In this day and age, I find it extremely difficult to understand how a company that does not practice agile development can win in the digital environment. Digital has been evolving quickly, and it is easy to see why the old, standard, waterfall software development lifecycle does not work well. Companies that are still practicing waterfall development are at a strategic disadvantage compared with those practicing agile because waterfall does not afford you the speed to modify and adjust that digital requires. A recent McKinsey article, “Why agility pays,” highlights this point quite well. While the article does not speak directly to agile development, it calls out that the key to high-performing companies is combining speed with stability. The waterfall approach certainly provides stability, but it sorely lacks speed, where agile affords organizations both.
I liken the speed that agile enables to a quote from the great one, Wayne Gretzky. He said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” While very few individuals and organizations have the ability to predict what the environment will be far into the future, agile development allows teams to quickly modify and adjust in order to ensure they are headed where the environment is evolving. The waterfall approach forces organizations to try and predict where the environment is going to be months – and sometimes years – in advance. This approach provides little-to-no flexibility to adjust. Once the path is set in motion, using the waterfall approach to make adjustments is like trying to turn the Titanic. In today’s fast-paced, digital environment, it is nearly impossible to predict what the environment will look like and require a few years from now.
I have seen and experienced the harm that following a waterfall approach can cause. In 2010, I was working at a company that realized they were providing a poor digital experience for their customers. Each product line had its own website, and each website had a different look and feel. If a customer had multiple products, they were forced to go to separate websites for each product to transact. Imagine if you were a customer who moved and wanted to update your address. To accomplish this you, would have to sign into multiple websites with the same company to update the information, and the update process would also differ slightly. The company determined that the websites needed to be collapsed into one, customer-centric experience. Customers should only need one username and password to access all their products, and so a multiyear project was established to transform the customer’s digital experience.
2011 went by, and requirements were gathered and reviewed multiple times across all product lines, a platform was selected, and development started. The requirements showed it was going to take four years to complete the effort. In 2012, development continued, and we began folding various products into a new-and-improved website. At the start of 2013, development continued, but at the same time, people started to talk about mobile. There was a problem because none of the requirements that were gathered, reviewed, and signed off on two years earlier spoke to mobile. So, development continued, but we were building a non-mobile-friendly website. In 2014, more of the same work continued, but conversations about mobile increased. Again, because the requirements that were written in 2011 and on which the funding was based did not include mobile, we continued to build a non-mobile website. Then, 2015 rolled around and it was decided to build the public portion of the new, customer-centric, digital experience on a new platform, one that would afford us the ability to deliver a mobile-responsive experience. This was great, except that all of the product websites that were rolled into the post-log-in experience existed on the platform. So, once a customer logged into their account on the public site, they were met with a poor mobile experience. In effect, the website had great curb appeal, but once you opened the door, you realized that the interior was in disarray.
I believe that, had the project been developed using an agile methodology, the company would have been able to adjust and modify faster to address the rise in mobile usage. Instead, because of the waterfall approach, our fate was set once requirements were agreed upon and development started in 2011. Even though people began sounding the alarms about the oncoming mobile “iceberg,” not much could be done to right the ship. We continued on course and straight at it.
The digital environment is moving too fast for companies practicing waterfall to gain a competitive advantage. Speed to modify and adjust is critical, and as stated in the McKinsey article, “No one would expect sluggish companies to thrive,” especially not one that is competing in the fast-paced, digital environment.