Hybrid Project Management: Finding a Happy Medium Between Agile and Waterfall

It seems that the longstanding dichotomy of Waterfall versus Agile project management approaches is ending. Essentially, these methodologies diverge in their approaches to predictability and adaptability. Waterfall projects require all predetermined features to be finished and implemented before the project is deemed complete, while Agile projects aim for the release of a minimum viable product, which is then enhanced via user feedback. This feedback determines the optimal path for subsequent development.

What is the Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Exactly?

Since its official introduction over twenty years ago, the Agile methodology has gained widespread adoption in software development, which was formerly reliant on Waterfall approaches. In order to reap the benefits of both methodologies, a hybrid approach that integrates Agile within a broader Waterfall structure has been formulated.

Jim, who serves as a project manager, Scrum master, Agile coach, and instructor for Works in Boston, suggests that “real hybrid work is a blend of both predictable and uncertain work.” He elaborates that while Waterfall methods are utilised in a hybrid model for the more predictable aspects of the project, Agile methods are employed for the parts that are more iterative and less definite.

Employing Agile methodology during software development and Waterfall methodology during deployment, companies can optimize the efficiency of their product development. For instance, a financial institution may be required to follow the Waterfall model of deployment for large product components due to a thorough auditing process. Despite this, the development team may still employ Agile practices during sprints, particularly when iterating through smaller feature segments and user interface elements.

Developing the optimal hybrid system for any project necessitates a high degree of adaptability. Mike, a member of the Works Project Management screening team and blog contributor based in Belgrade, Serbia, has an exceptional viewpoint on this topic. “I believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is inadequate,” he remarks. “Simply referring to a few methodologies in a book and using them indiscriminately is insufficient. One must understand how to customize these procedures to various factors, such as the team’s experience, company culture, subject matter culture, project type, team size, and product size.

What are the Benefits of Using a Hybrid System?

Although Agile methodology is renowned for being more adaptive, innovative, and efficient, it may not be the best option for an organisation accustomed to functioning within a Waterfall system. The temptation to switch to Agile may be present; however, it may not be the most feasible choice for such an organisation.

John, a member of Works’ Project Management screening team and a project manager based in Córdoba, Argentina, highlights the challenges of implementing Agile in highly regulated industries. This is due to rigorous approval processes and timetables that necessitate documentation and auditing for products in these sectors. In instances where risk is a primary consideration, the Waterfall method may be more appropriate. John references his work experience in a clinical trials organisation where audits were exceptionally stringent and external entities like the FDA had to be taken into account. He notes that the Agile approach, which involves adapting or prioritising scope and backlogs, could potentially interfere with these audits.

Dave, a Works project manager based in Brussels, Belgium, emphasises the importance of carefully timing releases for assignments that necessitate privacy protection. Dave managed a hybrid team that recently developed a Microsoft Azure Active Directory identity management platform for a European banking group. To ensure the bank’s privacy data was adequately secured, the team utilised Agile for certain development steps but hosted the system on a local server. According to Dave, “The on-premises implementation must be completed first, followed by the cloud implementation. After that, the two can be linked. It’s critical that these steps are performed in the correct order for the project to be successful.”

Stringent regulations and data protection requirements have resulted in the majority of project managers we consulted for this article working on hybrid projects for clients in the financial sector. Grant, a Works project manager based in Johannesburg, South Asia, has extensive experience in financial services, banking, and stock exchanges. He mentioned that he has effectively implemented an equities trading engine and a derivatives trading engine, both of which required a significant amount of regulatory compliance in relation to master data as well as a high level of integration.

To ensure compliance with vital procedures, a Waterfall approach is commonly adopted; however, Agile principles can be incorporated to enhance the process. Breaking up major epics into smaller user stories allows for more flexibility in the development process while still releasing the epics over an extended period. As Schuleman explains, this can be accomplished by utilising a Big Bang delivery, where the team incrementally deploys to a user acceptance testing environment. Once all features have been verified in the UAT environment, the project can be released to production, which may take up to a year based on the project’s scope.

Schuleman’s most extensive program comprised 10 projects with a team of 120 members, which consisted of a mix of Waterfall, Scrum, and hybrid approaches. In order to ensure that all smaller teams were properly coordinated and operating at a similar pace for upcoming sprints, Schuleman held a “Scrum of Scrums” every two weeks.

