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Handling Reminisces of a Glorious Waterfall Past

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As a coach, I’ve had several opportunities to be involved in the process of big organizations moving from waterfall to agile. You usually start with frowning faces, people coming to meetings reluctantly, armed with a load of cynicism and skepticism. Then after some time, something magical happens – things change to the better. Spring has arrived!

During those first months, at the beginning of the implementation, times are hard. People are struggling. And very soon you start to hear complaints and people telling you how great it was before all this. Before all this agile. When design documents were design documents. When they had time to work. Suddenly the past becomes a lost haven. In training, in coaching sessions, you hear people reminiscing about some glorious past.

The key to addressing these issues is to find out how exactly was it at those times.

“In the past, we had time to write thorough and in-depth designs!”: One of the first issues is how to move from big design documents (many times part of the contracting process with the client) to a more agile process. A good question to ask is whether those designs were actually implemented as is or were any changes made during development. Initial designs should still be made, of course, to see the big picture and set the path ahead, yet the focus is more on the conversation and less on a detailed document.

“What do you mean you did not meet your commitment? In the past, people would die to make it on time!”: Very fast, managers see that teams do not meet the sprint’s commitment, and questions about meeting the overall timeline start to surface. At first, you might get the (false) impression that when the waterfall was used, everything ended on time. This is usually not the case. Start asking how things really happened. Was everything working when they finished? Were any defects detected by the client? In addition, it should be noted that it takes time for a team to find out it how much it is that they can do in iteration. For that you need patience.

“How come everything breaks down on the first week of development? In the past at least the first few months were calm”: Agile brings up issues very early in the process, unlike the waterfall process, in which things surface late in the game. This early flood of issues raises a concern in management. This should be anticipated.

”Since we started this agile thing we are under constant pressure! In the past, we could bide our time”: As stated in the previous point, while in a waterfall there’s a long quiet time (before the chaos starts) in agile there should be (but that isn’t always the case) constant healthy pressure. If the pressure is not healthy, it is a good time to find out why. In addition, never forget that people need time to adapt to the change, and to think of the little tweaks they need to do to make it work. Being under heavy pressure is key to failure.

“Suddenly people are coming up with ideas about how we should do things, questioning decisions about what we do. In the past, we didn’t waste so much time on that!”: when the implementation goes well, you see oppressed people transforming into thinking people who care, people with ideas, which is good but changes the dynamics of the organization, specifically at lower ranks. This is something to discuss when starting the implementation.

”Product Owners? We don’t have the budget for that. We used to do just fine without it.”: Product owners were always there, hidden under the disguise of team leaders and experts (and sometimes, others). Someone always needs to make the requirements clearer – it is good to ask who did it and then uses it to explain why no new budget is required – it was part of what they did. If nobody did it, it was probably manifested in quality issues and someone should probably start doing it.

Making a change is always hard. Moving from waterfall to agile is a big change. Always remind people why they are doing this change and always help them to remember how it really was back in the good old days.

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