Aim for Disciplined Agility in Your Association

Disciplined agility is an attribute associations need to co-opt from the world of software development and strive to run their organizations this way.

The instant a board member proposed disciplined agility as an attribute she wanted her association to have in a design thinking session last week I saw the power of this curious juxtaposition. I had no knowledge of the term's legacy. It simply sounded exactly right.

An hour or so chasing Google links and I discovered this is one of the defining tensions in software development for the past decade.  Do you strictly adhere to methods and processes and document everything from inception to implementation? Or do you design just enough in time to solve the immediate problem and learn and adapt as you go with your clients and their changing needs?

Associations can co-opt this attribute without resolving which approach is best when or what the right balance might be.  This is “both-and” thinking and discovering how to live in this tension would make most organizations more effective.

To practice discipline, we would have good methods and processes in place that take care of routine tasks.  We also would aim to learn and follow best practices. We would know the craft of association management well.  Another hallmark of discipline would be establishing good role clarity for boards, staff, committees and task forces.  Everyone understands the job we are expected to do and what authority and resources we have to do it. Good governance is discipline.

To practice agility, we would simplify our organizational structures and empower people to get to solutions quickly by the most expedient route.  We would not let processes and tools get between us and meaningful interactions with members and customers. We would learn from our experiences and adapt to changing conditions.  We would strive to innovate and delight members and customers in ways they have not yet requested.  Agile organizations practice foresight and anticipate member needs.

Both attributes help us be responsive: discipline fosters accountability; agility promotes improvisation.  Both satisfy the need for nonprofits to be good stewards: discipline strives for excellence without waste; agility closes the gap between the challenge you face and the resources you have.

Disciplined agility is a curious juxtaposition of two powerful attributes. I often remind leaders  it is just as important to know what should not change as it is to know what should. Practicing disciplined agility everyday might make it easier to discern the difference.