The conversation with Scott Ambler, co-creator of Disciplined Agile (DA), driven by Weronika Makać and Jan Orłowski
At the end of July 2022, you officially left the role of Vice President and Chief Scientist of Disciplined Agile at the Project Management Institute. Can you explain to us why you and Mark made this decision?
We started on August 1, 2019, when PMI purchased our organization. Contrary to popular belief, there was no agreement in our contract to stay for these three years, only for a minimum of 90 days. 3 years is a lot of time and we stayed that time because we believe in the PMI mission and a lot of good things happened here. Personally, it was also difficult to leave any future decisions about Disciplined Agile to the PMI. However, we feel the time has come. We are still full supporters of DA and PMI, and look forward to PMI taking it to the next stage.
So how can you be introduced now? What are your plans for the future?
I am back to being the chief of my own company – The Ambysoft. My goal has always been to help organizations improve the way they work and their approaches to what they are doing. I will focus again on agile data and agile modeling because this is really where my heart is. There are some great ideas which DA has adopted from both of these areas. So I am leaving PMI, but I am not leaving the city. We have a great future. But first, I will definitely take some time off in the next few months as I need to recharge my batteries.
In one of the interviews you mentioned that Mark Lines was your business partner when you worked in IBM. Could you tell us how it has happened that at the end you both are co-creators of Disciplined Agile?
Mark and I have known each other for a long time. We both live in Canada. Even though he’s about a four-hour flight from me. I was at IBM for six years, I was the chief methodologist for IT and my team was working with various customer organizations such as Mark company. We were working back and forth and we ended up, so he was delivering training materials from that we were producing would be about exponential delivery at the time and were working very closely together, helping customers to succeed. And we decided in 2010 to co-write a book about DA, which then came out in 2012, almost two years later to the date. Then I left IBM. At that point, we formed what became the Disciplined Agile Consortium, which then eventually got purchased by PMI. We’ve worked together for a long, long time. I highly suspect we’ll be working together again in the future. Neither of us have an intention to build another company. But certainly, you know, if there’s an opportunity and going to be throwing business this way, I’m sure he’ll do the same. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to get on the same customer engagement again at some point.
How much truth is in the sentence that you are like the famous Apple pair: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs? You’re like Wozniak and Mark brings the strategy view like Steve Jobs?
I don’t know how well you know each of them. Steve Wozniak is a phenomenally generous and decent, wonderful person. Steve Jobs, not so much, but certainly a genius. He was one of the original Atari employees. Back to us, Mark and I are really good friends and we meet together with our families.
So certainly Mark and his wife Louise ran this financial side but Mark took part also in the field of working with customers. He focused more on executive coaching and strategy organization. Where I was diving more in technology stuff. Plus I’ve got a very deep data and modeling background. We work together and also focus on our strengths, that’s the best way of working.
Scott, on your website in the education section, next to the university, you put “Life” in the first place. What are your three most important life lessons?
First of all, the focus on the family should always come first. I learned a lot from basic life events like getting married, which changed my life. Adopting my daughter changed my life a lot and having kids is just a fantastic thing. Overall, being responsible for someone, beyond yourself, is obviously critical.
The second such thing is choosing to be a speaker, which opened many doors for me. One of the great things about conferences is that you can hang out with really smart people, both speakers and attendees, and it is a great way to get challenged and learn. I think developing communication skills is absolutely crucial to any success. You must be able to communicate. It does not matter how smart you are if you cannot pass your ideas on to other people.
The third most important thing is ‘learning mindset’. Learning how to do something worthwhile now is a short term thing to put your foot in the door, as it will likely be gone in ten years. Learning to learn is a long-term thing. However, it is not only knowing how to learn, but also knowing what to learn and loving learning. At the beginning of my career, I was lucky to get the best advice that still stuck with me. Back then, I was a tech nerd who read all those tech magazines. My mentor told me to read widely to broaden my horizons. So I started reading things like Fortune, The Economist, Scientific American, and just about anything that is not software development. And I still do it today. One of the things I did last week was ordering a large pile of books that I want to read in the next month or two. And these are just completely random topics, nothing really related to work. It just sounds interesting, so my lesson is to learn and read widely.
You are very busy. Conferences, trainings, meetings. That’s a lot. Do you have any daily routine which keeps you disciplined?
Now it’s a lot easier because I’ve been working from home. I used to be on a trip for a long time, so that was brutal. I’m a morning person, so I tend to wake up around 5.30 am or six and I go to my home office for a couple of hours. Then I try to get on when the weather’s good, I go cycling or kayaking, at least for an hour. Then I mean actually every day I used to take my daughter to school when she was younger, nowadays, she’s older and I’m not cool enough to be seen in public with her.
I have reasonably good control over my mornings, just because I am a morning person. But after that it is totally free for all.
For many people, the pandemic was a very big challenge in terms of the need to change work habits as well as mental resilience. Could you please tell us how you were doing during this time? Has the pandemic affected the way you work?
I have been working from home for a couple of decades, so nothing that didn’t really change for me other than I didn’t travel. I used to spend about half my time on the road going to conferences and to organizations to give talks. From the pandemic I am doing it online.
What we did before COVID we got together every couple of months for mindstorming, modeling, planning and sharing new ideas. After that we would go back to our homes and work from there and keep on touch regularly. I think that’s the future of intellectual work but of course some office work cannot be done that way.
