Agile or Waterfall? How to successfully manage mixed methodologies

Agile vs. Waterfall project management

There is a battle going on in the project management ranks: Agile vs. Waterfall. Agile loyalists see the benefit of empowering individuals and teams in a bottom-up approach that produces a faster, more responsive way of working. Meanwhile, traditionalists prefer a top-down Waterfall approach that neatly outlines all the steps in the project and defines the scope, budget, and schedule upfront—erasing risk and uncertainty. Which is the better way?

The truth is, organisations with successful development cycles appear to employ a hybrid approach, taking a little bit from each methodology. Even Amazon, an Agile powerhouse, could not have built its core web services product without some top-down dictation of standards.

The real difficulty for organisations therefore, lies not in choosing one methodology over the other, but in successfully mixing methodologies. Whether your organisation is already juggling multiple methodologies or is considering adding Agile into the project management mix, here are some tips on how to hybridise without sacrificing the visibility and productivity you need.

1. Transition Slowly

The biggest issue organisations face in adopting or expanding Agile is the cultural transition that is required. Change is always difficult, and moving from a top-down culture of command and control to a bottom-up approach where workers self-organise and self-prioritise is even more so. It's a cultural transition that many people in an organisation feel is disruptive and too much of a challenge to the established culture.

To make the transition smoother and improve adoption, slow down changing the processes. One way to do this is to "Agile-fall." Coined by eBay's Jon Bach, "Agile-fall" is the process of applying Agile practices in Waterfall-like steps. For example, teams working in sprints or iterations can still structure these in measured steps:

  • Sprint 1: Gather requirements.
  • Sprint 2: Design your tests.
  • Sprint 3: Run those tests.
  • Sprint 4: Fix bugs.
  • Sprint 5: Regress those bugs.

Another way is to translate key metrics, such as the scope, budget, and schedule within a Waterfall framework that external stakeholders and non-Agile teams can better understand.

In addition, developing a culture of respect and appreciation for both methodologies within the organisation is important. Acknowledge what works well with Waterfall and when it is most appropriate to use. Likewise, define upfront what you are trying to accomplish with Agile so everyone can understand the benefit.

This extra effort will build trust; make people more open and resilient to trying new methods to change what is not working; increase buy-in from management and individual team members; and ensure that everyone is on the same page, as they try to accomplish the same goals.

2. Provide Professional Training

Agile is complex, with dozens of different aspects and processes. One of the biggest strategic mistakes organisations make is not getting professional training at the start.

"Sending people to (at least) Scrum training, bringing in advisement consultants for the first few projects and then having a plan for moving it all out systematically—that's where people really find the business value in Agile," says Barbee Davis, author of Agile Practices for Waterfall Projects.

In particular, it is crucial that middle management participates in training. "Middle management really holds the keys to the success of Agile adoption. They create all of the procedures and policies. If middle is not on board, transformation will be shunned," says Dean Leffingwell and creator of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

When middle management is properly trained, not only do they understand the value of Agile for themselves, they can be influential in mentoring the team and in demonstrating the value of Agile to the leadership.

3. Allow Teams to Communicate Across Methodologies

In many organisations, Agile teams often become sealed off from the rest of the organisation. They work in a kind of a bubble, not interfacing much with other teams or departments. However, communication and collaboration are two of the most critical elements of an effective mixed-methodology enterprise.