The War Zone - The place in every organization where agile meets waterfall

You’re leading an agile software delivery team in some capacity - maybe as a ScrumMaster, product leader or manager. Your team has worked hard to align with the Agile Manifesto and you're proud of their ability to build and ship software at regular intervals. You believe the business is better off as a result of your team’s ability to learn and adapt to changing market conditions faster than before. Unfortunately, your work becomes more and more challenging as the differences between agile and the status quo become apparent. The more agile your team gets, the more you rub the rest of the organization the wrong way.

For example, you resist when the product team asks you to commit to the annual roadmap because you value responding to change over following a plan. The sales team is not happy with how quickly your team pivots because they use the annual roadmap to close deals. The architects feel excluded because you believe that the best architectures emerge from self-organizing teams. Stakeholders are frustrated that milestones keep changing. Executives believe that your team is unable to meet commitments and demand more predictability.

You realize that you’re straddling the edge of two very different worlds, and to adapt, you begin to treat each world a little differently. Your vocabulary changes depending on your audience - “story points” and “spikes” for the engineers contend with “t-shirt sizes” and “project delivery dates” for the business team. You leverage agile principles with your team, then make long-term commitments to the business by padding your team’s estimates. When the project plan needs to change, telling the business that you won’t meet those commitments after all is a difficult conversation. Your team is operating under a completely different set of values, language, and expectations than everyone else. Misunderstandings, passive-aggressive behavior and full-on war abound.

If this sound familiar, you might just be in the War Zone - the place in every organization where agile meets waterfall. When left unchecked, the War Zone grows more fierce and threatens your organization’s success, but there are strategies that will help.

A fundamental difference in approach

Both agile and non-agile parts of the organization start new initiatives with good intentions and in alignment on a shared objective to be accomplished in a set timeline. Unfortunately, because of the unpredictable nature of new product development, neither agilists nor their counterparts have figured out how to hit delivery dates on time. The War Zone is fueled by a fundamental difference in how each side responds to these inevitable changes in schedule (figure 1).

The War Zone.png

On one side we have the agilists who live by the values and principles laid out by the Agile Manifesto. They hold that their environment and technology are unpredictable, so they minimize planning activities and allow solutions to emerge through rapid experimentation. When it becomes apparent that a milestone cannot be met, agilists respond by solving as much of the underlying business problem as they can on the agreed upon date by deferring the least valuable features of the product. Agilist’s build quality in and integrate work as they go, allowing them to delivery whatever value they have ready at any given time. They resist attempts to speed up by augmenting staff because they believe that adding people to a late software project only makes it later.

On the other side, we have those who are guided by traditional project management principles (typically the waterfall method). This side mitigates risk by controlling the environment and as many variables as possible. They value expertise in analyzing and planning for a single optimal solution. They find efficiency by working in batches where all planned product features are integrated and tested at the end of a project. In this all-or-nothing approach, dropping features to get back on track is typically not an option. So, the practitioner of waterfall will focus efforts to speed up on adding people to the project or pushing back the project delivery date.


Every organization must navigate the War Zone

The latest State of Agile Report from Version One has revealed that 97% of software companies globally practice agile methods while 84% are at or below a “still maturing” level. Stated another way, agile mixed with waterfall is the norm and we can expect to find a War Zone in almost every software company in the world.

The length of time an organization has been doing agile can be a good indicator of where the War Zone might appear. In grassroots adoptions, for example, the War Zone is almost guaranteed to appear early when every department other than engineering is unaware of agile. Even in mature agile organizations, the War Zone spontaneously flares up. For example, the War Zone appears whenever command and control leaders are appointed to work with agile teams, delivery of agile projects is managed through a PMO or the organization sells products which don’t yet exist.
Highly aligned organizations may succeed in moving the War Zone out of their environments altogether, only to find that it now exists between them and their customers or suppliers when projects are expected to be delivered exactly as requested in a set timeline.


We need each other

No approach is better than the other. Agile and waterfall are each fit to task to solve certain problems. Agile practices are fit to solve problems with a high degree of unpredictability and the reverse is true for waterfall. Both agile thinking and the waterfall approach are necessary for organizations, but there’s often a lack of understanding of when and where to deploy each method. Misunderstanding creates a lack of appreciation for what each method brings to an organization. Winning the war is not about total domination of one side or the other - both agile and waterfall are here to stay. Organizations who learn how to balance both approaches while developing strong relationships across the boundaries of each approach can minimize or even eliminate the War Zone.


Make software not war

Here’s a six-step framework you can use to regain control over your War Zone.

1. Assess

  • Where in your organization does the War Zone exist - vertically between layers of the organization or horizontally between departments? How serious has the conflict become? Frameworks like Speed Lee’s 5 levels of conflict can help determine the severity of the War Zone.

2. Assemble

  • Bring together the people and perspectives who camp on both sides of the War Zone in order to negotiate a peace treaty.

3. Normalize

  • Let people on both sides know that the War Zone exists in every organization and that conflict is normal. The conflict they experience arises from a diversity of skill sets which are all valuable and necessary for a strong organization.

4. Educate

  • Your organization and its people are resilient. Once they are aware of the War Zone, they will naturally choose a more skillful way to interact.

  • Educate about the differences between the two approaches.

  • Have each side openly discuss their values, beliefs, and expectations.

  • Ask people to find what’s valuable on the other side and what skills they might like a little more of on their side.

  • Demonstrate the cost of the War Zone. How much better could they be if they focused that effort outward on competitors, instead of inwards on each other?

5. Negotiate peace

  • Create a plan for how the two sides will communicate that is written down and posted in a highly visible place as a reminder. It should include:

    • A common set of words that will be used by both sides.

    • When and how often status will be communicated.

    • How they will show respect for the approach of the other side.

    • An agreed-upon strategy for responding to inevitable changes to schedule.

6. Make it stick

  • Leverage support structures like posters or this sticker for people to remember how they want to be with each other.

The War Zone.png

Where does waterfall meet agile in your organization? How severe is the conflict? What is the impact to your business? What will you do about it?

Erkan KadirComment