Why waterfall kicks ass

I read a blog post about why waterfall is NEVER the right approach and I feel compelled to respond to what’s touted as the waterfall mindset. Here’s a copy of the paragraph, but you can read the whole post on the above link to get a better sense of context.

I actually don’t believe adopting waterfall as an approach is ever a good choice.  Waterfall comes with the following mindset:

  • we don’t need feedback between the steps of requirements, analysis, design, code, test
  • we can hand work off
  • big batches are ok since they enable us to be more efficient
  • specialized skills working only on their specialty is good
  • we can understand the work to be done before we do it
  • written requirements can specify what we need

Putting aside for now, the use of absolutes, lets address this waterfall mindset:

1) we don’t need feedback between the steps of requirements, analysis, design, code, test

I’ve worked in both waterfall and agile over the years. In those ‘bad old days’ where no-one appreciated collaboration, we used to extensively review requirements. This meant that testers offered valuable input into requirements before any piece of code was developed. Since the invention of ‘agile’ almost everyone has discovered the 3 amigos, but honestly, this is not an agile concept, it existed way before agile was even thought of.

2) we can hand work off

Honestly, I don’t understand this sentence. I’m serious. I can think of many reasons why handing work to others is a good thing. For instance, if I’ve got too much work I’m in danger of becoming a bottleneck, and I hand some of my work over to someone else. If that’s a waterfall mindset, its one I like to have.

3) big batches are ok since they enable us to be more efficient

What do you mean by efficient here? Does it mean quicker, better quality, less waste? Efficient in what? Design, Writing code? Testing? Support? If I wish to carry 20 oranges from point A to point B, is it more efficient to carry them one at a time, or do I get a bag and carry them all together?Try delivering to a customer 1/4 of an IC circuit and request feedback? Sometimes delivering something in one batch IS the the more efficient way to proceed.

In waterfall, we did have teams, and work was allocated into smaller isolated tasks. It was rare one person developed the whole product. In fact, when I worked on telecommunication systems in the nineties, the concept of frameworks was being introduced, segregating data from its transportation method, allowing for people to work on separate parts of a system in parallel to each other.

4) specialized skills working only on their specialty is good

When I started working at Nortel Networks in 1994 it was all waterfall, except we didn’t call it waterfall then, we called it software development. Nortel Networks had a policy that encouraged developers and testers to spend time working in each others ‘specialisation’ area. For six months I became a developer working to deliver software. I was taught C++ and object oriented design principles, so I’m uncertain why you think this is a waterfall mindset?

5) we can understand the work to be done before we do it

Why is being able to understand work before you begin considered a ‘bad’ idea? I think this phrase is too ambiguous to be able to discuss with any merit.

6) written requirements can specify what we need

Is it the word requirement, or is it the fact that it’s written that makes this a ‘bad’ mindset? Yes we do have written requirements in waterfall. We also have written user stories in agile, so what is the point? Just because stories are written in confluence doesn’t make them any less written.

In the bad old waterfall days, I facilitated workshops with the business and IT teams to determine and understand risk. Lots of verbal collaboration, lots of whiteboard discussions.  I’ve worked in ‘agile’ teams were little communication takes place, no stand-ups nothing. In fact, one developer spent a week working on the wrong story without realising it.

I’ve worked on some fantastic waterfall projects that blew the socks of some really crappy agile teams I’ve worked with recently. In these waterfall projects, I’ve worked in harmony with great developers and testers, working closely together. We were afforded sufficient time to examine the system as a whole instead of its parts, something that these days appears to be a bit of a luxury. I’ve worked in environments that develop hardware, firmware and software where upfront design and ‘big batch’ systems thinking helped us understand that we were not merely developing code, but we were attempting to solve a problem.

