It is hard to argue against being agile and equally hard to distain having discipline. The challenge is finding the right mix of agility and discipline. Many organizations have made great strides in productivity, predictability, quality, and cost using CMM-based process improvement—an approach that fosters disciplined processes. I have helped dozens of organizations make those strides using the software CMM, systems engineering CMM, and most recently, the integrated CMM. When properly applied, CMM-based process improvement works well. Of course, I have also seen organizations use the CMM to create stifling processes. Any tool can be misused.

For the past six years, I have worked at the Federal Aviation Administration—the last four as Deputy Chief Information Officer. Billions of dollars are invested annually to safely move 700,000,000 passengers throughout U.S. airspace. The systems that manage air traffic share several characteristics that drive the FAA to disciplined execution of its development processes. Those systems require very high assurance and long lead times dictated by massive capital investment by government, airlines, manufacturers, and airports. System requirements are constrained by international agreements that ensure air traffic control works uniformly around the world. Air traffic control systems must be fair to all parties and must be installed while people are seven miles in the air. Careful long-range planning, stable requirements and architecture, and detailed documentation are essential to implementing and deploying such systems.

Nevertheless, processes for building air traffic systems can and do support aspects of agility. Ten years ago, air traffic control systems were built with very stilted processes. Today, spiral development, incremental development, and incremental deployment are common. Lighter-weight processes are used early in the lifecycle to prototype systems, refine requirements, and evolve architectures. Stakeholders are involved early and often to ensure requirements are valid and human interfaces are effective. I expect the FAA to continue to probe where more agile processes can reduce cost and speed deployment, while recognizing the demanding environment in which these systems must operate.

Balancing agility and discipline is essential in any sizable project. The authors have done a commendable job of identifying five critical factors—personnel, criticality, size, culture, and dynamism—for creating the right balance of flexibility and structure. Their thoughtful analysis will help developers who must sort through the agile-disciplined debate, giving them guidance to create the right mix for their projects.