The State of Waterfall

David J Bland
Sep 18, 2015 · 4 min read

The origins of Waterfall Software Development can be difficult to pin down. I’ve found that most experts I speak with refer back to Winston Royce’s paper, published over 40 years ago:

Since I’ve spent most of my career in or around software development, I thought I’d take a moment to share my take on the current state of Waterfall Software Development.

1. Waterfall is alive and well, thriving in Agile Software Development.

Waterfall is doing quite well in many of today’s Agile Software Development implementations. This may surprise you, in fact, what I’m writing may even be a bit controversial in that you’d think the entire Agile Software Development movement was a revolt against the following diagram:

At first glance, I’d agree with you. Everything in the linear process of silo’ed handoffs above seems to be the antithesis of the principles behind Agile Software Development. However, when I go into corporations, many who sheepishly admit to me that they “Aren’t doing agile well”, what I’ve found is eerily similar to Waterfall.

When I look at their physical boards and, more often than not, their Agile Software Management Product, I see a series of sprints labeled in this manner above.

It’s as if they’ve taken all of the pain and dysfunction of the previous Waterfall methodology, and compressed it into 2 week sprints.

Now before you write me an angry email in all caps or tweet at me on how this isn’t Agile Software Development. I agree with you and yet, it doesn’t matter that I agree with you. What matters is the perception of Agile Software Development to the people trying to use it in corporations.

What they’ve done, perhaps without even knowing it, is recreate Waterfall.

2. Waterfall is alive and well, slowly eating Kanban.

First, I want to apologize if you skipped the Agile Software Development portion above because you subscribe to Kanban and feel it is superior and therefore immune to the infection of Waterfall Software Development.

With that apology out of the way, I will illustrate below how people are building Kanban boards inside corporations.

Look familiar?

Now much like the Agilists above, if you were to email and tweet at me protesting how that isn’t Kanban, I would agree with you.

Again, it really doesn’t matter that I agree with you.

This linear workflow pictured above is how people are implementing Kanban today. WIP limits are nowhere to be found and people are still multitasking on way too much work.

To make things worse, as we iterate on Kanban and make it more and more complicated, I believe it will become more and more like Waterfall.

3. Waterfall is quickly becoming friends with Lean Startup.

Ok I could’ve stopped, but I’ll cover Lean Startup since it is also near and dear to my heart.

Here’s how I see some corporations implementing Lean Startup below:

If you wrote a blog about Lean Startup being a linear Build Phase, Measure Phase and Learn Phase, I’d probably send an all caps email or tweet at you claiming how THAT ISN’T LEAN STARTUP.

And it wouldn’t matter.

4. Waterfall isn’t doing so well inside of Waterfall.

Oddly enough, Waterfall isn’t doing so well inside Waterfall. The methodology has become the scapegoat for so many failed projects over the years, that not many people will even admit to following the process anymore.

The Standish Chaos Report (pictured above) is fascinating to me.

Year after year we learn how Waterfall projects fail and Agile projects succeed.

However one has to wonder, if many Agile projects are actually re-envisioned Waterfall projects, does this comparison even make sense anymore?

5. So how did we get here and what do we do next?

Honestly?

I don’t know.

There is a long history that builds up to the current State of Waterfall as I see it and some are even better suited to tell it than I.

Ron Jeffries wrote a very thoughtful and vulnerable essay on the State of Agile and Scrum. I highly recommend going over there and reading his thoughts.

I’d also welcome you to share your thoughts on what we should do next or if we should do anything at all next.

If you are on Twitter, use the #stateofwaterfall hashtag.

Want more insights like these from me in your inbox?

David J Bland

Written by

Founder & CEO at http://precoil.com. Helping companies reduce risk by using lean startup and design thinking. Writing a new book on testing business ideas.

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