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3 Agile Disconnects We Need to Address

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Categories: Agile

By Lynda Bourne

The never-ending debate between agile and waterfall seems to be fuelled by different groups of people talking about completely different concepts with little understanding of other’s perspectives. From my viewpoint, some of the key disconnects are:

Agile vs. Agility: In the modern VUCA[1] environment, agility is important. But organizational agility is not the same as the organization choosing to use an agile project delivery process.

Organizational agility is constrained by the nature of the organization and its assets. A major mining company cannot suddenly decide to stop mining iron ore and focus on rare earths; is has billions invested in its existing mines, and new mines take many years to bring on-line. It can refocus investments “immediately,”, but the results take decades to be fully realized?and suddenly deciding to reverse the decision in a few years’ time will waste millions. Adaptability is important, but decisions have to be nuanced.

Conversely, a small consulting business whose main asset is its people can decide to shift focus on an almost daily basis to keep up with fast moving trends?think of applying AI in almost any sphere.

However, any type of organization can choose to use an agile methodology to help deliver those projects that benefit from an inherent flexibility in working.

Agile vs. Projects: Agile methods are not exclusive to projects, and not all projects benefit from agile.

Agile methods such as Kanban and Scrum can be used for operational maintenance (particularly of software) without the overhead of project management. The maintenance team use its preferred method to prioritize the repair and upgrading of the operational system and keep track of the backlog. New requests are added to the backlog, prioritized, and completed in a stable business-as-usual function.

Where using a project approach to undertaking a defined scope of work is desirable, some projects are suitable for the use of agile methods, others are not. Most “soft” projects creating an intangible product such as software will benefit from an agile approach to development. But heavy engineering projects where safety and structural considerations are paramount need a fully planned and disciplined approach to avoid disaster.

There is a continuum from projects that are suited to agile through to those where a tightly controlled planned approach is essential. Deciding on how to best manage projects along the spectrum is as much a cultural decision as a technical one.

Non-Agile Projects vs. Waterfall: Agile advocates continue to try to divide the world into “agile = good”, “waterfall = bad”. I discussed this issue in my post “The Problem with Waterfall, Agile & ‘Other.’

The simple fact is very few software projects use waterfall; the concept was promulgated by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1988 for software development and abandoned in 1994, but some organizations have hung onto the perception of “control” for various reasons. However, outside of the software industry, no one uses waterfall.

Contrary to the view of most agile advocates, the concept of change as defined in the Agile Manifesto and change in almost all other projects is based on the same premise. From the Manifesto’s second principle: Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. Change that destroys customer value is no more welcome in an agile project as any other.

Every contract for the delivery of a project to a client I’ve seen in the last 50 years has included clauses for the management of change. What varies is the cost of implementing the change. If you have delivered 15 out of 20 software modules and the client asks for five more, there will be time and cost implications based on the 25% increase in scope. If you have built 15 stories in a 20-story high-rise building and the client demands an additional five stories be added, the only option is to demolish everything, install stronger foundations and start again. But if the client decides to change the building color scheme from pale grey to pale blue before the paint is ordered, the cost of the change will be minimal. Regardless of the project delivery approach, change is only beneficial if it creates additional value.

Where the Agile Manifesto is of value across all project type is in its focus on relationships, people, and communication. These concepts are becoming more important in all industries and across all project types.

We need to move on from the “agile/waterfall” debate and recognize:

  1. An appropriate level of organizational agility is essential in the modern VUCA world.
  2. Agile project delivery methods have benefit in the right situations; they are not a silver bullet to solve all project delivery challenges.
  3. Waterfall is not a synonym for bad project management; no one uses waterfall, but there are plenty of examples of bad project management around.
  4. Good project management focuses on relationships, communication, and people by motivating the right people and using the best approaches to deliver value to the project client. But the best approach depends on the nature of the project deliverable.

What do you think?

