Working with agility in a waterfall world


In my 5+ years in healthcare, I’ve never been asked to come up with a strategy document.

Ha ha ha! I’m such a liar! Of COURSE I’ve been asked to come up with a strategy document, because where I work this is how things are done. Of course, I don’t see a whole lot of value creating a strategy for the six months when I have no idea what’s going to go on three months from now, but I do it nonetheless, because that’s pretty much the demand:

  1. Perfectly plan your project

  2. Get approval for the plan

  3. Say nothing when things don’t go according to plan

  4. Stick to the plan!

  5. Wait a minute - there’s new information now! Make it fit to the plan.

  6. We have approval for the plan, so we stick to the plan.

  7. My value depends on that bloody plan, so we better make sure it appears as though it’s working perfectly!

  8. Top priority: demonstrating that the plan worked

  9. Result: well, the plan didn’t go perfectly, so we probably need a new plan.

  10. Strike the working committee!! We need a new plan!

This is called the waterfall way of working. It was designed when Elvis was entering his Vegas years and I’ll tell ya, if you wanna build a bridge, it’s the plan for you. Wanna make a cake? Waterfall method. Assemble Ikea furniture without instructions? Waterfall. You’re golden.

Anything that has one - and only one - successful outcome is suitable for the waterfall method.

But if you want to implement a service redesign, if you want to create something new, if you want to navigate a complex solution, then the waterfall method isn’t your friend.

See, there is no room in waterfall method to pivot. There’s no opportunity to accommodate new information, new needs, or new circumstances. Once the plan is launched off the cliff, you can’t change its course. That waterfall has only one place to go.

Oh, sigh. If only there was a way of working that accommodated new knowledge as it comes up…

Ha ha ha, I got you again! Of course there’s a different way of working. There’s, like, fifty-seven different theories about ways of working, but I’m talking about Agile.

Heard of it? Of course you have. You’re not new. You know that working in short cycles with prioritized bite-sized deliverables is the new black. You’re keen on team reflections that review not just what was done but how it was done and whether it was effective.

Yes! Yes! you say, I’m a believer! But, unfortunately, Bob is not.

Bob wants a strategy plan. Bob is your boss’s boss. Bob approves your vacation days.

This is what you do, dear reader, to be true to your agile-loving self while still meeting Bob’s waterfall needs. It’s going to take more of your time, but it’ll be worth it.

First, create your strategy. Start it off, get it sent into the endless whirlpool of edits and approvals and step one is done. You have time now, because it’ll circulate there for a loooooooong time.

Now’s the time to shine, reader. Take that project plan, that strategy plan, and make a list of everything that has to be done in order to meet your goal. Then prioritize that list, item by item, all the while jotting down approximately how much time each task will take. This is your backlog.

Pick enough of the items that will fill your time for the next week, and get that shit done.

At the end of the week, make a note of what you got done, if it was too much or too little, and any barriers that you encountered. Address the barriers. Adjust your picks for the next week, and off you go again.

I guarantee that in three weeks you’ll have made more movement on that project than you would have in months using the waterfall method. I’ll bet your project plan is still being circulated for approval.

Now, after about a month, go to Bob. Explain that you’ve been trying this new way of working and that it’s gotten you so far ahead with your deliverables that you have to CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY. Also explain that you anticipate you’ll have to continuously change the strategy if you continue to exceed all your deliverables this way. THEN ASK FOR PERMISSION TO CONTINUE TO EXCEED DELIVERABLES IN THIS WAY.

Bob has nothing to lose. You’re getting shit done while everyone else is waiting for approval and if you need to rework a few things (because of new information) well that’s no big deal because that’s how agility works!

Dear reader, I believe in you - but Bob’s gonna have to see some evidence that agility delivers before he can get behind it. After all, Bob wants things to go well, he just doesn’t have the same space to experiment with. He needs YOU to prove it.

What do you think? Are you bold enough to try?

...if you are - let me know how it goes so that I can say I told you so.


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