly how much time was left. On the other, it kept ticking away.
You can’t go back. There is no iterative test-taking where you go back and review your answers, you have to complete it in a single pass like a waterfall project. This works for me because I’d prefer to just stick with my original responses even if I am uncertain.
Without a doubt the questions were tough. Though a fair number were true and false with a 50/50 chance, even those were pretty difficult.
It seemed to me that the topics on the exam were not proportional to the coverage they got in class. For example, it seemed like there were a lot of questions on the exam about the Process Goals, the Process Blades and about the DA Principles.
And in a final shot at Scrum, there was at least one question about Scrum being recognized as an international standard. I don’t know the right answer but I think they want you to say no.
The exam took me about 35 minutes and I scored an 84%, so I was very happy about that. I didn’t want to invest more time in further studying and I certainly did not want to spend $150 for the retest (and study more).
My tip for the exam is to avoid last minute delays and frustration by getting the admin stuff out of the way before sitting down and starting the exam. Have at the ready your DA ID number and your PMI ID number, and then go ahead and create your login for the exam site.
There is an Edge
There is a common thread running through the DA materials, the class and even the exam about how much better DA is than Scrum or other frameworks. It is almost like they have a chip on their shoulder. In particular, they seem to have singled out Scrum for criticism which I found unnecessary and slightly offensive.
- They call Scrum language “weird” and outdated…OK maybe, but folks have gotten used to it since more than 70% of the world using Agile use the Scrum Framework
- There were some inaccurate statements made about Scrum like “if you don’t have dedicated teams, they won’t even train you”. I don’t think that is accurate – I think that both Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org trainers care more about your desire to learn (and whether your check is good) than sticking to a rigid application.
But it wasn’t just Scrum. The Agile Values and Principles written in 2001 are out of date, so the DA team revised them and added to them. Other frameworks are “prescriptive” and led by “purists”, while Disciplined Agile touts themselves as being “pragmatic”. Isn’t this how the holy wars persist?
The comments are unnecessary. If DA is better than sliced bread, why isn’t the uptake in the market higher? If all those other frameworks are so bad, why have you included them within the DA toolkit? So stop with the “us good, them bad” commentary.
Who Would Benefit Most from DA?
Ultimately I found the material and training from DA useful. I think it is most appropriate for people who have some hands-on experience with agile. I think that those with little experience will have a difficult time navigating the process goals, blades and really leveraging the recommended strategies.
DA does address a clear gap in the market of moving from single team agile or scrum to multiple teams or across the organization. I think it also helps with governance. This and backing from PMI may make it much more attractive to PMO leaders than Scrum which may be threatening to the PMO because of the lack of a PM role.
It is a little unwieldy though. There is the Choose Your Wow book but some of the diagrams like Lifecycles and Process Goal diagrams are too small to be useful. You have to jump around to find where you are and what choices are possible. No one could memorize all the techniques so you have to look them up. I found that in class I was frequently googling the website to get clarity on the materials presented.
To me this is a UX problem. I think the toolkit would be best use as augmented intelligence for agile practitioners. I would consider eliminating the website and the books and convert the information to an app which would guide practitioners to the choices and tradeoffs. You could even leverage Alexa or Siri or a chatbot to provide a voice front end and navigate through to the items you need to know.
Summary of the Disciplined Agile Certifications
I think the DA toolkit itself has some value and will be useful to agile practitioners. I think that it is comprehensive and could provide value especially for people relatively new to agile ways of working. PMO leaders in particular will benefit from the DA approach. I think the value is in providing breadth of coverage and as a reminder or checklist of things to be thinking about at various steps. It includes many good practices and guidance on where to apply them.
Like other areas of the toolkit, the certifications need to be refactored. One is more of a membership, one requires an exam, and then two more are either based on holding another PMI certification or having demonstrable experience. Some cleanup is expected.
The certifications are not very popular (yet) and unlikely to be something that recruiters or hiring managers look for. That could all change with PMI support and backing. Even without PMI’s help, the pursuit of the certifications, the training course and the understanding and accessibility of a decision framework may prove very helpful to aspiring agile practitioners.