Waterfall Agile: Addressing the Irony of Delivering Agile Transformation with Waterfall

Addressing the Irony of Delivering Agile Transformation with Waterfall - agile-od.com
This article is an excerpt from the original piece “Organization Systems Integration” (https://agile-od.com/organization-systems-integration)


The Irony of Delivering Agile Transformation with Waterfall

Agile and digital transformation projects are abundant today. The irony is that too frequently, they are planned and delivered in essentially waterfall project management style.

Waterfall is a linear, plan-all-the-way, phased execution style of project management. It is a productive project management approach, and in fact, we owe modernity to Waterfall because of its highly scalable attribute that produces predictable and replicable results.

However, it is an approach best suited for projects of certainty, such as construction engineering and production facility projects. In contrast, Agile project management is better suited for projects of complexity with lots of unknowns that contribute to variability in outcomes.

Organization Development programs, including organizational change, Agile transformation and Digital innovation projects, clearly are the latter category. In complex and uncertain environments, human behavior is volatile and unpredictable (simply put, we become overwhelmed), and applying a linear, predictable outcome seeking way of managing people is ineffective. Decades of organizational research corroborate this point: prescribed interventions for change and transformation fail with high probability.

Why We Stick to Waterfall

Yet still, we see organizations trying to do change, transformation and innovation with Waterfall.

I consider there are two reasons for this:

  1. For many of us, Waterfall is the only way we know how to do projects.
  2. There’s no one definitive, apparent, visible alternative “methodology” to Waterfall.

Agile is an alternative to Waterfall, but Agile is not a single, clearly defined methodology like Waterfall. Rather, it is more of an approach and mindset (also frequently referred to as “agility”), and a general reference to the many actual implementation frameworks, such as Scrum. Agile is not as slick as Waterfall; it’s a bit all over the place and hard to grasp.

This ambiguity around Agile makes it difficult for people to register that Agile can be an alternative to Waterfall. And when people don’t see clean alternative choices to something, they won’t make the switch. So in many people’s minds, Waterfall remains pretty much the only “right” way of doing things.

Even if its an Agile transformation project.

Multi-Disciplinary and Exploratory Approach to Organization Development

Clearly, we need to do things differently if we want to break the chain of Waterfall reliance. But how?

We can start with accepting that anything that involves change, transformation and innovation, is an exploratory endeavor.

Easily said, excruciatingly hard to do.

We love certainty. We’re ingrained in fixed time frame, KPI driven, results delivery management culture. It’s easier for us to be told what to do. So, most people will go into a mild panic when they are told to do things in an “exploratory” way.

We Need Many Tools, Frameworks and Mental Models

Change, transformation and innovation is too complex and overwhelming to make any one tool or methodology effective to do the job. We need access to a wide range of tools, frameworks and mental models on demand, applied dynamically yet in a disciplined way where efficacy is continuously measured. Through experimentation and iteration, we learn what works and what does not, and hone in on a “formula of success” unique to the situation.

Yet, asking change agents, transformation officers and innovation leads to have all those wide range of tools, frameworks and mental models now, is an unfair ask as they haven’t been given the training opportunity yet (which is a topic for another day, ref: “Innovation Managers Toolkit”). So, time to call in an expert.

Organization Development (OD) professionals are by nature of the vocation, multi-disciplinary. Each of us OD professionals develop a unique collection of skills and expertise through our diverse project work.

For my case, I see organizations from the five view points of people, process, structure, product & client, and I have come to find a coaching approach most effective in delivering my work.

Specifically, I am both a behavioral coach (my favorite coaching topic is “enabling conversations”) and process coach (Design Thinking, Agile Scrum, Lean Startup all contribute to my coaching of “complexity handling” skills).

Hybrid Organization Development with Behavioral Coaching and Process Coaching - agile-od.com

Deliver in Iterations

As an Organization Development professional, my single-minded focus is on fostering conversations in all corners of the organization. Whether it is a people, process, structure, customer or a product challenge, we have many proven management tools, frameworks and approaches to utilize, and combined that with the spirit of experimentation and iteration, I believe there is no organizational challenge we cannot address with the power of conversations.

My approach to operating Organization Development programs involves three focuses:

  • Gemba-Shugi
  • Pilot Intervention
  • Scaling & Growth Focus

Gemba-Shugi (現場主義)

Again, prescribed interventions for change and transformation fail with high probability. What’s often missing is early onset communication with the teams involved in the program. Gemba means “actual place” or “on-site” in Japanese (Shugi means “principle”), and this is one of the corner stone principles of Lean.

Gemba-Shugi denotes one’s stance of placing importance and giving priority to what is happening at the actual place of activity (also known as MBWA – management by walking around). Listening, goes a long way in getting people on board. When people are listened to, they feel understood. Being on the ground and fostering dialogue is a crucial first step in any Organization Development program.

Pilot Intervention

  1. It is not possible to study a human system without intervening in it, and
  2. We can fully understand a human system only by trying to change it.

This is a quote by Organization Development pioneer Kurt Lewin from back in 1947. Three quarters of a century later, it remains the modus operandi of the field.

I believe what, where and how to intervene, is best found by experimenting and iterating. So, instead of a definitive plan of execution (aka “big bang adoption”), a strong preference for interventions as pilots, in incremental scale and in iterations.

And here is where old meets new. In Agile, we observe and assess, hypothesize, build prototypes and MVPs (minimum viable product), test, measure, learn and repeat. Whether it is Lean Startup, Agile Scrum or Design Thinking, the spirit is same, and we have strong choices of powerful frameworks to benefit from.

Scaling and Growth Focus

Once we see good patterns of success in the pilot interventions, the focus will start shifting to a scaling strategy. Now that we know what “works” in the organization, we next need to find ways that success will sustain organically.

I suggest to sponsors of the change, transformation and innovation programs, an objective and outcome focus shift from “results” to “growth.” This doesn’t mean we ignore results; in Agile we continuously measure results, so the importance doesn’t change. Yet even more important is the ability to continuously generate results; which is the type of performance organizations fundamentally seek. The goal for change, transformation and innovation is not a fixed goal, rather, an evolving goal. I find “growth” most fitting to describe this objective.

I consider that at this stage, the role focus of the engaged Organization Development professional shifts to what I call “KSA” transfer; i.e. transferring our expert knowledge, skills, abilities (and attitudes, aptitudes) into the client organization. This can involve “coach the coaches” and “train the trainers” to designated leaders and managers, and broad team coaching, training and facilitation. This effectively is Organizational Capability Building.

Agile Transformation in an Agile Way

The real test of Agile Transformation, is in if the transformation itself is carried out in an Agile way.

What is encouraging about Agile, is that we don’t expect to get things right from the get-go.

Agile is a practice of inquiry, inspection, awareness, learning and so on. By recognizing our deeply ingrained Waterfall habits and putting in one-by-one efforts to build new habits, we are already carrying out Agile Transformation in an Agile way.


This article is an excerpt from “Organization Systems Integration” found on https://agile-od.com/organization-systems-integration. The original article expands the thinking to synchronization and integration of change, transformation and innovation efforts simultaneously occurring in organizations, for collective growth and whole organization success.

Organization Systems Integration agile-od