How to Thrive as an Agile Department in a Waterfall Company

Being an Agile department in a waterfall organization is full of challenges. Here are three things you can do to bridge the gap and help your team thrive.

James Taylor

James Taylor, Founder

May 24th, 2022 5 min read

Much to the chagrin of Agile-following product teams and IT pros, waterfall remains the default project management methodology in most organizations. And despite the glaring issues waterfall systems present — like the last-minute marketing requests we’ve all struggled to accommodate — it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

So, where does this leave Agile?

As a product leader, it’s up to you to bridge the gap between Agile and waterfall and help your team thrive. Fortunately, it’s not as impossible as it sounds.

Here are a few things you can do to help your Agile department thrive:

Establish a Process, Stick to It, and Share It

Management often opposes the Agile methodology because they misinterpret it as, “I’ll do what I want and take as long as I want.” The idea of removing hard deadlines and due dates contradicts everything they’ve learned about effective project management.

But while the Agile manifesto encourages prioritizing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, it doesn’t explicitly say to reject processes altogether.

Instead, make an effort to align your team on a system. For example, define the length of your sprint cycles, your user stories, and your acceptance criteria. You don’t have to follow frameworks like Scrum or Kanban, but you do need to have a clear process that everyone agrees to follow.

Once you’ve hammered out these details, provide transparency into how your team operates by publishing your process to the organization.

“There is a lot of unease around Agile because it tends to operate in a Black Box. As a result, many business managers view Agile developers as a rogue team and approach it with a heavy dose of skepticism,” says Jennifer Jaffe, VP of Product at Jama Software, in CIO. “However, if these teams could show their progress and demonstrate how it accrues to the overall vision for the project, more managers and business leaders would be on board.”

Frequently Communicate Your Progress to Earn Buy-In and Trust

Often, teams sell senior leadership on Agile by highlighting its flexibility and capacity to ship things faster. Then, when a senior manager makes a request, they’re told the team is focused on other priorities and will handle the request after they’ve completed their current sprint. 

Inevitably, in these cases, the current project takes longer than expected, and the senior manager gets impatient and returns to their old ways. (Like making requests with fixed deadlines.) Eventually, the entire team abandons Agile principles to please executives and struggles to make substantial progress on big-picture items.

To prove Agile works, you have to commit to frequently communicating (and displaying) your progress. By breaking projects down into smaller chunks, you’ll make it easier to deliver little bits of functionality to users, collect iterative feedback, and provide senior managers with evidence of your progress. This isn’t easy, especially when you’re already part way into a project. But it’s worth it to figure out how to ship bits of workable software frequently with the intent that the rest of the organization will notice.

It’s also helpful to hold sprint reviews with stakeholders and package your presentations in bite-sized, sharable bits that won’t overwhelm busy executives.

Stay Committed to Company Objectives

There’s a common misconception that an Agile department is a rogue, structureless, undisciplined team. One way to flip the script and change the perception of Agile project management is to use company objectives as your north star.

In other words, identify the top organizational objectives and ensure your projects always directly support those initiatives. Then, when someone makes a request, have a frank conversation about whether or not it ties into key objectives. This helps your Agile department prioritize efforts, shows senior management that you’re dedicated to the overarching mission of the organization, and helps stakeholders recognize the value of your work.

In my experience as a consultant who has worked with several organizations, no one does it perfectly. Even when companies adopt a framework, they don’t follow it 100%. It’s easy to get frustrated when other department heads and senior stakeholders fail to recognize the power of Agile, but it’s vital you start somewhere and stay the course. Once they see the benefits, you’ll earn their trust and buy-in.