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Help Stop WaterFAIL!

September 13th, 2011 · 5 Comments

How Stetson Kennedy Killed the KKK
In the 1940’s author and human rights activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and exposed its secrets to the world (and the police). As a result of his actions the klan lost its national charter. More importantly, klan members abandoned the perverse cause in droves as a result of the humiliation Kennedy’s exposure brought, relegating the nefarious club for bigots to the butt end of jokes & mockery.

Mockery of the klan had a huge role in its downfall. I heard Stetson Kennedy talk about this almost a decade ago (he died this year) in an NPR interview. He explained how after he exposed the klan’s secrets, you could see kids play “Cops & klansmen”, where the cops always won and the klansmen always lost. It was humiliating to klan members, and most of the klan split as a result. Good riddance.

Let’s Do the Same Thing to WaterFAIL
There’s something to learn here. When rational debate fails to correct stubbornly errant behavior, mockery just might do what civility could not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a mean guy. But I’m sick and tired of people in the software development industry who persist in believing that phase-based project management practices (aka ‘waterfall’) are an appropriate approach for building software. It’s not. It doesn’t work. People who believe otherwise are harming the industry, their employers, and their careers. So let’s give them some tough love and help them get off that bus.

Just Say WaterFAIL
Let’s just start calling any project that is engaged in Big Up Front Anything (requirements, design, analysis) a Waterfail project. That’s not a mis-spelling – it’s waterFAIL. Because that’s what waterfall projects do. They fail. At least 70% of the time, according to the instructor who helped my pass the PMP exam.

Say it with a smirk. Every time you get a chance.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Joe PM: Hey Bob. What’s cooking dude?

Bob Developer: Just found out I got put on your new waterFAIL project. I’m real excited about it (Rolls eyes and walks away).

There Can Be No Doubt that waterFAIL is Misguided and Risky
Some of you are gonna get pissed off by this. I don’t care. If you believe in waterFAIL in 2011 for software projects then I feel sorry for you. Guess what? The earth is round. waterFAIL doesn’t work for software. Sorry.

The riskiness of waterFAIL is indisputable. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from it’s greatest advocate, the Project Management Institute (PMI). They have all sorts of statistics about the failure rates of software projects and they drill them into the heads of their members who attempt the admirably difficult PMP exam (at least they require their acolytes to really understand their mythology in detail!). The cognitive dissonance lies in their failure to associate software project failure rates with their approach. Instead they try to do even more of the things that caused them to fail in the first place: they spend more time writing and analyzing requirements and less time building and testing software. That’s not gonna work, and it’s kind of insane.

Please help save the world from WaterFAIL
Just mix it in with your work conversation. You don’t have to get on a soapbox like I’ve done here. Just sneer, smirk, or roll your eyes and call out waterFAIL projects anytime you see them.

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Tags: Agile

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Richard // Sep 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Ha! – that complements the term “BADgile” that I have been using to describe our move from Waterfall to Agile :)

    My company has been making Waterfall work for the past decade. Our first agile pilot project hasn’t really gone smoothly. But I bet in another 10 years we can make agile work for us too :) Hopefully our customers will stick with us.

    Directed here by a tweet from @Can_Test. Adding to my RSS feed.

  • 2 Kate // Sep 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Richard – BADgile… I love it! The perfect counterpoint to waterFAIL (which is of course equally brilliant).

    On my side, we’re at the ad-hoc stage of moving from WaterFAIL to BADgile.

  • 3 David Christiansen // Sep 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    BADgile. That’s funny. I think there is an important difference between WaterFAIL and BADgile. WaterFAIL happens because the theory and practices behind it are just plain wrong. BADgile occurs because organizations that try to use agile fail to tackle the cultural change that is necessary to truly embrace the agile values. At least with agile you have a chance. It’s the difference between chemistry and alchemy. You can blow yourself up practicing both of these but only one of them has an achievable upside.

  • 4 Joe Strazzere // Sep 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    “It doesn’t work. ”

    Never? Sorry, I guess I can’t agree with an absolutist view like this.

    BADgile, WaterFAIL, SCUM, etc. – I like to use whatever I think will work best of the project at hand.

    I’ve seen a lot of methodologies/philosophies/techniques come and go over the years. Each one always attempts to cast the others in a bad light. Such name-calling never seemed very productive to me.

  • 5 David Christiansen // Sep 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    All projects have a chance of failure Joe. And sometimes, even waterfall projects “succeed”. When I say waterFAIL doesn’t work, I don’t mean 100% of waterFAIL projects fail. What I mean is that the fundamental theory underneath waterFAIL is fatally flawed, and no amount of process will fix that.

    Just because some gamblers walk away from casinos with money in their pockets doesn’t mean gambling at a casino is a good idea. WaterFAIL approaches to software project “don’t work” because the structure of a waterfall project ADDS RISK TO THE PROJECT. The mere fact that a project uses a waterFAIL approach makes the project more risky, and that structural risk INCREASES EXPONENTIALLY with the size and duration of the project. So, yeah, I’m gonna stick to my guns. WaterFAIL doesn’t work. Ever. The math is wrong.

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