Fear is Waterfall

The terror of owning a decisionThe big selling point of Agile is the fast return on investment it promises. But what excites me most about Agile is its emphasis on people – agility done well injects humanity back into activities which Waterfall has made bureaucratic and devoid of care. In short, care does not scale.  Waterfall’s “inhumanity” comes from the command-and-control paradigm. Teams are not empowered to make the best decisions based on their know-how. Instead this is taken out of the hands of the team and decided by others who are not actually going to get their hands dirty.

Agility is equated with empowerment, but how is empowerment achieved? I often find teams expecting empowerment to come packaged and delivered to their desks: “we want to be empowered, but we are waiting to be told so”. Empowerment involves seizing that power, not waiting for permission.  Feeling the fear and doing it anyway, to use a famous book title. Boldness is what leads the way. This means that it takes courage to be an empowered team. You can’t sit waiting for power to be bestowed upon you.

Courage will often take the form of: “I think we should do X. I have a good rationale for it. I don’t know if there is some company rule preventing this. I will just do X and see what happens”. Hopefully, your good rationale will include the fact that you will get fast feedback on the success or otherwise of your decision. Hopefully, you will also be brave enough to be transparent about what you have done, even if it doesn’t go as intended. This is courageous because you are owning the decision, you are owning the fact that you don’t know for sure, you are owning the fact that it might go wrong, you accept that you may have to change what you first thought based on the data you get back and you will have to stand up and be counted. This is an Agile state of mind.

Fear drives us to defer action. We want someone else to approve or sign off. We want to investigate more to gather more information in the false hope of reaching certainty. We plan and theorise. We spend a lot of time discussing all the possible things that could go wrong. We debate endlessly about which way to go, imagining that by discussing for longer we will somehow reach a consensus. The one thing we are terrified of is making a mistake. Shock horror – we will never learn from those, right? This is a Waterfall state of mind.

Courage requires a leap of faith – decisions are necessarily made without knowing all the facts, without knowing (or pretending to know) everything up front, and instead trusting your own abilities to believe that you will be able to navigate whatever obstacles present themselves en route.  It is the commitment to a decision which is the key, more than the decision itself.

Has our culture become too risk-averse to think about courage and commitment?

Here is the litmus test to see if you can conquer your fear: all of you … today … now … say “yes”: make a decision, own it, follow it through and face the consequences!


Haran Rasalingam is the Lean Agile Coach at Trainline.

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8 thoughts on “Fear is Waterfall

  1. Pingback: Fear is Waterfall | All About Agile

  2. Hello! I just want to mention one point 🙂 As far as I know most of huge or extremely important projects like software for airspace industry or medicine still being developed with old boring waterfall when every person does what he supposed to do, without any courage or decisions like “I’ll fix it if it goes wrong”. Because they don’t have a right for mistake due to schedule or possible money damage. This is not about majority of commercial Agile projects, of course, but this is also important.

    • Thanks for your comment, Anton.

      Actually I would challenge your point about the airspace industry which seems to be trying to catch up with what are considered to be best practices. To quote one CIO in the airspace industry: “aerospace in general is a little bit behind other industries” (http://www.pwc.com/us/en/technology-forecast/2013/issue2/interviews/interview-ken-venner.jhtml). Presumably this is the case partly because in many other industries a lot more code is written, so they are behind the times.

      Regarding fixing if something goes wrong – this is necessary in all approaches to software development, but Waterfall approaches have been found time and again to find problems latest of all and most expensively.

      And regarding “waterfall when every person does what he is supposed to do, without any courage” – sounds great in theory, but in reality this approach leads to delivery of the wrong things! Requirements become outdated, customers need to modify what they asked for, instructions are interpreted differently by different people. If there is no thinking or collaboration on the ground and the courage to do what is right, rather than what is being instructed from afar, then bad things always happen.

  3. Pingback: Fear is Waterfall | www.thought-bubble.co.uk

  4. I absolutely love this post, and completely agree with it, though I might suggest a build on it if I may. Waterfall is great for delivering predictable environments. You can build a bridge using waterfall because you know gravity will work the same tomorrow as it does today. Agile is best used for complex, unpredictable environments. The problem with fear in waterfall thus comes when you try to apply it to uncertain environments. Like an alcoholic who drinks more and more to get that feeling they want but can never achieve, waterfall people plan more and more in the hope it will deal with the uncertainty in their environment, but it never does. This is a pretty scary thing, so the fear you so rightly describe creeps in. Especially if everyone around them is expecting plan based approaches to work too.

    Of course, a completely predictable environment probably no more exists than a completely uncertain one, but it’s this tension between applying waterfall predictability to uncertain environments for which it is so badly matched that causes so many of these problems, including fear.

  5. I’m revisiting this post after a few months and find myself agreeing even more than when I first read it.

    The pendulum seems to swing from being comfortable with risk at startup (entrepreneurship) to a major mistake which results in some level of project governance, sometimes very draconian. Waterfall not only offers the (perceived) predictability of delivery but also breeds risk aversion in that the accountability is less with people than with process. The inevitable result is more governance, more forms, more risk aversion and less individual initiative and risk taking. The danger is that the culture then becomes sclerotic and stifles any deviation from the waterfall methodology. Fear and risk aversion are the order of the day.

    While following the same set of steps every time without deviation will generally give you good chocolate chip cookies, it will not give you consistent project delivery, especially in IT, because every project is different. Even the Department of Defense (about as hidebound an agency as exists) is looking to Agile to deliver value. Businesses who don’t adapt are going to find themselves scratching their heads about why they have perceived predictability of delivery but are a) behind their competitors and b) are not delivering the right value at the right time.

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