Can agile and waterfall project management co-exist?
On the same product? No, they can’t.
On different products? Yes, they can.
Depending on the level of complexity you are dealing with, different approaches would be appropriate. In a simple or complicated space, project management works well, whilst in complex and uncertain environments, agile is a far better approach.
If we have a team of people who know what they are doing, how best to do it, and have all the necessary tools and resources to perform the task well, they can just crack on and get it done.
We don’t need agile for that.
If we don’t know how to solve the problem or build the solution because it’s never been built or solved before, we must take a different approach. There are too many unknown variables and despite having all the experts in the room, we still aren’t certain that we will discover the solution.
That is a complex environment.
We need to develop a hypothesis, test our hypothesis, and use the data we gather to determine what our next best step would be. It’s a process of discovery, of trial and error, and actively figuring out what our next step should be that leads to solutions and great products.
We simply can’t know what we don’t know, and we use agile or empirical process control as a way to make our work and thinking visible, frequently inspect the work we are doing, and use the data and evidence to inform how we should adapt or pivot to achieve a desired outcome.
In a complex environment, traditional waterfall project management simply falls over.
It requires certainty, predictability, and a proven formula for achieving an outcome. In the absence of those things, you need an agile approach to discovery and product development.
Resource vs Flow Efficiency
In project management, we are trying to ensure that our resources – including people – are being used to their potential. We want people to be as productive as possible and our focus lies in delivery against a predetermined schedule.
In agile, we are more concerned with being effective.
Building the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.
We are also more concerned with how effectively and efficiently work flows through the entire system, from conception to customer.
Agile and Waterfall Project Management are like chalk and cheese in this regard. They focus on entirely different outcomes, and they use completely different approaches and frameworks to achieve those outcomes.
Approaches to co-existence
There are some horrible combinations of scrum and project management that I have seen implemented on a single product environment, and it is toxic and ineffective.
Sure, people have the right to experiment, but this isn’t a great approach to combining the old style of working with the new. They are deeply incompatible and will cause more problems than they solve.
If you have completely different products, it’s okay to use project management for the one product and a more agile approach, such as scrum, on the other product.
As long as they don’t create dependencies within the system, you’re fine with that approach.
The only place I can see some wiggle room is when there is a massive product, which has completely different workstreams, and they transform from project management to agile after one complete element has been handed over from Team A to the agile team to proceed with.
An example of this might be producing headlights on an autonomous car project.
The headlight can be built using waterfall project management, but handed over to the team who are doing the firmware, software, and assembly of the autonomous car.
The only problem is that project managers and others who work in a hierarchical, authoritarian style tend to dominate the conversation and press for solutions in circumstances where a more creative, collaborative approach to discovery is needed.
There is also a completely different approach to risk management, dealing with uncertainty, product stakeholder and customer engagement, and continuous delivery of value to a client.
Agile and Project Management operate at completely opposite ends of this scale.
So, in short, yes you could combine waterfall project management and agile in the same organization provided that there are clear distinctions between the products that the teams are working on, and that the project management team do not create dependencies for the agile team to solve.
About John Coleman
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