[1] VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: February 16, 2024 06:15 PM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Fabian Crosa
Community Champion
Project Manager | PMO Specialist | PMP | Scrum Master | Trainning Corporativo| Universid Catolica del uruguay Montevideo, Montevideo, Uruguay
The Agile vs Waterfall Debate: A False Dichotomy
The debate over agile vs waterfall methodologies is a false dichotomy. The best way to manage a project depends on the nature of the project, the organizational context, and the team culture.

Organizational Agility:

The ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
Essential in today's VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
Not the same as using agile project delivery methods.
Agile Methods:

Useful for delivering projects in changing environments.
Based on incremental value delivery, collaboration, and adaptation.
Not a magic bullet for all project delivery challenges.
Waterfall Method:

Not synonymous with poor project management.
Suitable for projects with well-defined requirements.
Flexibility and adaptability are still important.

Choose the right approach for the project at hand.
Focus on relationships, communication, and people.
Additional Questions:

How well-defined are the project requirements?

Are the requirements likely to change during the project?

What is the team culture?

How important is speed of delivery to the client?

Answering these questions helps stakeholders make an informed decision about the most appropriate project management approach.

Mazin Al Mahdi Consultants| Saudi Diyar Consultants Madinah / Dhu Al Hulayfah, 03, Saudi Arabia
Being adaptable and quick to adjust is what it means to be an Agile organization. These qualities are critical for project management success and client satisfaction. Knowing this helps us succeed, much like knowing when to use different tools for different jobs.

Thank you

Kwiyuh Michael Wepngong Financial Management Specialist | US Peace Corps / Cameroon Yaounde, Centre, Cameroon
Thanks for this

Eduin Fernando Valdes Alvarado Project Manager| F y F Fabricamos Futuro Villavicencio, Meta, Colombia
Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

Aaron Porter IT Project Manager| Blade HQ Pleasant Grove, Ut, USA
I completely agree that 'We need to move on from the “agile/waterfall” debate.'

I don't have a problem with honest, healthy debate, but I've come across both pro- and anti-agile people who are or act polarized on the issue. I could speculate why, but that's not important for this response. They sometimes remind me of Maslow's "law of the instrument", when in reality, there's little reason for debate. As project managers, we should understand the approaches to producing deliverables well enough to be able to help determine the approach that will best fit our circumstances.

Granted, gaining this knowledge and experience takes time. What shouldn't take a lot of time or experience, but seems to, is gaining the realization that changing project management/product release management approaches doesn't magically solve organizational problems. I bring this up because organizational problems are, in my experience, often the source of the issue(s) that people have with a given approach, and when they don't deal with those problems when they change their approach they blame failure on the new approach, not the organizational issues. In some cases, changing the approach may not have been necessary, or the best choice, if the organizational problems had been addressed first.

Kwiyuh Michael Wepngong Financial Management Specialist | US Peace Corps / Cameroon Yaounde, Centre, Cameroon
Thanks for this

Asif Sayyad Melbourne, Australia
Great article on emerging debate on agile and waterfall. It surely as always excites PM world :) For some reason waterfall is considered as bad and/or non-agile which is nicely covered in the article and comments which compliments it well.

Asif Sayyad Melbourne, Australia
Great article on emerging debate on agile and waterfall. It surely as always excites PM world :) For some reason waterfall is considered as bad and/or non-agile which is nicely covered in the article and comments which complements it well.

Xinsen Liao Shanghai, SH, China
Thanks for this

Tiago Lourenco MSc, PMP Candidate Project Manager| High Profile Magazine (12-month contract) London, Eng, United Kingdom
Agile means flexibility and adaptability. It can be used not only in projects, but many areas in our lives. Nonetheless, Waterfall can be used and has its own space in PM. Both should not be compared, but utilised in a Hybrid approach depending on the project at hand.

Lynda Bourne Director, Professional Development| Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd South Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Tiago, If actually read on this topic you will find 'Waterfall' has nothing to do with project management, it was a short lived software development methodology from the 1970s. A fully documented history is at

Reshma Rizvi Scientific Project Manager| University Of Saskatchewn Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

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