Isn’t “Agile” Just a Series of Mini-Waterfall Projects? Absolutely Not!

Eugene LaiThu, 10/03/2019 - 09:51

One of the questions I get regularly from my training classes is a question that is often difficult to give a good response because it requires somewhat of a lengthy explanation. I will try to keep it as short and to the point as possible here, so here it goes…

“Isn’t Agile just a series of mini-Waterfall projects?”

Agile vs. Waterfall

The short answer is “No”. Obviously, the answer is “No” because if Agile is merely simply a collection of mini-Waterfall projects, there wouldn’t be a need to undertake so much effort to adopt Agile and change the way people think and how they do their work.

Most of the time, this question comes from lack of understanding on what “Agile” is, so I will try to explain it here.

Although it is simple at its core, the Agile approach is much more complex than simply breaking a big sequential project down into smaller, multiple sequential projects. There are some subtle nuances here that most newcomers to Agile have difficulty seeing:

  1. High-level planning – Agile projects require planning at multiple levels, and for the purposes of this article, the Product Roadmap would be the most important level to address. Waterfall projects require a detailed plan that often consists of task-level detail, which is not the case with Agile projects. Agile iterations (or sprints) are constructed with the high-level objectives in mind, which is not the same as a Waterfall project. If an Agile project is truly a series of mini-Waterfall projects that are run back to back, there would be no consideration of the work between each iteration/increment.
  2. Start/finish of work is not planned upfront – Agile projects are planned at a high level, and executed in a semi-fluid fashion; what this means is that work can begin/finish on any day of the project, and this timing is not explicitly planned out as you would in a Waterfall scenario. This is one of the main reasons that Agile projects provide more flexibility and adaptability; the iterative nature of the model embraces change instead of trying to prevent change from taking place.

In closing, Agile projects are entirely not the same as a collection of mini-Waterfall projects that are stacked one after the next. While it may be challenging to see this immediately, if you look at it from a more holistic perspective, you will see the seemingly insignificant difference that has dramatic impact on how the team performs their work and delivers value to the customers.