Using the Agile Mindset in a Waterfall World

I am sure you have heard terms like Scrum, Sprints, Retrospectives, and maybe even Lean if you are a Toyota fan.  This is not surprising given the popularity of Agile and its methodologies have spread throughout all levels of companies like wildfire. If you are a Project Manager, I bet there isn’t a Project Management (PM) workshop, summit, or local meeting that isn’t talking about the Agile methodology; the new holy grail for project success.

The Journey Begins

I also jumped on the Agile bandwagon because who doesn’t want to be better and more successful at what they do? With that said, the projects I work with are typically Waterfall projects and do not really meet the criteria where they would need to be full Agile. How then do we make them Agile?

I read articles, asked questions at PM luncheons and meetings when the subject came up, and listened to Webinars.  I read some great books, a few very dry ones, and even ended up taking a class.  You know, the usual stuff. All of this fed into my Professional Development Units to maintain my PMP certification so I could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and it wasn’t a great hardship to learn about Agile.  What occurred to me through the process of digging is that I had the question wrong. The question should be “what can I do to combine Agile methods that would create efficiencies in the Waterfall project world” or how can I have my cake and eat it too? There are several articles now on what is referred to as Hybrid Project Management that discuss combining Agile and Waterfall, but I decided to start with using an Agile Mindset. 

What is Agile

Before moving on, I thought it might be good to have basic definition of Agile in the project management world. Capterra has a great definition of Agile as “an iterative development methodology that values human communication and feedback, adapting to changes, and producing working results” based on the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto includes twelve guiding principles and four values.

The four values are:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiations
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Using the Agile Mindset

The Agile Mindset is the concept of “being Agile” or embracing the values of the Agile Manifesto in every day thought and action versus “doing Agile” or going through the motions as if Agile is just a process or a toolset. While staunch Agile practitioners may disagree, I believe this concept allows us to bring Agile efficiencies into Waterfall projects. A few ideas I have been involved with at Insentra are:

Daily 15-minute stand up meetings (value number one)

At Insentra we call these huddles. However, you may have heard terms such as daily stand-up, scrum meetings, morning roll call, etc.  Whatever the name, the goal is to have a short and focused meeting that provides the information needed and does not have to have an official feel to it.  A rule of thumb is that these meetings should have three basic and agreed upon questions. For example, what have you done since the last meeting, what will you do today, and what are your roadblocks?  These meetings are great to get a quick status from your team on project progress, actions, risks, etc.  I would go a step further today and say that these meetings should be tailored to your project(s) and your team. For example, I can batch several projects into one stand up meeting if they all have the same team delivering them. The meeting can be daily or even once or twice a week if that is the cadence required to keep the project on track. Please note that a stand-up meeting doesn’t take the place of a planning meeting which needs more discussion and depth.

As mentioned before Insentra practices this concept from a business perspective.  Fifteen-minute huddles are held by many teams and use three questions; How are you personally  and professionally, what are you doing today, and what are your roadblocks.  The meetings are an effective way to quickly assess the morale of the team and gather a picture of what the team is doing.  I personally find this as a great way to keep connected to your team members even when working remote.

Servant Leadership (value number one)

Agile promotes the mindset that a leader should serve their team.  Mike Griffiths, one of the co-creators of Agile DSDM, recommends four duties of servant leadership:

  1. Shield the team from interruptions as best we can
  2. Remove impediments to the team’s progress
  3. Continue to communicate the project values
  4. Carry food and water

Project managers are leaders by the nature of our role, and servant leadership is another way to be agile in our projects.

Shield the team from interruptions as best we can

One of the ways I have found to shield the team from interruptions is working with the customer to set expectations on what tasks are critical to keep the project on track and to confirm agreement on what items can wait; especially in terms of additional project requests or discussions unrelated to the current project’s delivery.  It is also important to make sure that requests go through the proper process rather than directly to the project team members.

Remove the impediments to the team’s progress

This brings us back to one of the positive impacts of daily huddles we participate in at Insentra. One of the questions that we answer is “what are your impediments or roadblocks?”.  Helping a team member remove impediments keeps the project on track. While removing a huge roadblock is satisfying, removing small roadblocks can keep the project moving and assist the team to achieve project goals. For example, helping a team member get design documents through the peer review so the team can concentrate on completing technical tasks, the customer on environment remediation or setting expectations on decision risks and impacts so the team can move forward in the build process.

Continue to communicate the project values

Every project manager comes across a project that is going off the rails. Even the project managers at Insentra occasionally have projects that are or close to running past the estimated project schedule, going over budget, etc. One way to bring a project back on track is to recommunicate the project values or the project’s mission. Why are we doing this project, what are the critical success factors, etc. Communicating and re-communicating the project goals can apply to all project stakeholders.  People become excited about the positive impacts they see as a project progresses or new technology that comes out while the project is in progress which makes it is easy for a project to wander off track.  For example, what if the project’s scheduled tasks were abandoned and users migrated without testing?  Re-communication of the project’s goals would be necessary to ensure agreement, proper testing and steer the project to success.

Carry food and water

The term carrying food and water is funny to me because I work remote, and there would be some thirsty and starving team members if they waited on me for food and water!  However, this is more about providing the tools the team needs. To me, this Insentra’s train story.  We all shovel coal when we need to in order to keep the train moving on the track. An example would be reaching out to other technical people if the project consultant is running into a technical quandary or you’re reaching out to get answers on a process question that neither of you know the answer to. Carrying food and water can also be even simpler, such as to provide encouragement or saying “thank you”.  This goes right along Insentra’s celebration value in HIT ACES because what is celebration if not providing positive encouragement on what went well.  It also never hurts to remember that everyone’s time is valuable so let someone know you appreciate the time they took to respond or resolve an issue.

Continuing the Journey

As you can see there are ways, even if they are small to start with, that Agile can be used in Waterfall projects to provide efficiencies and value. I am still working on a few other ideas in terms of project iterations and continuous improvement that I will share in another blog. However, I would also love to hear any ideas that have worked for you to integrate the best of both worlds.

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