Its easy to conflate poor software development practices with waterfall, just as its easy to conflate an agile approach with ‘good’ practice. To me the biggest change since those days are technological ones which allows us develop, integrate and compile it quickly and relatively cheaply. It’s the technology that has allowed us to develop in these small tasks that we are familiar with today. In the early nineties the concept of layering and isolating according to purpose was coming into play but we simply didn’t have the sophisticated systems that allowed us to develop in a way we wanted to.

A second important change was the conception of the agile manifesto. To me the agile manifesto is a stroke of genius. People who had the courage to espouse ideology that placed people over process, tools or artefacts. For many, this has changed how we think about developing software.

But lets not forget, that the agile manifesto was developed by people who worked in what you call a waterfall environment.  It seems to me these people had quite a different mindset than the one suggested above. It seems to me, those who developed the agile manifesto did so with ideas of collaboration and an emphasis on the ‘humanness’   of developing software. Do those ideas come about as a result of what was done badly in waterfall or because of what they saw was working well?

I suspect it was a little of both.

Don’t get me wrong. Lots of mistakes were made pre agile days. There was an idea of segregation between developer and tester in an attempt to avoid bias from developers. I’m glad we’ve gotten over that idea. But many of the mistakes we made in those days we’re still making now. Most software teams fail to understand testing and attempt to measure it using means that appear to have no direct correlation to quality. Many teams use measurement to lock down estimates as opposed to using them as a source of information for change. Go to an agile conference and count the number of talks on process and methodologies and frameworks. Look at today’s obsession with continuous delivery as a process. What happened to the people folks?

It’s easy to understand why. The agile manifesto is bloody hard to implement. Its much easier to point at a tool or a process and say “thats what we do” because its explicit, it’s easy to see. Programming & testing are human activities and are much harder to identify and talk about. It’s hard to describe and transfer these skills. The best way I know of is to actually perform the tasks.

We need a little more humility in acknowledging the great shoulders that agile stands on. Its simplistic to identify in hindsight a ‘waterfall’ mindset. Such a thing did not exist. Instead lets view them as the agile manifesto encourages us to do, to view them as people attempting to deliver quality software just like we are attempting to do today.


  1. Hi Anne-Marie,

    The problem is that people forget that nearly every mega project, from the beginning of history up to this very moment was managed using a form of Waterfall. Agile, as a concept, was devised a decade or so ago and has not proved itself yet, especially in large projects.

    I would like to republish your post on PM Hut, where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.


  2. Here are some quick, random thoughts…

    Waterfall, agile, and TDD.
    AUP, RUP, V and XP.
    This is sounding like a Dr. Seuss rhyme!

    Once you label me you negate me – Søren Kierkegaard

    I support using any of these approaches as a start. Add, edit, delete. Adjust as needed. But, I oppose following any of these approaches blindly.

    Combine the extremes, and you will have the true center – Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel


  3. Agile is just current fashion: The branding looks cool, management like it because this is a way to set people a dailly report requirement the hidden way and they hope a 3 weeks sprint will speed development.
    So what was once used in easy changes contexts like fine tuning a user interfaces (put this button here, change the color of this knob…) with the customer in the loop is now coming to core or base software and even hardware development where this is just a waste of time and energy, with specifications becoming post-it for a story that just goes in the wall, not only because of induced documentation flaws, but also technical project management (as well as pure management that do not anymore assign tasks/build teams and just become pure administrative guys!) is almost ejected in favor of developpers that take the role of scrum master because they love being called “master” until they realise that this come with no compensations!

    Well, agile is just bullshit…


  4. I think in the OP’s point 2, “hand work off” is meant to basically restate point 1, aka “throwing it over the wall” – the idea that each specialty works in sequence without feedback – the BA writes the spec and (hands it over/throws it over the wall with no feedback) to the dev, who writes the code, then hands it over to the tester. I agree with you entirely – I worked in waterfall environments and any good dev/tester/BA asks questions and collaborates to explore the unknown whenever they find something they don’t understand, whatever name you give the process.


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