In today's fast-paced business environment, agility has become a standard for many technical teams and departments in large organisations. The agile approach is grounded in principles of iterative development, continuous improvement, and collaboration between different teams. However, other teams, such as procurement, legal, and finance, often remain entrenched in the traditional waterfall approach, which necessitates detailed, predefined deliverables, fixed-price estimates, and other requirements that stand in opposition to agile methodology. This discrepancy can lead to delays, communication breakdowns, mixed messages to vendors, and escalating costs, ultimately impacting the success of projects.
Waterfall is a sequential project management methodology in which each phase must be completed before the next phase can commence. This approach is based on a fixed set of requirements and a detailed project plan. It is effective when requirements are clearly defined and minimal flexibility or change is required. However, this approach often results in delays, increased costs, and dissatisfied customers in today's rapidly evolving business environment that requires more flexibility in order to pivot and change requirements as new information is discovered.
Conversely, agile is an iterative and incremental approach, dividing projects into smaller, more manageable segments, and designing, developing, testing, and refining each iteration. The agile approach encourages collaboration, flexibility, continuous improvement, and failing fast and pivoting when required. When used effectively, this approach can improve project development and outcomes.
Non-technical teams and agile
Implementing agile methodologies is an excellent means for organisations to swiftly adapt to market changes and rapidly deliver new features or products. Despite the numerous benefits, organisations may encounter difficulties when introducing agile methodologies to teams outside technical departments, such as procurement.
Procurement teams typically require detailed upfront requirements, fixed-price estimates, and plans before project approval. While these practices can be beneficial in certain circumstances, they are quite inflexible, making it challenging to adapt to changing needs. The same applies to legal and finance teams, both typically committed to a waterfall approach to meet their existing processes.
This disconnect in approaches to projects can lead to delays and increased costs, particularly when flexibility or change is needed during the project. In some organisations, the processes of such teams have become a rubber stamping exercise, disconnected from the actual project delivery with the technical teams. Technical teams manage vendors through the process in a way that meets the requirements of procurement, legal, or finance but does not reflect the reality of what is being agreed upon between the technical team and the vendor. This is confusing and paints a picture of a messy and ineffective organisation, and it can potentially lead to contractual issues for the vendor in the future.
Internally, the traditional approach of such teams often clashes with more agile teams, who prioritise communication, collaboration, iterative development, and continuous improvement. This misalignment can lead to significant friction between the teams, resulting in delays, additional costs, and, ultimately, missed opportunities and project failures.
Bridging the gap
One solution to bridge the gap between agile and waterfall approaches is adopting a hybrid approach that combines the best of both methodologies. This approach seeks to find a balance between more detailed upfront requirements and remaining flexible and iterative. It also creates the potential for fixed-price estimates with calculated risk margins and more detailed project plans that leave room for future adjustments. I wrote extensively about this approach in my first book, “Essential Steps, Scoping Custom Projects”. Released in 2017. (Available here: www.amazon.com/Essential-Steps-Scoping-Custom-Projects/dp/1543741819).
Another way to bridge the gap is through education and training. Non-technical teams should at least learn the principles of agile methodology, the benefits of collaboration, and the importance of flexibility and continuous improvement. This knowledge will help them understand the agile approach and work more effectively with their technical counterparts.
Additionally, non-technical teams can participate in agile ceremonies, such as daily stand-ups, sprint planning, and retrospectives. This involvement will help them understand the project's progress and provide feedback on areas needing improvement.
Organisations should encourage collaboration and open communication. Agile teams should involve their waterfall counterparts from the beginning, ensuring they understand the agile process and can align their practices with agile methodologies. Regular meetings and updates can help bridge the communication gap and prevent misaligned expectations. This involvement will help ensure that the project meets the needs of all stakeholders and prevents delays and cost overruns due to changes during the project.
Given that the critical change is really in modernising outdated processes, such efforts are most effective when driven from the top as part of broader organisational digital and cultural transformation efforts.
By implementing these strategies, agile teams can help improve collaboration with their waterfall counterparts within procurement and across other departments still using the waterfall approach. This collaborative effort can lead to better project outcomes, increased efficiency, and overall improved experience for all parties involved.
Numerous large organisations have successfully bridged the gap between agile and waterfall approaches. For instance, Amazon employs a hybrid approach to project management, comprising detailed upfront requirements, fixed-price estimates, detailed project plans, and agile methodology.