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Flowing from Waterfall

Ingenuity | Collaboration | Insight

Flowing from Waterfall

Each time I drive my car onto a train in Folkestone UK and then off in Calais France, I remember the piece of software I wrote for the communications systems 25 years ago that helps make the Channel Tunnel work safely. Working on that project taught me the lesson of how considered planning, phased delivery, with careful integration and good training results in the valuable benefit: protecting people’s lives.

This “Waterfall” approach has served us well for over a Century. However, the rise of the Agile philosophy has been driven by demand for a more dynamic response to highly competitive markets, rapid advancements in technology and increasingly complexity of products and services.

As Agile has become more fashionable, Waterfall is often seen as out-dated and irrelevant. Is this right?

Projects are familiar friends

If we need to increase sales by adding new product features, or reduce operating costs through introducing a more efficient business system, a project is the tool we choose. When we consider the most successful projects we have worked on, the teamwork, challenges overcome and hard work often come to mind. But what really makes a really good project standout is its legacy – the consequences that were enabled.

Waterfall projects focus on stability: fixing cost, scope and schedule, with outputs at defined points which are planned to add value. For many situations, like constructing a building or across contractual frameworks this is highly desirable.

Agile projects progressively produce results and can adapt scope dynamically, for example features can be adjusted according to customer feedback. Often the valuable outcomes from these results are termed to “flow” (an expression inherited from Lean principles). Strong and fast flow is prized concept for a business which is fuelling the desirability of Business Agility: how businesses adapt.

In one sense Waterfall and Agile are different risk mitigation techniques for different circumstances. Waterfall aims to fix scope and assure cost and schedule, whilst Agile prioritises managing scope uncertainty and value creation.

Ultimately what matters is the value that comes from a project. And this is true regardless of whether the approach is Waterfall or Agile.

It’s the destination that counts most

We see that the purpose of a project has not changed and the benefits they enable are needed as much as ever, so how do we balance a polarised view of which approach to use and focus back on the fundamental purpose of a project – to enable benefits and the flow of value?

The answer to this lies in seeing Waterfall and Agile not as a binary choice, but as ends of a spectrum. Indeed, a blended or hybrid of Waterfall and Agile projects in an organisation can play to the strengths of both and enable a progressive change, especially as scale and complexity increases.

Particularly for Enterprises that count on Digital experience and technology, an Agile approach is increasingly relevant – the rise of the Digital natives like Google, Facebook and Amazon are proving this. The challenge for traditional organisations, with established waterfall project methodologies, is how to adapt efficiently.

Safely benefiting from Agile

Transitioning to benefit from Agile approaches is much more than simply re-training the IT team. Agile is often described as a philosophy that encompasses concepts like eliminating waste, increasing flow, empowering cross-functional teams and prioritising value.  So adopting Agile is more about a mindset shift: a culture change. Culture change takes time and conviction, especially across departments of an Enterprise, but there are plenty of great examples where this has been achieved (BP and BMW for example).

Rapid progress can be made if expectations are well managed and a considered transition adopted. Successful Agile transitions start with a clear vision and set of measures to determine progress, establishing a realistic and demonstrable set of goals. Agile promotes the idea of testing and learning and applying this to the transition is an effective accelerator of change.

Waterfall projects and Agile projects can successfully co-exist in an organisation when an appropriate governance model is used to measure the progress towards the goals. For example, Agile projects can deliver outcomes in Waterfall phases, with phase boundaries tightly controlled. Likewise, Waterfall projects can produce deliverables as part of Program Increments and managed as part of Scaled Agile frameworks, for example SAFe.

Increasing flow

The CIO of an established Financial organisation told me recently about their growing customer satisfaction issues. He said they consider Agile an attractive route to fix this but is concerned the barriers to change are very high. The blended transition approach resonated well. Twelve months later, I see the selective introduction of Agile and use of hybrid project types has successfully enabled the Enterprise to increase the rate of customer experience improvements.

Project management is as relevant as ever to enable enterprises to add value to customers, improve performance, reconfigure to meet market conditions and better serve citizens. The conversation is not about Waterfall vs Agile, but how to embrace the advantages of both to change an organisation’s ways of working to efficiently achieve business goals and serve customer expectations.



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