Adrian Pyne on episode 36 of The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire

“Is there really any such thing as Waterfall?” Find out in this episode of Appfire Presents: The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire.

Project expert and author Adrian Pyne breaks down the elements of traditional project management or “Waterfall,” and determines that Waterfall is just a life cycle. He makes the argument that Agility comprises much more. “When you strip out everything that so-called waterfall (methods, frameworks, approaches) has in common with either software development or project management approaches, the ONLY difference left is the life-cycle.” For more on this topic, check out Adrian’s “Agile beyond IT” newsletter on LinkedIn.

About the guest

A project professional for more than 30 years, Adrian Pyne has led change in 11 industries and in the public sector, in the UK and abroad. Adrian is the author of Agile Beyond IT: How to develop agility in project management in any sector.

About the show

The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire covers everything you ever wanted to know about PPM by talking with project management experts who’ve seen it all. And every episode is 10 minutes or less, so you can get back to changing the world, one project at a time.


For your convenience, here is the transcript of this episode:

Kerry:  Today we’re going to tackle the question is there really any such thing Waterfall. To help us answer that controversial question is Adrian Pyne, a project professional for more than 30 years, he has led change in 11 industries in the public sector in the UK and abroad. He’s also the author of the book Agile Beyond IT: How to Develop Agility in Project Management in Any Sector. Stick around for 10 minutes of project management awesome.

Adrian, it’s something of a controversial question, so let’s talk about this. Is there really any such thing as Waterfall?

Adrian:  Okay. First, context is everything, so they say. Where this has come from are two things. First of all, there is a huge amount out there, whether it’s LinkedIn blogs, people writing and saying there is traditional project management and then there’s Agile project management, and traditional project management is terrible or traditional software development is terrible, so Waterfall approaches are just awful and Agile is everything. That’s crazy for two reasons. 

First of all, there is no such thing as any magic bullet. Any real professional, whether in software development, or engineering, or project management, or anything else, always adapt to the needs of the project, of their organization, because their organization may have certain standards around governance and assurance. That’s what project professionals we do. We say, “What’s the best way to do this project and what’s the best approach that we can take, what’s the best lifecycle that we can do?” That’s the first thing of where it came from.

Then the other thing, I was thinking about this, and I thought hang on a second, what really is Waterfall? Because I got fed up with people talking about Waterfall project management. I’m old, I’m a grumpy old project manager, and I’ve been around in the profession for more than a couple of years, 35 years. I have never known project management to be defined by a lifecycle.

A lot of people say, “What about Deming’s cycle,” the plan, do, review, check. 

Kerry:  I don’t know what Deming’s is. I just host the show.

Adrian:  Don’t worry. It’s a lifecycle that actually came out of manufacturing in the 1950s, so it’s not even project management, but a lot of people cite it as being the lifecycle basis of lot of modern project management. That’s fine. That’s great. But it never has been. There is way more to project management than just a lifecycle.

I thought let’s have a look and see if I can take a look at what’s inside Waterfall approach versus Agile or anything else, whether it’s the Agile business consortiums, DSDM method, or moving over to the software side of things, rapid application development, which was very much in vogue back the ‘90s, maybe a bit earlier. I then started looking at this and looking at lots of papers and what people wrote about Waterfall. Waterfall itself pretty much stems from another paper from the 1970s, a guy called Royce, and it was all about software development, and he came up with the Waterfall lifecycle for large scale software development. That’s, as far as I know, the origin of the term and of the lifecycle.

I looked at as many sources as I could. I thought to myself let’s take software development for a moment. What’s the difference between a Waterfall approach to software development and an Agile approach to software development?

Kerry:  So, you took them apart, kind of?

Adrian:  Absolutely, to look at the components of it. What I’ve discovered is that you do the same stuff in a Waterfall software development approach as you do in an Agile software development approach, you just do it in a different lifecycle. The only difference is the lifecycle. So, Waterfall in software development terms is just a lifecycle.

Then I thought is that the same in project management, when people talk about traditional Waterfall project management? And I found exactly the same thing. You do all of the same stuff in a project with a Waterfall lifecycle as you do in any other project. So, actually there is no such thing as Waterfall project management.

Kerry:  But wait. The roles and behaviors aren’t different?

Adrian:  This is the thing, because nobody anywhere, and I’m very happy to be corrected on this, but I haven’t been able to find anything written down that says this is what all of the roles are or the behaviors are. All of that stuff, no one has defined that for Waterfall. I’ve looked at anything from writings by McKinzie and Accenture and Price Waterhouse and PA Consulting to Forbes Magazine articles to endless blogs on LinkedIn. All anyone ever talks about, whether it’s for software development or project management, is the lifecycle. Nobody talks about roles, nobody talks about behaviors. It’s just mad.

Kerry:  So, it’s like a secret. Everybody thinks everybody else knows what it is, so they don’t say anything.

Adrian:  This is where I got into this, because there’s another Adrian who is fantastic, a guy called Adrian Dooley, who is really the ringmaster for something that has developed over here called The Praxis Framework, which is all public domain stuff and it’s brilliant. You need to talk to him.

Kerry:  Hook me up. 

Adrian:  Absolutely. He came in for a lot of flack when people said, “Waterfall is traditional project management is rubbish and it’s awful,” so he made constructive critical comments and got jumped on by a lot of idiots, and then I defended him, and I got jumped on by some idiots. I thought fine, can you substantiate what you say? And they never bothered replying, or they can’t apart from being insulting, which means you lost the argument. 

I thought I’ll look to see if there’s anything in it. What I’ve concluded is that there is nothing else, if you take out all of the stuff that is common between anything you might do, whether it’s Waterfall based software development with a linear lifecycle, or whether it’s the same thing in project management, if you take out all of the stuff that’s common, all you’re left with is the lifecycle. Nothing else. Everything else is common.

So, that’s it. 

Kerry:  Then it’s not worse than anything else.

Adrian:  No. But when people talk about a Waterfall approach, there isn’t one. The trouble is, why that’s important is if you get hung up on the lifecycle, as I said before, in project management terms, there’s a load more going on inside of a project than just the lifecycle. If you get hung up on the lifecycle stuff, then you’re probably going to miss a far bigger picture and screw up your project. 

The best thing to do is when someone says to you Waterfall approach, basically ignore them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Kerry:  What if they’re your boss or something?

Adrian:  I told you this is grumpy project manager day today.

Kerry:  If it’s your boss, you have to be like, “Yes, let’s do that, and also let’s define roles and behaviors and make sure we have a project charter.” 

Adrian:  But you’re not doing it any different. It’s just project management. By all means, run a project using a Waterfall lifecycle if that’s the right lifecycle. Do software development using a Waterfall lifecycle if that’s the right lifecycle to use. But don’t do it because it’s a Waterfall cycle. There’s no evidence for that, there’s nothing to substantiate it. 

Kerry:  Adrian, this is by far the most controversial episode of The Best Project Portfolio Management Show. 

Go and get Adrian’s book Agile Beyond IT: How to Develop Agility in Project Management in Any Sector. We’ll see you next time on The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire. You can find more episodes, some of which feature Adrian Pyne, at Hub.Appfire.com

Last updated: 2022-11-22

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