Forget About Agile vs. Waterfall, It’s About Silo Busting

Agile is not the answer to all of your company’s problems. Silo busting is. Trust me, I know. I’ve been a ScrumMaster and Agile Coach for eight years now. Every single company I’ve worked at said they were doing Agile. That was somewhat true. Part of the company was doing Agile. Software development teams were pulling work from a backlog, having daily standups, and planning work. Usually teams were making some effort toward continuous improvement and automation. They were trying to build relationships with business stakeholders.

These are all great efforts. But this does not mean the company as a whole is Agile. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the company is effectively delivering business value to customers. Agile vs. waterfall isn’t the issue, it’s communication across the organization. Silo busting is the key ingredient to successfully getting stuff done.

Go Silo Busting

Let’s forget all about the words Agile and waterfall for the moment. Let’s forget altogether about styles of organizing work. Frameworks in and of themselves will not solve your company’s problems. Thinking in terms of frameworks can be divisive and create walls. Let’s get back to the basics of busting silos, the true killer of productivity. What are the basic components that an enterprise must have to be effective?

A Single, Prioritized Enterprise Backlog

The number one problem I’ve seen across companies is the lack of a single, prioritized enterprise backlog.

Why is this important? If you don’t establish a priority, people will make one up. The person or department that yells the loudest will get their work prioritized first, even if it’s not the next most important thing for the enterprise. Conflicts arise due to confusion about priorities. Business stakeholders get upset because their work isn’t getting delivered. Customer satisfaction suffers. Distrust builds. Teams are stretched thin trying to juggle 10 number ones at once. Chaos ensues.

It doesn’t matter how your teams, departments, funding, products, and leadership hierarchy are organized. This will change (it always does). Your company needs one enterprise backlog. And the backlog needs to be published and communicated across the organization. Period. Build and maintain the backlog in a single place, whether it’s a tool like JIRA or a wall of index cards. This is your company’s single source of truth, it’s galvanizing force. Say no to backlog silos!

Get the Right People in the Room

Corporate IT is perpetually bogged down in meeting hell. Large groups of people spend tons of hours in meetings, all day long every day of the week. And yet the majority of the time, people say the meetings are a complete waste of time. Why?

It’s because people are having discussions and making decisions in silos. The meetings feel and are wasteful because not all of the right people are in the room at the right time, and at the same time. This is usually because the people talking about and approving the work are not the same people who are actually going to do the work. The organization’s response to this problem is to add meeting on top of meeting throughout the lifecycle of a project, never quite getting the right mix of people in the room.

Stop. Slow down. Take a breath.

Identify the core team from the onset. Include everyone in the conversation from the very beginning. Get hardcore about meetings — make sure the right people are in the room, make sure everyone knows the expected outcomes, and hold people accountable. Take the leap and do big room planning (everyone required to complete a project from business sponsors and customers to marketing, development, and infrastructure teams) so there’s no confusion about who is doing what when. Eliminate communication silos!

More Tools Does Not Mean Better Productivity

Most places I’ve worked have had multiple tools for tracking work:

  • A project management tool
  • A service desk (production support) tool
  • A team work tracking tool
  • A portfolio planning tool
  • Excel spreadsheets
  • PowerPoint slide decks
  • Word documents
  • SharePoint sites
  • Email
  • Local desktops
  • Shared drives
  • Code repositories
  • Test case management tools

Companies spread critical information about work across all of these tools in a disconnected, jumbled mess. How can anyone effectively find the information they need?

Clean up and reduce your tool stack. Pick one fully integrated application lifecycle management system and stick with it. Document something once, refer to it often. Adopt a fierce policy of storing information in one place, not lost in email, not in 10 different tools, spreadsheets, and documents. The magic is in people, not in tools. Stop getting nuts over shiny new tools and focus on removing information silos.

When In Doubt, Keep It Simple and Communicate

Set aside the debate over whether Agile is better than waterfall. The simplest, most powerful solution for eliminating confusion and getting stuff done is to just talk to each other. People build walls and silos when we avoid doing the simple work of communicating. That’s where change begins.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn.