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4 Times Waterfall Projects are the Better Choice

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Written by James Smith

Customer Success Manager


At times, Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls can seem like the theme song of the Agile movement, but come on—nobody actually says that without making a TLC  reference. Yes, it seems that many out there fall somewhere between awaiting the coming Apocalypse, or celebrating with a pint at Waterfall’s wake and talking about the old times. But is Waterfall really gone? Are we to believe that, given enough time, all companies will see the light and adopt agile methodologies and stop worrying about schedules, dependencies, and command/control? Not so fast. While I certainly agree with (and have written at length about) the idea that many programs, projects, and companies can benefit from a healthy dose of agility, we shouldn’t be so quick to discount and dismiss more traditional methods like Waterfall in certain cases. In many instances, these have been the born through years of best practices, and have developed over time. In this article, I’ll attempt to outline 4 of these cases and shed some light on the reasons why Waterfall is still alive and well.

To put it generally, Waterfall will be the better fit when you have some certainty about what the requirements should be, what the timeline will be, and there is minimal expected change. Waterfall can also be a better option when things must be done in a certain way, which is often the case in regulated industry sectors. Contrary to popular opinion, change is not always constant. To quote the philosopher Kenny Chesney, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A number of customers I’ve worked with have been trying to bring a degree of normalcy to their teams and create processes that are repeatable to save time. Some of the success stories include professional services teams, law firms, event planning, and marketing companies. The professional services and marketing companies have some similarities in that they’ve developed best practices for working with customers and delivering something specific, so I will discuss them together. The law firms fall into the category of regulated industry. While event planning is not regulated in quite the same way, there are still some similarities between that industry, and the legal industry.

First, we will discuss PS and Marketing. Each of these have developed a set of specific guidelines that dictate how they work with their customers. Also, importantly, each of these guidelines has sprung up out of observing best practices over time, taking what works, and making that the standard. It has not been the result of an initial careful plan, to which the organization has rigidly adhered. One example of a professional services success story has been in implementing software. The software does not change much between each customer delivery. If it is a “point solution,” it is fulfilling a specific customer need, and there will not be significant variation in the makeup of each environment. You may have some modularization of the delivery; for example, your software may have a client for Sharepoint, Exchange, SQL, and File Server, and perhaps customer A has all of those, but customer B has hosted email and doesn’t require the Exchange client. After delivering a lot of these services, you know that installing, syncing, and testing the software takes x amount of time, and has to follow process y. This becomes your benchmark, which helps you address any anomalies that exist outside the norm – was there an error in scoping, or is there a new edition of the server that is no longer compatible with your software? Then you can determine if this should be rolled back in to the template for the next customer. Marketing is very similar. You will likely have a very similar method for every customer, perhaps with a 2 week timeline of gathering requirements, 1 month to produce a draft deliverable for customer feedback, another month of revision to arrive at the final draft, etc. After all the deliverables are produced, you plan to send out mailers for them twice a month for the next 12 months. These are requirements that will not change, and therefore another great opportunity to implement Waterfall.

Second, we have the regulated industry. While Event Planning is not heavily regulated in the same way that Law is, it is under the greatest regulator: time.  Planning for a large event requires a scope, and careful planning of details, because it has an ultimate deadline. Everything that happens running up to the day of the event is in the service of that deadline. There is not much margin for error for not delivering the entire plan on schedule. Once again, best practices develop over time, and planning teams know exactly how long certain core activities take to complete. Each of these activities typically has a deadline of its own prior to the day of the event, and failing to deliver them on time can throw off the ability to host the event. Similarly, when a judge issues a Case Management order, the trial is set with a hard and fast date. Leading up to the trial, there are a number of filing deadlines—the law firm has to submit witnesses, expert witness, dispositive motions, etc. The trial prep follows a very specific process, most of which is mandated by the court. Failing to meet the deadlines leading up to the trial can result in serious repercussions. So once again, we have an industry that not only answers to regulation, but to time.

I could go on, as there are many other examples where Waterfall just makes more sense. As I was writing this, several others came to mind that share similar characteristics to the cases I outlined above. The key to success, when it comes to Waterfall, is making sure that the plan / schedule has been derived from best practices learned over time, rather than disconnected planners sitting in a room and coming up with a grand master plan. Hopefully this article has helped to illuminate the other side of the Agile vs. Waterfall debate. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts!