Across The Spectrum

The Choice Between Agile And Waterfall Has Evolved Into Something More Pragmatic—And Potentially More Powerful






Source: State of Agile, VersionOne, 2017

Michael Thompson, PMP, brushed off suggestions from other project professionals that he try agile approaches. “I was a hardcore waterfall guy for a long time and just not interested,” says Mr. Thompson, then a program manager at IBM, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. But over the past few years, his preference felt more like stubbornness. So he began taking advantage of the free training offered by his organization.

“You could almost see this little lightbulb go on over my head,” says Mr. Thompson, now an agile transformation leader at IBM, which is a member of PMI's Global Executive Council. But his epiphany wasn't to abandon waterfall (also known as predictive) entirely. Instead, it was about the value of teams tailoring their delivery approach to each project, regardless of where they landed on the waterfall-agile spectrum.

Such customization is at odds with the world's apparent love affair with being “agile” these days. TransUnion's CIO says a move from waterfall to agile delivery practices helped his organization power an enterprise-wide transformation effort. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is exploring whether agile might help the government agency better strengthen its data science. McKinsey is pushing agile approaches as key to succeeding in the big data era.


“Organizations must constantly evolve in order to survive, grow and develop.”

—Sergio Conte, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP, PepsiCo, Buenos Aires, Argentina



Yet traditional waterfall approaches are far from extinct. Sixty percent of respondents to the latest State of Agile survey by VersionOne said that less than half of their teams practice agile. The old agile versus waterfall debate is receding as many organizations learn to be flexible with delivery approaches and try to more nimbly react to a fast-changing world.

“Organizations must constantly evolve in order to survive, grow and develop,” says Sergio Conte, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP, senior program management supervisor in the enterprise project management office, PepsiCo, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The same could be said of project talent. As more project and program managers are expected to tailor their approach to the project at hand, they'll need a flexible delivery skill set that spans the entire delivery spectrum.

Even within the tech sector, Mr. Thompson has found that flexibility can deliver huge benefits. Although he had long used waterfall to run projects that develop new service offerings, in the last year he switched to an agile approach. The upshot? “The quality of work is vastly improved, with less time spent going through the motions and more time spent creating what really matters,” Mr. Thompson says. But on a recent project that had a very hard, aggressive deadline and required several legal and financial reviews, with lots of contingencies, he decided straight agile didn't make sense.

“So I used the bare minimum waterfall to lay out milestones of what would have to happen when and how we would achieve each milestone and then incorporated agile into that,” he says. That hybrid approach allowed the team to pivot more quickly when it encountered a setback, without fear of blowing its hard-and-fast reviews. “We were flexible enough to roll with the punches and firm enough to deliver,” he says.

When deciding which approach to deploy, team composition matters just as much as project deadlines and deliverables, points out Marcus Glowasz, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, senior project manager, Credit Suisse, Zurich, Switzerland. “If the project team isn't capable of actually delivering with a certain [approach], there's no sense in choosing it,” he says.



Find the Right Fit

There's no hard-and-fast rule for which projects would be best served with a waterfall, agile or hybrid approach. But studying the team, project environment and constraints can point project professionals in the right direction.


Hard, immovable deadlines

High number of interdependencies, reviews or regulatory approvals

Stable, predictable outcome and requirements


Requirements in flux or evolving

User or customer feedback needed throughout the project

A new product with a high degree of unknowns

At Credit Suisse, Mr. Glowasz has found that hybrid approaches are becoming more common—particularly in complex projects. “With any new project, I have to start by evaluating what works for this project,” he says.

Last year, he managed a compliance project within the bank's IT department, in which several critical enhancements to a software application had to be introduced. When considering which approach made the most sense, he first looked at the schedule: The regulatory nature of the requirements and the urgency of the project meant the delivery dates were immovable. Yet the requirements weren't stable and would likely change, “a classic indicator that the waterfall method is not suitable,” Mr. Glowasz says. And, at the same time, development work was to be outsourced to a third-party company under a fixed-price contract, “which usually does not work within a pure agile approach.”


“If the project team isn't capable of actually delivering with a certain [approach], there's no sense in choosing it.”

—Marcus Glowasz, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, Credit Suisse, Zurich, Switzerland

The best way forward, he decided, would be an “iterative waterfall” hybrid approach. It split the requirements into meaningful chunks in order to have delivery in iterations without releasing each to production until the final product was built. “Within each iteration, the disciplines of design, development and testing were followed in a sequential way. But the iterations were timed to address the volatility of the business requirements and provided room for change,” Mr. Glowasz says. “The hybrid approach benefited the project massively in terms of delivering value.”


“Trying to figure out agile on my own was like walking around with concrete on my shoulders.”

—Michael Thompson, PMP, IBM, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

During the in-house training that kick-started his agile journey, it dawned on Mr. Thompson that his teams had already incorporated some agile techniques without realizing it. He then decided to take an immersive scrum course while stepping away from daily project work. Learning the intended benefits of agile principles helped him bring more rigor to—and derive more value from—their application.

“Trying to figure out agile on my own was like walking around with concrete on my shoulders,” he says.

To sharpen his skill set, he also worked with an informal mentor—and played the same role when team members later took the course. “There's a real value in having someone say, ‘Here's what a scrum master is in theory, and here's how it works at IBM,’” says Mr. Thompson. “Especially as more companies embrace hybrid methods, we need to be clear about how the theory and the organization's application might differ.”

When the approach is up for grabs, combing through the company's knowledge center and lessons learned can provide crucial guidance. When Credit Suisse offered internal training classes on agile and hybrid approaches, the instructor turned past projects into case studies for learning opportunities and discussion. Mr. Glowasz found them to be the highlight of the course he completed.

“Role-playing [an approach] using a real-life project shows how the approach works within our company.” PM



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