Waterfall in snow

by the Elisabeth White | 4 Minute Read

Sequential ≠ Waterfall

Let’s address the elephants in the room (because they’re loud and obnoxious):

“Our work is sequential, so Waterfall is the only method that supports our projects.”

“We need to utilize projects so Agile won’t help us.”

Waterfall puts an emphasis on upfront planning and strictly ordered phases which give the impression of control and predictability. However, with long development cycles measured in months or years, Waterfall struggles to accommodate change. New business priorities or shifting user needs often require major rework as a project goes off the rails from its initial plan. The rigidity of Waterfall also leads to siloed teams and lackluster collaboration. Knowledge workers must thoroughly document specifications early on, before fully understanding requirements or challenges that emerge later. This throws roadblocks in the way of creativity and problem-solving.

While no method manages all situations perfectly, Waterfall tends to buckle under large initiatives with lots of unknowns. And today, that description fits more and more projects – even long-running, sequential ones like infrastructure upgrades, database migrations, or compliance initiatives.

Agile emphasizes adapting to change, frequent reassessment, and cross-functional collaboration. How does that mesh with infrastructure upgrades, compliance initiatives, or other projects with strictly ordered tasks? Well, it turns out Agile and sequential work can coexist more often than you may think. The key lies in taking a fresh look at what it means to be “Agile.” An Agile mindset values responding to feedback, breaking large goals into smaller steps, and frequently adjusting course. Sequential work often stands the most to gain from those principles.

Too often, people equate "Agile" with a specific framework like Scrum rather than an adaptable mindset. Daily standups, two-week sprints, and prescribed roles like Scrum Master dominate perception. But Agile philosophy extends far beyond any particular manifestation.

At its core, agility involves flexibly responding to volatility, embracing change, and frequently adjusting efforts based on feedback. Those timeless principles for efficiency and innovation predate software methods like Scrum. By expanding our mental model of agility beyond narrow associations, we discover helpful lessons for nearly any domain.

Agile thinking empowers teams to tackle dynamic, complex problems through small experiments, evidence-based decisions, and lightweight governance. That works for far more than just coding features! Whether you oversee infrastructure upgrades, compliance processes, vehicle design, supply chains, or countless other group efforts, Agile principles unlock better solutions.

Kanban can provide needed flexibility without sacrificing too much planning or control. Kanban teams still follow a structured, sequential workflow. Work-in-progress limits reduce bottlenecks and keep attention focused on finishing rather than starting tasks.

Perhaps most crucially, Kanban teams assess progress through quick daily syncs. They can catch blockers early, identify dependency issues between components, and collaborate on solutions. Short feedback loops create opportunities to tweak upcoming work based on recent results rather than waiting months to have input.

Kanban brings all those advantages while preserving the sequential nature critical for infrastructure and development projects. It embraces Agile principles without insisting on lockstep adherence to frameworks like Scrum that prove impractical.

While Kanban offers opportunities to improve any workflow, implementations risk going off the rails without due attention. Some common pitfalls include:

  • viewing Kanban as a “free-for-all” without due deliberation or planning
  • failing to reinforce explicit policies leading to uneven execution
  • adding superficial ceremonies without addressing underlying issues
  • letting teams overlook upstream dependencies and value focus.

Thoughtful Kanban adoption requires care across three key dimensions:

  1. Flow – What constraints currently limit throughput and cycle time within this system? How can we smooth impediments at points of hand-off?
  2. Value – Are teams working on items that deliver maximum benefit to customers downstream? How can leadership reinforce priorities?
  3. Transparency – Does every team member have visibility into how their work impacts others? Are issues surfaced quickly enough to address them?

By intentionally focusing on flow, value and transparency, Kanban principles inject agility into sequential processes without devolving into chaos. The goal remains realizing business outcomes more efficiently, not conforming to specific tactics. Leaders must reinforce that vision for teams to see Kanban’s full benefits.

What say you, elephants?

Sequential work need not equate to sluggish work. Just as Agile teams learn to adapt plans with new information, leaders overseeing cascading projects must learn to spot waste and delays before they paralyze downstream efforts. Kanban offers the right lens for bringing business agility to initiatives enterprise-wide, not just those labeled “Agile.” Rather than asking how to make a process conform to Agile or Waterfall, ask how to improve its flow. From that perspective, every initiative has room to learn.

If you are ready to bring flow, value, and transparency to your large-scale initiatives, give us a call!

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