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Spanning the rift: Beginning your first agile project in a waterfall organisation

Steve Lennon, April 21, 2016

One of the first mistakes you could make is thinking that the transition from waterfall to agile as being simply a process change – a change from one set of processes and practices to another.

It’s much more about your culture and behaviour. In traditional waterfall organisations and projects, you feel that you can plan absolutely everything in advance. You can act with a certain degree of certainty and knowledge. From an agile perspective, this not really possible. You need to get your project off the ground and learn, adapt and iterate as you go.

Agile teams

Achieving a shift in behaviour

Traditional organisations can be quite ‘top down’ and managerial. Management makes decisions and workers “do” what has been decided for them. Agile organisations believe that a culture of empowerment and local decision-making is much more effective. Traditional organisations believe that change is something that needs to be controlled, managed and it’s a bad thing. Agile organisations believe that change is inevitable and actually, often, quite a good thing. It means you’re more likely to get what you need. For those reasons, and a whole bunch more, there’s actually a shift in behaviour and ways of thinking that’s needed to adopt agile. It’s really important to recognise that it’s this cultural shift that you’re trying to achieve as well as just a process change.

So how do you start?

Start with a pilot project

Partly because of the cultural shift aspect, a move to agile in a large organisation in one step probably isn’t a good thing. Start with a pilot project. It’s a good way to start. It’s a good way to learn and find your feet. This pilot project should be important enough that it’s not something that people aren’t going to engage with. It’s not something that people will be pulled off at the first sign of trouble. It needs to be important enough that you’ll see it through to delivery. It’s not a good idea for this pilot to be the most critical project that you’ve got in your organisation. This will be all new to you and you want to take the opportunity to learn and discover. If it’s the most critical project you’re doing, you might find that the extra pressure from this criticality has a negative effect on the project.

Give the team enough space

When your team is starting out, it’s important for you to be co-located - everyone in the same place to begin with is very important. Agile projects tend to have very, very high bandwidth communication - lots of activity on a very fast-paced, ongoing basis. Having people in the same location that can talk, draw, write and share is very important. Give your team a good space they can use and enough wall space so they can get everything up.

Agile pioneers

Get your stakeholder engagement

The last thing is something critical: Business engagement. Sometimes you’ll find that a digital team within an organisation wants to try agile but they don’t feel they can talk to the organisation about it. The pace and rhythm of an agile project is so different to the pace and rhythm of a waterfall project.

The level of engagement you need from stakeholders is continuously much more constant and regular in an agile project. It’s vital to get this stakeholder engagement upfront. It’s important when choosing your pilot project that you have this in mind and you have someone in a product area who can take the role of Product Owner. This is someone who has the vision for the product, the budget, someone who can make decisions, prioritise and see how this product is going to evolve.