Fine-tuning your project management style: 4 tips on how to successfully blend Agile, Waterfall methodologies

August 22, 2014 Marcus Varner

By Eric Morgan, CEO of Workfront. Article originally posted in Fierce CIO

An Agile versus Waterfall battle is raging in the project management ranks.shutterstock_186484241

Agile loyalists see the benefit of empowering individuals and teams in a bottom-up approach that produces a faster, more responsive way of working.

Meanwhile, traditionalists prefer a top-down Waterfall approach that neatly outlines all the steps in the project and defines the scope, budget and schedule upfront--minimizing risk and uncertainty.

Which way is better?

In reality, organizations with successful development cycles appear to employ a mixed approach, using both methodologies for different projects. Even Amazon, an Agile powerhouse, could not have built its core web services product without some top-down dictation of standards.

The real difficulty for organizations, therefore, lies not in choosing one methodology over the other, but in successfully mixing the two methodologies. Whether your organization is already juggling multiple methodologies or is considering adding Agile into the project management mix, here are four tips on how to hybridize without sacrificing the visibility and productivity you need:

1 Transition slowly

The biggest issue organizations face in adopting or expanding Agile is the cultural transition that is required. Change is never easy, and moving from a top-down culture of command and control to a bottom-up approach where workers self-organize and self-prioritize will certainly test your leadership team. It's a cultural transition that many people in an organization feel is disruptive and too much of a challenge to the established culture.

To make the transition smoother and improve adoption, you should try to slow down your process transition. Understand that onboarding a system like Agile is a long-term commitment, and because only certain teams will benefit from its methodology, ensure that your organization takes the time to strategically consider where it would be most effective.

Define upfront what you are trying to accomplish with Agile so everyone can understand the benefits. In addition, developing a culture of respect and appreciation for both methodologies within the organization is important.

Acknowledge what works well with Waterfall and when it is most appropriate to use. This extra effort will build trust; make people more open and resilient to trying new methods; increase buy-in from management and team members; and ensure that everyone is on the same page and trying to accomplish the same goals.

2 Provide professional training

With dozens of different aspects and processes, Agile is complex. One of the biggest strategic mistakes organizations make is not getting professional training at the start.

In particular, it is crucial that middle management participates in training.

"Middle management really holds the keys to the success of Agile adoption. They create all of the procedures and policies. If middle is not on board, transformation will be shunned," says Dean Leffingwell, author of "Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise."

When middle management is properly trained, not only do they understand the value of Agile for themselves, but they can be influential in mentoring the team and in demonstrating the value of Agile to the leadership.

3 Allow teams to communicate across methodologies

In many organizations, Agile teams often become insulated from the rest of the organization. They work in a kind of a bubble, rarely interfacing with other teams or departments. However, communication and collaboration are two of the most critical elements of an effective mixed-methodology enterprise.

Finding a way to enable visibility and communication across distributed teams, such as developing standard processes for organizing requirements and cross-team development, ensuring comprehensive release visibility for both upstream and downstream stakeholders, and managing the entire work lifecycle within one tool, will make hybrid organizations much more productive.

4 Speak a language everyone understands

The nuanced terminology associated with Agile is often an area ripe for miscommunication. In addition to making sure everyone understands the terminology and is speaking the same language, it's important to identify key data points, such as what the team is working on, where the team is along their work process, and when the team will complete the task. Then, translate the data points into either methodology.

No matter what methodology your individual teams choose, the work being done ultimately must be visible to the organization's management and executive teams. Because manager reports and dashboards tend to focus on Waterfall-centric metrics, Agile teams need to ensure they are able to translate their results and progress accordingly.

Moving to a mixed management style will always present challenges. Adoption may happen in baby steps, rather than leaps and bounds. Following these four tips, however, can make implementation much more successful and enable you to structure projects in a more productive manner to achieve your business goals.

Find out how Workfront can help your teams use mixed methodologies.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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