Confessions of a Waterfall project manager turned (sort of) Agilist

//Confessions of a Waterfall project manager turned (sort of) Agilist

Confessions of a Waterfall project manager turned (sort of) Agilist

I’ve been a project manager for about 25 years and an independent consultant (and instructor) in same for about 15 years. For the great preponderance of that time I’ve been a waterfall guy, largely because that was pretty much the only option I had. (For the uninitiated, it’s called waterfall because it’s a sequential, linear process with phases that cascade forward like a waterfall.)

In 2001, the Agile manifesto was created providing the world with a different approach to managing projects. So now instead of planning, planning, planning and then (hopefully) delivering what stakeholders expected, it defined an approach that worked in shorter bursts with much more day-to-day stakeholder involvement and (revolutionary!) self-organizing teams.

I was slow to jump on this particular train. Oh, I read about it and got familiar with it. But while that train started rolling out of the station, I was still pretty much involved in waterfall, largely because my clients were familiar with it and, frankly, so was I.

In early 2013, I decided I’d better see what all the fuss was about and got certified as a Scrum Master. I liked it, liked what I saw about the approach and wanted to use it as soon as feasible. Given that I had a heavy teaching and consulting schedule, it wasn’t possible to adopt any of those techniques right away.

Gradually I got involved in Scrum and I found that in the organizations I was consulting to, there were varying levels of adoption from zero to, well, not 100% but maybe 60 – 70%. (I would routinely ask my students – all of whom were PM’s – how many were using Agile. Surprisingly, out of a typical 15-person class, it might be 3 or 4 people.)

So what do I think of Scrum now that I’ve been using it for about 18 months? Well, for one thing I like daily standups.) I was working at a financial institution that You Would Know and we had to drag the business kicking and screaming to daily Scrums. (Not really, but you know what I mean.) During retrospectives they admitted that they came to the meetings reluctantly but quickly saw the value of interfacing with (in this case) engineering.

I also like the concept of sprints though I’m not certain that everyone on the team agreed with that nor am I sure that of the three places I worked, Agile was completely well-understood or its precepts as well-followed as they might be. I witnessed quite a bit of “making-it-up-as-we-go-along.” In the last place I worked, I (weirdly ,because I had so little hands-on compared to the average agilist) became the expert!

I was concerned that being a Scrum Master wouldn’t be as engaging as being a PM because it’s more of a facilitator/coach role. You can’t really compare them as they are apples and oranges (chalk and cheese as the Brits say) but yea, I didn’t find it as fulfilling or as challenging as being a PM. Maybe if I were running multiple Scrums or doing Agile at scale.

It’s not even the case that anyone’s saying PM’s should become Scrum Masters. But if the world were to suddenly shift tomorrow to Scrum, well then there’s a whole hell of a lot of PM’s who would (one supposes) have to shift into Agile and find a role. (There is no project manager defined in Agile. Teams are self-organizing.)

I like using Agile but I’m finding in the organizations I consult to that there are agilists over here, waterfall people over there and some people (like me) trying to use the best of both worlds. I think the world of project management is still struggling to figure out how Agile fits in. (Witness PMI’s PMBOK Sixth Edition now contains information on Agile.)

While I’m thinking about it, I’d like to address both the waterfall and agilists in this way: Waterfall people – Agile is NOT only for software. It can be used for other things – sales, recruiting, rockets to the moon. It is not “the latest thing,” a “fad,” nor is it going away. It is real and if you don’t think it is, check out the last 18,000 updates to your phone. (Ok, software. I get it. But still.) You’re much better off just going with the flow and figuring out how Agile fits into your world.

Waterfall-based PMO’s – don’t ignore Agile. You can – and should – hire agilists and Agile coaches. PMO’s have short shelf lives anyway. They’re like a shark – they need to keep moving forward or they die. Change is a good thing. Just ask Digital Equipment, Wang Laboratories, Prime Computers. Oh wait. They’re all gone, killed by the PC revolution that they could not adjust to.

Agilists – stop acting like you invented project management. You did not. Pyramids, moon landing, etc. You have great ideas for keeping stakeholders involved so that when they ask us for, say, a sports car we don’t wind up – one year later – saying, “So how do you like your new toaster?”

And don’t tell us that “waterfall doesn’t work.” If that’s the case then every building in the world, every structure everywhere should start falling down right …. about…. now. That’s right. Construction has used waterfall for years. As has NASA. Have they had spectacular failures? Sure. But that can be laid just as easily to bad project management techniques as anything else.

One of the leading Scrum organizations has a counter on their web site showing “Scrum success rate over waterfall” with literally no attribution as to how they got this statistic. Am I supposed to accept that as an article of faith like the place in my old neighborhood that says “World’s best coffee?”

Bottom line – Agile is not going to take over the world tomorrow nor is waterfall going away. For my money the smart play is to use them both as tools in your toolkit, use them as approaches and then adopt the best of both. (That said, if you go all Agile, fine with me. Just go all-in and don’t do it half-baked.)

But hybrid is a reality. In fact, I’m working on a project right now. The tech lead has asked me to put together an MSProject schedule so he can see all the dependencies, risks, and resource-load it. And then he’s going to put it into Jira broken down into epics. So, there’s that.

By | 2018-10-31T13:11:54+00:00 October 31st, 2018|

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Principal JP Stewart Associates