Chat with us, powered by LiveChat
back to blog

Can Agile and Waterfall Co-Exist?

Last updated: 10.05.20
Can Agile and Waterfall Co-Exist?

Agile development promises so much that it can become an impossible dream. In fact, many agile implementations, coming up from the grassroots, are still immature. Adoption is spotty while the ruins of legacy, milestone product development process remain. Yes, you’re doing agile, but it exists within a larger planning framework. 

The truth is that executives have milestones and that’s the environment where agile dev lives. Public companies are managed and held to these yearly milestones because Wall Street manages by measuring companies quarterly. Companies make commitments to investors and are rewarded for fulfilling them. The outward-facing part of your organization operates according to waterfall assumptions and related cycles of planning. 

We have worked with companies that have developed a hybrid that provides a transition between agile teams and waterfall processes. It’s not merely the case that these systems can co-exist – creating a smooth transition between them is the best solution. 

Agile Reach Is Wide

Many principles of agile apply also to executive teams. For instance, such injunctions as; “Business people and developers work together daily”; “Projects require motivated individuals, support & trust” or “Face-to-face conversation is most efficient” are not specific to dev teams, sprints, scrum masters or any of the apparatus of agile. There’s no reason that these principles cannot operate at any level, or within any function or team in the company. The adoption of such principles enhances the performance of the executive team and represents one opportunity to increase agile’s adoption.


75% of the agile manifesto can apply to development of any type


Another opportunity is to create a strategic process that enables teams to remain agile, while also maintaining the needs of upper executives for longer-term planning cycles. Companies that create a smooth transition and clear integration points between agile and waterfall get the best of both worlds.


Agile And Waterfall as Integrated Systems

We have helped teams with a phased process, with milestones and gate reviews, developing a hybrid approach, embedding sprints within a more structured dev process. Some of these teams had lead times of as long as 18 months. They cut this long timeframe into sprints, and then, nested them within their legacy process as shown in the diagram below. The company found that embedding sprints within a larger structure speeded decision-making. Dividing a longer dev process into small, achievable steps, with deliverables on a fixed schedule, preserved the team’s focus and kept the project on the boil, compressing timelines.

How did they do it? Through release planning. While epic plans take a product strategy approach, looking at multiple projects, release plans look at an individual project and its dependencies over a nine-month (or so) period. Release plans look out over a span of many sprints in order to set the point of release. Milestones drive the release plan, while sprints are the means to reach the next milestone.  

Waterfall Milestone "N" - Nested Sprints - Waterfall milestone "N+1"


The release plan manages:

  • Critical dependencies between projects
  • Launching to customers
  • The internal milestones, nesting sprints to achieve them

Release Plans treat each milestone as a release point. They form a natural and strategic link between agile and waterfall. 

One of our clients found that nesting agile within a waterfall process using release planning eliminated status meetings. Since demos and deliverables get defined for each sprint, the status of projects remained clear throughout the process. As long as the team performs and delivers as planned in each sprint, managers should leave them alone. Only when the team appears to be veering off course, will they inform management and trigger a new agreement around a baseline for the sprint. 

Nesting sprints within a larger process restores the proper role of management – enabling the team to be successful.


A Hybrid Process Is Best in Class

One culture change challenge that remains is for managers to adapt to a world where they must empower teams and give up some control. Management has its structures of control, while agile teams need the freedom to be creative. A hybrid process that takes advantage of the planning advantages of waterfall, with the speed, creativity, and energy of agile reconciles these two needs.


Modifying Agile: Areas of Biggest Gains


Scaled agile requires converting an entire organization to a new paradigm. This is an extensive change management effort that, in many public companies, is difficult to manage given the world outside of the company. A better solution is a hybrid process that acknowledges upper management’s need for a longer-term focus while preserving the energy of scrum. It is not only achievable – it’s best in class.