AgileFall: The pitfall of doing agile with a waterfall mindset
Agile isn’t just a framework or a set of methodologies that you implement, and which then just magically optimize your projects and other key business processes without any other changes.
If you’re just implementing agile without reworking your foundational workflows and making a fundamental shift in your culture and mindset, you essentially fall into the pitfall of AgileFall – simulating agility while still sticking to the same rigid and unchanging waterfall approach, basically just adopting agile in theory, but not in practice.
In the first part of this article, we’ll break down the concept AgileFall and a few other closely related ones. The second part will focus on the key priorities of avoiding the pitfalls of AgileFall in order to reap the true benefits of an agile transformation.
What is AgileFall?
We need to start by defining the concept of AgileFall and two very closely related concepts, agile theater and agile cultness.
A combination of “agile” and “waterfall”, the term AgileFall refers to making the transition from waterfall project management to workflows specific to agile project management such as sprints and stand-ups, but without making the necessary mindset shift and becoming more open to change and disruption, which is key to getting the most out of agility.
As such, AgileFall is even worse than just simply sticking to your tried and true waterfall approach, because now you also need to deal with agile-specific stuff on top of the existing waterfall workflows and processes, which takes up even more time and potentially resources as well, without adding any of the value these new agile processes are supposed to bring in an environment that’s actually agile.
An equivalent term is “wagile”, which also basically means just placing agile processes on top of an existing waterfall infrastructure. Elad Simon, the CEO of Craft.io, elaborates on this, pointing out that “the concept of slicing things into sprints and having a scrum master doesn't make you agile. These are good ceremonies for agile, but that's not what makes you agile.”
Agile theater is a concept that’s closely related to AgileFall and can mean the same in cases where the transition to “agile” happened from a strict waterfall approach. It refers to using agile artifacts and processes, without really making the change in mindset that’s at the core of an agile transformation. In our conversation with Planview’s Cameron Van Orman, he defines agile theater as:
“Kind of fake agile transformation, where … you may cloak yourself in some of the agile terminology or mantra, but you're not really doing it to enable business agility.”
Much like agile theater, agile cultness refers to prioritizing agile ceremonies and naming conventions without making other actual necessary changes to become agile, i.e. the mindset shift and embracing change. It’s essentially overcompensating for lack of agility with agile ceremonies and fooling yourself that you are agile. As Elad Simon puts it:
“Ceremonies and frameworks don't make the change. Don't confuse that with that. They are enablers of change. They are supporters of change. But the fact that you've changed everybody's acronyms and you confused this organization doesn't make you an agile company.”
Note: while AgileFall refers to simulating agility in a specifically waterfall environment, agile theater and agile cultness are both more general and simply refer to simulating agility. Agile theater and agile cultness differ in that the former is more based on necessity (e.g. adopting agile because it’s supposed to make business sense), while the latter actually implies a kind of reverence for agile but failing to make good use of it (e.g. a startup adopting a specific agile framework because it’s supposed to be cool).
The mindset is the key
The key priority for a successful agile transformation should be a mindset shift towards embracing change and not being afraid of trying out new things. Our CEO Iztok put it perfectly in a recent LinkedIn post: agile needs to be about “developing a mindset of continuous learning and improvement, a mindset of adaptation and flexibility, a mindset of responding to change rather than following a set plan.”
LinkedIn post from Agiledrop CEO Iztok Smolic about the key element of agile being the mindset shift of continuous learning rather than sprints & scrum masters
In the already mentioned conversation with Craft.io’s Elad Simon, he also underscored how “the mindset is the key” for agile; you need to accept that you don’t know where you’re going, and then find it out as you iterate. Agile ceremonies such as sprints are meant to enable this process rather than just support and uphold the outdated fixed mindset.
For an enterprise-wide agile transformation, this mindset shift should be a change to the whole company culture, which most often means it will need top-down leadership support for it to really work; if lower-level employees are embracing agile, but management/leadership aren’t willing to abandon the tried and tested ways of doing things, this will just lead to AgileFall / agile theater.
On the other end of the spectrum, if leadership are so keen on agile that they try to implement agility all at once rather than incrementally, and without properly empowering their teams in doing so, that may be overwhelming for employees and in this case they might be the ones to revert to tried and true practices because of too many changes happening too fast.
Similarly, trying to adopt a very specific agile framework that isn’t the best fit for a particular type of business is also likely to lead to some form of AgileFall – implementing something such as SAFe for a small local business, for example. For such a company, incrementally adopting specific agile practices which bring tangible value would have a much higher success rate than overfitting by going all in on a streamlined agile framework.
Another important point is that smaller companies, startups, and digitally native companies tend to have an easier time making a successful transition to agile as opposed to more traditional and/or larger enterprises.
The more complexity and moving pieces there are, the more difficult it is to properly implement agile and help everybody make this crucial mindset shift – especially since another key factor in true agile is the removal of silos, which is that much harder to achieve the more departments and management layers a business has.
As they are typically digital natives anyway, startups tend to be agile, or lean, by their very nature. Digitally native companies are already used to working in the volatile digital environment; if they aren’t open to change and ready for disruption, they can’t expect to compete, let alone succeed in the digital world, and as such they automatically have an upper hand when it comes to agile transformations.
As we have demonstrated throughout this article, agile should be more than just adding sprint cycles and a scrum master to an existing waterfall infrastructure. For real agile transformation, you need to empower every level of your team, from upper management to the lower-level employees, to embrace change, become comfortable in the digitally powered environment, and make the best use of what agile brings to the table.
For those wanting to learn more about business agility and agile practices, here are a few additional resources that we believe will come in handy: