Interfacing between Linear Waterfall and Agile Project Management Approaches

This article depicts the best practice approach for integrating Agile approaches and specifically Scrum development with traditional overarching linear approaches, specifically waterfall methodology. The agile PMO, properly defined, can be positioned to secure Agile-Scrum benefits while maintaining the necessary overarching control.

The challenge

Over the last two decades, various Agile approaches have been introduced and practiced. Of these, in last 5 to 7 years, Scrum has gained the most popularity resulting from a combination of simplicity, ease of use, and effective public relations. Scrum success in software development organizations has been a powerful driver for roll outs across products, industries and businesses. As described, this was exacerbated by a focused marketing effort from Scrum evangelists. Unfortunately, most of these organizations were not structured in a way that supports the Agile-Scrum approach and methods. Even more so, scrum in its raw and pure form is not suitable for the majority of organizations.

The first wave of failed Agile-Scrum implementations brought about an even stricter admonition, based on an unwavering belief from Scrum zealots. The main assertion has been that failed implementations are a result of partial embracing of the true scrum spirit and the full benefits of the approach can only be attained if the entire organization is reengineered. This fanatical attitude left many project teams across organizations big and small, struggling with their already idealistic implementations. Some have been figuring out on their own, how to combine the contemporary and traditional worlds. Other teams have completely abandoned the Agile-Scrum concepts reverting back to the traditional linear waterfall approach and method. Yet other teams, ridden with guilt, manage Scrum by name only, and hiss vehemently at any project management proponent who is unfortunate enough to advise on re-embracing Agile in a more cognizant approach.

The concepts which are presented and embodied in Agile-Scrum are too good to be ignored; however implementing it outside pure software development requires adaptation.

Complex scenarios for Agile            

The main hurdle in achieving the benefits of Agile- Scrum outside software development is integrating it with existing control mechanisms. These control mechanisms are stipulated due to various organizational prerequisites and are normally actualized by using the Linear Waterfall approach and methodology. Four of these typical organizational prerequisites are depicted below:

  • Big global corporates – in these hierarchical matrix organizations, top down portfolio control is the rule of the day. The free spirited agile approach has a tough time adjusting to the rigorous controls. Specifically the inherent Agile plan-free concepts, make Agile-Scrum difficult for the organization to swallow.
  • Highly regulated industries – some industries are required by compliance and governance bodies to have a strict binding control mechanism. These can be for example medical equipment, aircraft, and pharmaceuticals research and product development business units. While individual teams might operate Agile-Scrum, the development process must follow a rigid Linear Waterfall approach method for traceability and governance.
  • Complex predefined products – some integrated products which include both hardware, software, imbedded and more are developed as a contract with an end customer under a predefined set of requirements. In these cases the degree of requirement flexibility is small, though larger than what is anticipated initially. The concept of a fully flexible backlog of Agile-Scrum suffers considerably in these cases.
  • Generic IT departments – much of the daily and weekly activities in maintenance driven IT departments is ad hoc. Changes to the daily schedules are numerous and immediate. Constant interferences in the teams work are the norm. The concept of time boxing and no interference is difficult to maintain in these situations.

Naturally – many times the four discrete categories detailed above, actually mix; so it is common to find a complex product in a global big corporate which is required to comply with firm regulation.

Based on practical experience, the recommended method to tackle these scenarios and others is by empowering the Agile PMO to act as an enabler, driver and translator between the emerging Agile-Scrum teams and the Linear Waterfall elements.

Refer to the table below for specific guidelines.

The Agile PMO – leading the hybrid organization – guidelines

ScenarioChallengePossible solutionCommentsInsights 
Big global corporatesStrict controls manifested in Linear WaterfallThe Agile PMO is the buffer between Agile-Scrum teams and the Linear viewBurn down charts are translated to phases for control;Requirement traceability done by PMO architect;Agile PMO maintains the dictionary between sprint planning, execution and the phase gating mechanismProduct owners can be part of the Agile PMO;Project initiating and closing managed by the PMO
ScenarioChallengePossible solutionCommentsInsights 
Highly regulated industriesStrict compliance and paper trail requirement including product risk analysisThe Agile PMO is also resourced by administrative staff to ensure compliance with regulationsProduct risk is managed on a lifecycle view with members of the Scrum-Agile team;Backlog populated by Non-functional yet critical requirement and owned by the Agile PMOAgile PMO staff maintains traceability of these requirements.Necessary documentation is part of the backlogThe added administrative effort handled by the PMO is compensated by the increased velocity of the Agile teams.Administrative PMO staff can also be non-functional product owners to ensure compliance aspects
ScenarioChallengePossible solutionCommentsInsights 
Complex predefined productsLimited flexibility in product scope tends to deteriorate  Agile implementations to Agile by name only; Also, hardware elements of product can’t be performed in an Agile approachThe Agile PMO owns the backlog interfacing with the various components of product development – managing a hybrid Agile-Linear projectThis is probably the most difficult and tricky scenario to tackle;It requires technical as well as leadership propensity and know-how.Experience shows that by investigating creatively – Agile concepts can be implemented in rigid hardware development environmentsAlso – rigid product requirements still allow usually 20% flexibilitythe most value added can be reaped in this scenario by developing a customized mixed approach;Agile stage deliveries can be used to increase flexibility.Concepts of incremental deliveries may sometimes not be achievable in all product aspects
ScenarioChallengePossible solutionCommentsInsights 
Generic IT departmentsConstant changes to team’s work, inability to see the big picture due to ad-hoc work interfering;missing a true product ownerThe Agile PMO substitutes the product owner role in acting as a buffer to oncoming requests also protecting effort to reasonable levelsMany disheartened IT departments have become bitter when trying to use Agile to their development and ongoing work; the result has been fatigue laden team, viewing Agile as a vicious manipulation to increase output without genuine management support; more than a single project management approach can be practicedNoticeably, Kanban works better for these environments;Time boxing still makes sense, however a certain predefined buffer for ad-hoc work should be built into each sprint; Sprint durations should be flexible

Important best practices to remember that go hand in hand with the Agile PMO:

  • Implementing Agile-Scrum as a restricting admonition is exploiting the adaptive nature of Agile
  • There is no one right way – no one size fits them all;
  • There is no silver bullet – you can create what works for you;
  • Being agile and adaptive also allows being flexible with how one uses the methods, process and Methodology;
  • Time boxing is great as long as you are flexible to change the durations of the time box if necessary;
  • Sometimes the client isn’t directly available, in these cases marketing and product management are a proper alternate;
  • Arbitrary rules don’t complete projects, people do! Empower your team and yourself to choose the appropriate mix of approaches that enable product delivery.

Summarizing – In my book about the Agile PMO I describe how PMOs can succeed only if they create and enhance value through smart portfolio selection (more about that in a future white paper). With the emerging of Agile approaches and specifically Scrum methods new opportunities have become apparent. Integrating them into an existing control structure – typically presented by a waterfall lifecycle – can be frustrating. We have defined a new key player – the Agile PMO which can be positioned to create a transformation / translation layer between the approached and methods, contributing to higher success levels of these integrations.

The Agile PMO: Kindle / In print

Michael (M.Sc. Engineering) has been providing operational, organizational and management consulting and training for over 15 years. He is a PMP and Gestalt process facilitator, offering training, consulting, and solutions development in project and product management, process improvement, leadership, and team building programs
Michael’s professional background includes a significant expertise in the telecoms, hi-tech, software development, R&D environments and petrochemical & infrastructure business. He has authored eight bestsellers in fields of influencing, projects and leadership.

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