Transitioning from Waterfall to Agile: a guide for project managers

By Kirsty Kearns

As the project management industry moves more towards Agile and scrum, it’s easy to feel like you are being left behind. No matter how alien these methodologies may seem, transitioning from a Waterfall/ PRINCE2 approach doesn’t have to be a monumental change.

I have worked in the digital/ IT industry since 2005 and had always worked on projects using the Waterfall framework. Any suggestion of Agile, a backlog, and user stories scared the living daylights out of me, but having heard the benefits of Agile, I decided to take the leap and move to an Agile agency in early 2014.

I was given a lot of information about the Agile methodology in my first few days and my first thought was that it was totally alien to the project management style I was used to. I was instantly out of my comfort zone and went from having nine years of methodology experience to zero. My biggest fear was how my teams and clients would react while I picked up the Agile ropes. 

It was hard to avoid thinking about the Agile myths I had heard – no fixed budgets, no change requests, suddenly changing requirements in the middle of a project. Shock horror! How would I manage the budget / scope?

One of the most helpful ways I found to bridge the gap between the methodologies was to map the changes between the two. The following are my tips for project managers to help the transition from Waterfall to Agile.

Map the difference

Link the ‘artefacts’ of Agile to similar documents in Waterfall. The below was my starting point for this:

Transfer your skills

You can’t be a good Waterfall project manager without the ability to communicate to internal and external project stakeholders alike. You speak to everyone within the project lifecycle anyway – the only difference in Agile is that all stakeholders will work together within a sprint.

Facilitate rather than lead

This is a skill from your Waterfall toolbox that you can apply to Agile. The difference is that rather than leading the team down a path and being the project decision maker, you listen to the team more and facilitate the team to make their own decisions (providing the are meeting the project goal, of course).

Read the manifesto

This one may seem obvious, but you need to ensure that you have read the Agile manifesto and are familiar with the Agile artefacts (listed above) and ceremonies (sprints, daily scrum/standup, backlog grooming, sprint planning, demo, and retro). If you do not speak the Agile language, you will quickly get lost in the project. 

Observe to learn

Sit in on other project meetings as a spectator (providing you have the time). This will let you learn the Agile language without having to do much yourself. If you feel daring, even ask the scrum master if you can facilitate a meeting on their behalf. The coaching aspect of the scrum master role will often mean that they can’t resist helping you out.

Learn from experience

Listen to and put into practice any advice from other scrum masters in the company and see if it works for your project. If it works, store it in your toolbox; if it doesn’t, try something new. The retrospectives are a great way to find out what your team does and do not like.

Ease yourself in

Let other more experienced members of your team be the scrum master. Agile doesn’t officially have a project manager role in it. However, when you are working for an external client there are tasks that need to be done in most organisations that don’t fall within a scrum master role, such as risks, budget, resources etc.

Allowing other team members from an experienced scrum team to act as the scrum master while you get up to speed can be beneficial for all parties.

Your team gets the benefit of someone who knows Agile, your new scrum master can showcase their own skills, and it gives you more time to get up to speed with new practices. Just ensure you maintain your project management duties alongside, which allows you to showcase some of the skills you do have.

In summary, Waterfall project managers should feel confident of moving to Agile. As an experienced Waterfall PM who has ‘made it through’ to Agile, it’s not as different as you may think.

As a PM you still need to:

  • Manage client relationships
  • Manage resource and ensure that you have the right people assigned to your project
  • Manage budgets

On this last point, although many Agile projects are time and materials rather than fixed price and scope like Waterfall, there are still budgets to manage.

Working within a sprint gives quicker feedback on how the team is performing and lets you identify early if a project is likely to go over budget. You can monitor progress in real time at regular intervals, and regularly show your stakeholders the return on their spend.

Adapting to Agile isn’t as dramatic as some project managers make out, but it does require embracing the flexibility and adaptability that Agile offers. Applying the tips above should help you grow more comfortable with Agile for a happy team, happy client, and a happy PM!