Servant leadership is one of the critical success factors in agile approaches to product development. The behaviors associated with servant leadership are not new, but they are very difficult to implement. One aspect of servant leadership is the ability to allow team members to choose their own work and get it done using their own approach. Many managers feel that letting a team “self-organize” or “self-manage” is pretty risky. As a manager, when I first read about the benefits of a “self-directing” team, it sounded like a great idea. But when I had to step back and let my team figure how to get things done on their own, it took great discipline.

We all know what it means to be skilled, but what is discipline?

Discipline means delaying gratification for some greater reward in the future. I often think of weight loss as an example of discipline: I sacrifice a piece of chocolate cake today so that a few days or months down the road I will lose a few pounds. Embarking on any exercise regime requires discipline, especially for those first few days when your rarely used muscles are screaming at you. You know that if you stay with it, there will be a payoff later in the future. Discipline requires us to work really hard today, tomorrow, and maybe for a long time without immediately seeing the benefits or payback of our work. In our fast-paced world of immediate gratification, discipline has lost its shine. Instead of working to lose weight, we want to take a weight loss pill that will do the job for us. Well, no one has discovered that magic pill or “silver bullet” yet. Not in weight loss and not in software development. Agile only works when the organization and its individuals are disciplined in its use.

For managers, discipline involves giving team members the time to learn the process and work through the learning curve. The first few sprints won’t produce lots of great features. Discipline requires continuous attention to employee development. You can’t just write a development plan and file it away until the next annual review. Proactively talk with your employees on a regular basis to see how they are doing and help with direction when they ask for it. And don’t be afraid to talk about discipline. If you see an employee cutting a corner to get to a quick finish, creating a low-quality product, talk to him or her about the value of getting it right the first time. Interview for, and reward, discipline, and let everyone know how important it is to you. Self-discipline is defined as the ability to motivate oneself in spite of a negative emotional state.

Qualities associated with self-discipline include willpower, hard work, and persistence. Discipline results in high-quality products and long-term success. It is difficult, but nothing worth doing is easy (my grandmother used to say that also!). Discipline requires you to do something you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it takes hard work to get things done right. Hard work pays off, and anything else is just second-rate.