The Toughest Challenge of Adopting a Hybrid Approach

As a project manager, it is crucial to determine the optimal blend of Agile and Waterfall methodologies for the product, team, and individuals involved to guarantee successful implementation of a hybrid Agile-Waterfall system. According to Mike, failure is probable if these methodologies are employed without any adaptation to meet the unique needs of the project.

Grant attempted to introduce Agile practices into an upgraded version of an existing application, but ultimately had to abandon the project. The experiment failed because the developers, who were all accustomed to following Waterfall methodologies, became perplexed by the categorisation of work into epics and user stories. Grant noticed that when developers were given a user story for a sprint, they would ask why “there are 10 other user stories linked to this application that haven’t been included in the scope.” It became evident that they wished to work on all aspects of the project simultaneously.

For a hybrid system to succeed, it’s critical that team members and management personnel are receptive to change and willing to embrace new concepts. According to Jim, many team members and managers have a inadequate comprehension of project management and are more inclined to adhere to conventional methods, such as the Waterfall model, owing to their unfamiliarity with the new process. As a result, it’s vital to educate the population on the hybrid system for it to be effectively adopted and implemented.

Furthermore, adopting a hybrid methodology isn’t appropriate for every circumstance. As per certain project managers, combining different methodologies may create more difficulties than it solves. John stated, “In general, utilising a hybrid approach isn’t a wise decision. You increase your chances of failure by merging the worst aspects of both worlds.” Agile processes are created to be flexible and adaptable, but their utility becomes limited when employed in a Waterfall setting. Waterfall’s linear and inflexible nature can make it difficult and expensive to make changes. While introducing Agile into a Waterfall structure can bring in non-linear elements, it can also come with its own set of challenges.

Despite the potential risks of hybrid projects, if managed and executed correctly, they can provide numerous benefits. Mike recently spearheaded a successful hybrid project for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, in Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a plan-driven project, however, both parties agreed to utilise a mix of traditional and Agile approaches. All requirements, specifications, and other essential elements were carefully documented, but the teams still worked within an Agile framework.

The Republika Srpska government benefitted from this approach by obtaining a high-quality product at a more reasonable cost and within a shorter timeframe. As per Mike, various organisations, ranging from governmental entities to unrelated organisations, were involved in the project. Despite the complexity involved, the project was ultimately successful.

Hybrid Technology as an Upgrade to Agile

In recent years, with the widespread adoption of digitalisation across various industries, there has been a growing trend of businesses showing greater interest in the Agile methodology. According to Jim, there has been a rapid adoption of Agile practices in Human Resources departments. Moreover, a Dutch police force has successfully employed task boards to reduce the backlog of criminal cases.

Even if your business isn’t quite prepared to fully adopt Agile principles at present, the long-term benefits of gradually implementing Agile methodology can be significant. One of the primary benefits of Agile is its capacity to effectively navigate uncertainty. As Schuleman observed, “Agile is much more advantageous in situations of uncertainty, which are the norm rather than the exception.”

One of the primary advantages of Agile is its transparency. According to a user, “I favour Agile due to the ease of tracking progress. With a Waterfall approach, there is a tendency to make exaggerated progress claims, such as ‘We’re 20% complete,’ or ‘We’re 30% complete.’ However, it’s common for progress to stall at 80% and remain stagnant for an extended period, making it effortless to conceal issues. With Agile, daily standup meetings ensure that if any user stories are stagnant, it’s easy to identify the problem and take remedial steps.”

According to Jim, a considerable number of IT projects fail each year due to the absence of Agile methodology. Had Agile been integrated into the project, it could have saved both time and money while delivering more value to the customer. He suggests that if Agile had been implemented, the 35% to 40% of IT projects that fail annually could have been prevented.

Mike contends that gradually introducing Agile practices through a hybrid system may be advantageous, especially when specific Waterfall approaches are beneficial. This merged system emphasises the discovery phase and creates a more comprehensive product backlog than would be utilised in a purely Agile project. Furthermore, this approach aids the team in gaining a more thorough understanding of the project’s ultimate objective. Mike stresses that the entire team must comprehend the product details to cultivate a sense of product ownership.

Although your organisation may not have the capability to fully adopt an Agile methodology, you can still leverage some of its fundamental principles to enhance project performance. Tactics such as daily standups and shorter, frequent delivery cycles can deliver significant advantages without necessitating a complete overhaul. However, to ensure success, a hybrid approach must be implemented with great care, wisdom, and caution.

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