At Cross 8 we’re often asked which we think is better, Agile or Waterfall. Our answer is always a question: “Better for what?”

Organisations generally like to have a single method, but we’d argue that a one-size-fits-all control framework isn’t necessarily the best approach.

If you’re involved in change management at all you’ll know that the focus today is all about agile. And a quick search online will prove there’s hardly anyone trumpeting the benefits of a non-agile approach.

We’d like to strike a different note:

Agile is a fantastic approach…but there are times when it isn’t the right one.

Let’s put aside the fact that agile isn’t a delivery method – it’s a set of values and principles – and focus instead on the intent behind the question.

Having spent years hearing about agile from early adopters, many large organisations are now in the process of adapting their change management frameworks to one agile methodology or another, whether that’s scrum, SAFe, or any of the tens of other varieties.

Having an agile capability is a great idea, but there’s a risk that we’re losing sight of something essential.

Read on to find out what it is and what to do about it.

WHEN IS AGILE THE ANSWER? 

The introduction of agile was a hugely important milestone in change management.

It highlighted some of the problems of the traditional project management approach, and how it wasn’t suited for rapid deployment in a start-up environment.

It’s perfectly suited to an environment where you want to get something out to end users quickly, and you’re not sure of all the requirements up front.

But we should remember that agile was developed in a world of software development. The agile manifesto opens with the words:

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”

We can, and should, apply the agile principles beyond simply software development, but we do have to be careful not to over-apply them.

WHEN would a more traditional approach better?  

Of course, not all changes are software releases. And even those that are, aren’t always a perfect fit with the sort of thing the founders of agile had in mind.

For example, if you’re dealing with a change that’s well understood at the start, then the case for agile is harder to make. It might still be the right answer, of course, but ask yourself why you are pushing down a particular route – is it because the change needs it, or is it simply the latest incarnation of, “That’s how we do things here…now.”

If you’re looking to implement a cultural transformation, is it best to deliver it in short sprints, or will that just dilute your message and risk confusing your people?

If your industry is highly regulated and you’re building on existing complex infrastructure, then investing a significant block of time up front in the sort of high level design and / or architecture that’s more traditionally associated with waterfall delivery, might be time well spent.

Like anything else a ‘waterfall delivery’ needs to have common sense applied: a single pass through big blocks of Design-Build-Test-Implement with no overlap or iteration is unlikely to be successful for anything but the smallest of changes. But few people who have been responsible for effective implementation would ever have suggested otherwise. It’s a cartoon version that’s easy to poke holes in. In fact, as far back as 1970, in one of the very first papers describing waterfall, Dr. Winston Royce already talked about prototypes and multiple iterations.

CONCLUSION 

At Cross 8 we’re huge fans of agile development… for the right things… but we’re even bigger fans of effective delivery.

In a desire to realise the benefits of a new way of doing things, we run the risk of over-applying it and, even worse, potentially undermining the very thing we’re trying to implement.

As change professionals, we need to be careful not to let a fascination with method or technique get in the way of implementing change successfully.

The method should be in service of the change and most of the users should have no idea what methodology you’re using.

Agile is no more the single answer than the waterfall method was, and whatever comes next won’t be either.

The answer to effective change delivery is understanding both the change and the environment it needs to be embedded into, and then intelligently choosing and applying the tools you have available.

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