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Agile versus waterfall – why Dr Seuss wouldn’t approve

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It’s International Project Management Day, and project success is worth celebrating, no matter the methodology we use to get there. So, today we want to highlight an age-old debate.

Aficionados of Dr Seuss (and the story The Butter Battle Book) may remember two rival groups called the Yooks and the Zooks who live on either side of a wall. One group eats their bread with the butter side up. The other group does the reverse and refuse to compromise on their firmly held beliefs. In a strange way, this simple children’s story echoes the world of project management and a somewhat arcane and outdated battle between proponents in the ‘waterfall versus agile’ debate.

Both agile and waterfall are perfectly valid, but entrenched views seem to have emerged from some people on both sides that “only my way works”. While the ‘Yooks and Zooks’ of project management both have a valid points, the reality is surely that most projects are more complex.

The Association for Project Management (APM) advocate adopting a project methodology based on the need of the project or the stage of the life cycle. There may well be a case for agile only or waterfall only – both can be right for particular circumstances – but there will be other situations where combining both methodologies at different stages of a project’s life cycle delivers the best result.

This thinking is the basis of the new 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge that was published in Spring 2019:

“Context matters: there is no universally applicable one-size-fits-all life cycle. The choice often hinges on what the organisation is trying to achieve and what is important.

“Moreover, given the complexity and uncertainty of many contexts, there is no need to apply any particular approach for the complete duration of a project or programme. Hybrid life cycles enable a pragmatic mix of philosophies, typically fusing together elements from predictive and adaptive perspectives to create a new model or approach.”

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the speed of change continues to accelerate. Uncertainty driven by economic, political and technological complexity places greater emphasis on project professionals’ ability to employ a hybrid approach to delivering effective change. The hybrid approach is not a methodology, but a capability or professional philosophy which utilises a broad toolkit of techniques and methods, both from within the profession and beyond. A project professionals’ core value is their ability to identify the right life cycle for their project and introduce the interventions and resources to help deliver the intended benefits.

APM is regularly asked if we advocate a certain methodology – whether agile or waterfall is any longer the right thing. What we advocate however, is that organisations and projects need to build agility in their approach in order to deliver the best result in the environment and context in which they are working.

APM is committed to building the right mix of agility through the project life cycle that meets the needs and challenges of the particular circumstances.

You can read more about hybrid project management here.

Image: Guingm/


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  1. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 15 November 2019, 03:29 PM

    I think the irony of the waterfall v agile battle runs even deeper Debbie. Any discussion of one rather than the other presupposes they are very different. It is a bit like football fans arguing that the team in blue plays a totally different game to the team in red. Whilst there is passion in the debate, there is little substance - they both play football, and they have more in common than they are different. I've just re-read the BOK definitions of the linear and iterative lifecycles, and I'm still not much wiser. Both apply to how I ran projects in the chemicals industry early in my career. They seem to be looking as different aspects of the same thing! Whilst on the one hand it doesn't actually matter what we call good practice, so long as it is done. But on the other hand it can be very damaging if organisations make a major change thinking it will drive improvement, only to discover they had simply moved from playing football with a team of attackers to now playing with a team of defenders. Hybrid isn't an alternative, it is generic PM. I'm planning an APM webinar in the New Year to hopefully move the debate forwards, and to suggest the valuable things Agile brings to our BOK.

  2. Paul Roberts
    Paul Roberts 22 November 2019, 12:28 PM

    This article just resides in the middle and doesn't offer any bias, is it just a starter for further debate?