In many interviews you said that the best advice for a distributed agile team is “Don’t do distributed development!” It is also confirmed in your surveys1, however the last data is from 2018, so before pandemic. Do you still confirm this advice?
This advice was given when most people did not understand how to work remotely and did not have the good equipment. If I were to rewrite that study, I would expect a still collocated team, working on a common thing to be more effective. The goal of their cooperation would be to find themselves to properly answer the questions, assuming they are not catching COVID from each other. However, the gap would narrow a lot because we learned to work remotely, we have the right mindset and equipment.
I assume you would disagree with Elon Musk’s decision that 100% of employees have to come back to work in the office or else they will lose their jobs?
Yes, that is a phenomenally stupid strategy. It is a great way to lose good people. If I was told to go to the office for whatever work I have done in the past 30 years and that I have to show up every day, I would have quit. And I do not care how much I was getting paid, I would go look for a better job. And that is what people do. I think working from the office is not an option anymore.
Companies that order people to return to the office should answer the question of what is the reason. Is that an excuse for your office because they spent so much money on their office space because they had to do it and now they have this sunken cost? Well, it’s just a stupid decision.
At the same time, almost 90% of people prefer flexible work with more days working from home2, so it looks like there is no way back. Do you have some recommendations or maybe DA has it to increase efficiency and effectiveness of distributed team?
There are many techniques to support this. I have been keeping an eye on this remote working stuff for a long time. I think these companies that are trying to force their people back to the office are making a very serious mistake. Let’s look at the agile principle. The key decision is to let your teams make decisions for themselves.
I believe in a hybrid work environment. Certainly there are some jobs where you need to be physically there and there are a lot of jobs where you don’t. Tell your teams, your adults “you can figure it out”. If your team needs to come in to do planning, modeling or brainstorming, great. Provide them necessary facilities and resources.
I think this is a serious question for the organization. You hired good, responsible people. Why can’t you let them act like adults? Why can’t you let them make decisions? What went wrong in your organization that you have to tell them what to do? I would solve this problem which is more than likely that senior management is looking in the mirror and really asking themselves, what are they if they cannot keep an eye on their employees? What are they doing if they are not in a fancy business tower?
The idea of Disciplined Agile is clearly developing in the IT environment, but there is no such momentum in other industries. Do you see any serious obstacles in spreading the DA idea in other industries?
Surely DA came out in the IT and software development space, but we’ve been applying it in more than just that over the years. We’ve been actively working on cleaning up the language and making it clear that it’s not just about it. So if you look at our training, materials and other documents, we purposely include non-native examples and we almost always lead with them now. Some of our stuff has almost nothing to do with software development. Actually, I believe that the only time the software people get brought in is because they’re part of the problem and we need to figure out better ways of working with them. So everything else is all focused on non software stuff. So agile is definitely being applied outside the software space. Having said that, though, the vast majority of the advice and the writings are around software. The vast majority of the coaches are focused on software teams and they really seem to struggle when they have to work with the finance team or the procurement team because they don’t know the domain. They might be a coach that came out of software or at least had been working in software for a while. And they don’t really understand how to speak to these finance people who have a different way of looking at things and different set of priorities. I think this decade will be the decade of the agile community figuring out and actively working on getting things out of software. That was certainly a theme at the agile conference in Nashville last week [July 2022]. That was certainly a big thing.
Last but not least, how do you see the future of DA? Is there any plan for the further development?
There is a good plan and you have got to wait another month or two until PMI shares the new vision.
Scott is a consulting methodologist helping people and teams to improve their ways of working (WoW) and their ways of thinking (WoT). In particular, his focus is on helping people to apply Agile Data and Agile Modeling strategies. He is also a board member of several organizations and have written several books, articles, and white papers. He co-created with Mark Lines the Disciplined Agile (DA), led the development of both the Agile Modeling and Agile Data methods. He is a speaker at a wide variety of conferences world wide and is often asked to deliver conference keynote speeches as well as give internal presentationsat organizations. He tweets his thoughts and observations about software development and writes columns and/or articles for several publications. His hobbies include writing, cycling, and Tai Chi and he has several professional interests as well. He is a Disciplined Agile Fellow.
Zawodowo zajmuje się wdrożeniami w branży automotive. W PMI PC wspiera społeczność Disciplined Agile m.in. w tematach biznesowych oraz pełni rolę PMI PC Liason for PMI EF. Z wykształcenia inżynier, absolwent studiów podyplomowych Zarządzania Projektami na SGH, a już niedługo doktorant na Politechnice Śląskiej. Prywatnie entuzjasta nowych technologii, domowego piwa, zakochany w podróżach, tych dłuższych jak i krótszych.
Zawodowo inżynier procesu oraz Scrum Master z pasją do zarządzania projektami. Entuzjastka idei nauki przez całe życie, ciągłego doskonalenia oraz Managementu 3.0. Lubiąca działać w słusznej sprawie oraz inspirować do tego innych. Wolontariuszka PMI Poland Chapter, od początku związana z projektem Disciplined Agile w Polsce. Chętnie podejmuje nowe wyzwania, kreatywnie rozwiązując problemy z dbałością o szczegóły. W wolnym czasie chętnie gotuje i poznaje nieznane