Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare

Waterfall vs Agile?

Sounds a bit daft to even be having the debate, surely by now there is no one left that still thinks waterfall is the better choice for delivery of complex software projects, unfortunately that is very far from the truth, there seem to be many that still prefer waterfall and recently I even heard it talked of in terms of the good old days.  So I delved a little deeper.

In this instance the source was a statement by someone who’s opinion was given weight. The comment was:

I could deliver ‘project x’ using waterfall if you gave me dedicated resources and we could lock ourselves away for 6-months.  

In waterfall the costs of planning are high, the costs of analysis is high, and the cost of change is very high. But by it’s nature waterfall has a clear scope(vision).   The result is that everyone is clear on the priority, the project is protected, no change and no disruption, the scope doesn’t change. Because everyone understands the cost of interruption.

In Agile the upfront cost of planning is low, the upfront cost of analysis is low and the cost of change is relatively low. The result in some cases is that ‘unnecessary’ direction change can be frequent, the project is unprotected because it can adjust, disruption can be frequent, and so the scope regularly changes for sometimes trivial reasons or low priority distractions.

In short we are not comparing apples with apples.  We are comparing focused vision-led waterfall, with an unfocused ad-hoc agile.

In the example above the team had a fairly vague goal to deliver ‘x’ but also support ‘project y’ and deliver small increments of ‘project z’, ‘project w’ and maybe even an update to ‘project v’ too. And that plan was likely to change next week when something else came along. Because of this ‘project x’ was taking far longer than anticipated. so this notion that delivery using waterfall would be quicker has arisen.

But, the problem for me is that it was not the ‘waterfall’ part of the plan that would ensure success, it was the dedicated resources and clear vision that were the crucial aspects.  Give me a clear vision and those same dedicated resources and I can be pretty sure that I would deliver what the customer wants, sooner, cheaper and more reliably using Scrum than someone else could using waterfall.

Agile is the victim of it’s own agility, it is like the free gift no one values.  Because there is less pain in changing direction in agile projects, and because the team can adjust and adapt, that doesn’t make it free and it doesn’t mean it isn’t disruptive.

Agile enables you to have flexibility in planning, it allows deferring decisions, it allows planning only small amounts, and allows changes in direction and content.  But just because you can do these things doesn’t mean you always should.

A single vision with dedicated resources is a powerful combination, Agile is a powerful tool, but as they say with great power comes great responsibility.

Agile enables you to vary the scope of your vision, to respond to change, it is not a licence to operate without a vision.

As the Japanese proverb goes:

Vision without action is a daydream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.

Why Agile?

I feel a little on the defensive recently, I have heard a Product Owner (ex PM) complaining that he could get it done quicker with Waterfall, and I have heard a number of people asking what was wrong with the old way and why Agile?

Short-term memories, fear of change – especially for a very large project manager community – teething troubles with the transition, and a variety of other factors are probably behind it.  But long-story short I was asked if there were any metrics on the comparison between Agile and Waterfall that we could use to ‘reassure’ some of the senior stakeholders.

After a bit of research I found an interesting survey: Dr. Dobb’s Journal 2013 IT Project Success Survey. Posted at www.ambysoft.com/surveys/

173 companies were surveyed: The companies were asked how they characterised a successful project.   Only 8%  considered success to be On Schedule, On Budget AND to Specification.  Most classed success as only one or two of these criteria.

Success criteria 2

Based on the criteria listed above and even knowing that success may be just one of those criteria,  only 49% of Waterfall projects were considered successful compared with almost 2/3rds of Agile projects considered outright successes.

Successful projects

When considering failed projects (projects that were never finished) nearly 18% of Waterfall projects were deemed failures compared to only 6% of Agile projects.

failed projects

Finally Projects that were considered challenging in that they were not deemed successes but were eventually completed.

challenged projects

Ultimately in my opinion “Why agile?” is the wrong question. The questions should be “How can we improve?” I believe that Agile is a philosophy rather than a Methodology.  I’d go so far as to suggest that if an organization has a desire to continually improve and follows through on that, then they are ‘Agile’ regardless of the methodology they use. And a company that follows an Agile framework without a desire to improve is not.

In other words ‘Agile’ is the answer to the question not the question itself. If done right and done with the right intentions Agile can help many organizations improve and improve further. Agile is not a destination.