Toxic Waterfall

Toxic Waterfall

Within the last few years, for reasons that are only partially known to me, I accepted a contract at a “Self Confessed pUre Waterfall Organisation” – let’s call them SCUMO for short ;-) I know why I worked there originally – the two people who interviewed me were great – one was the head of architecture, very outgoing and inspiring – the kind of guy you wanted to work with; and the other (my boss to be) was a rather quiet spoken yet meticulous fellow – as Douglas Adams would say – “Mostly Harmless”. I mean hey, just because the organisation was waterfall, with those people and a great team (which it was) – what could go wrong?

Rage Explosion

It didn’t all happen at once though – the first project I was on was a “dream project” – great PM, good BA, tech team who knew what they were doing – I was seriously wondering what everyone  else was moaning about – my world was GREAT! It was after this though, that things started to change – I was drafted in to doing a quick piece of Solution Design for a really cool sounding and disruptive project within the organisation, which of course went nowhere. Then, I was put on a project with a PM who resigned after less than a month (I later found out that this sort of thing was “normal” within SCUMO, but they regarded that as people “just not being up to the task” or whatever self-serving platitude (and there were many) that came to peoples minds) which was a disaster. We had A Business Process Primadonna (let’s call him BAPP :) who was a bully (I was very close to reporting him as such to the organsation) who had the full support of the management – “Oh, that’s just J, but he has decades of experience and we need him, so you just have to put up with iT” (which is why I didn’t report him – that would be an Express Career Limiting Move). Finally though, there was a small light at the end of the tunnel – another “really cool and transformational project” but that was rapidly pulled in to a small clique (who had all worked at another SCUMO type organisation) who were grabbing all the interesting and high profile projects for themselves – that was the last straw, the writing on the wall, so I left.

Happy TeamWhy did I stay at all then? A question I asked myself a few times… I came to the conclusion that the negatives were temporarily damped down by the fact I had such a great team that I worked with on a daily basis. Our “boss” was fairly Laissez-faire and we had quite a number of highly competent individuals. Still, it’s hard to really enjoy things when whatever you’re working on is either totally ignored or stripped down to a degree where it’s not your original design, and what’s worse – is of lower quality and costs more!!! Again, and again, and again…

ToxicAreaBack to the Waterfall Process – everything above is a consequence of having a totally Command and cOntrol, Waterfall-based Structure (or COWS for short). Maybe it works in the military, or in a Cotton Mill in the 18th century, but please tell me how it actually applies to modern information technology solutions..?

Cotton MillTo get to the core issue though, what were the “lessons learnt” from working at SCUMO the COWS after being away from the wonderful waterfall for so long?

  1. Waterfall based systems have no concept of flow!
    Because of all the silos and steps, they’re based on the naive assumption that things actually work this way (and perfectly). The only problem of course is that they don’t. As you look further up the “organisational stack”, you’d see people / senior managers who were inundated with requests for their time (often because people had to cover their asses or were dis-empowered), yet they had no real way to manage it (Personal Kanban anyone?). It really just depended on what was the most politically critical issue was for the day… The one time I did attempt to introduce flow based thinking, I received the rather patronising response from the CEO of “baby steps” – if they go at his rate, it will be next century before they embrace contemporary approaches… which is probably about par for the course for that organisation ;-)
  2. FeedbackWaterfall based systems have minimal feedback
    I was absolutely amazed at how little capacity for feedback was present in the system. When it was, you’d generally have to go through a committee – do a presentation and documentation for them and if you were lucky – 6 months to 6 years later (depending on how much politicking you’ve done), your suggestion would actually be implemented…
  3. CompassionWaterfall based systems have no compassion
    Time and time again, I was reminded by “the system” about how “people” were really “resources” or “interchangeable units”. The ultimate irony was that Waterfall Systems actually focus their efforts on individuals such as BAPP and their like to create “central points of failure”. The only people who were shown “compassion” (in a weirdly inverted way) by the organisation were people like BAPP. Everyone else was on their own and could always leave the organisation as they’re not “up to the task”
  4. Waterfall systems struggle with early risk mitigation
    Ironic isn’t it? The nature of the system dictates that Risks are left until the latest point in the development cycle as “it just might fix itself” or we could make it “someone else’s problem” or even a “problem that we know will occur later but will be outside of the current contract warrantee period” – the list goes on… At the end of the day, I was astounded with the amazing capacity of Waterfall Systems to act in the worst interests of the organisation and their clients, which brings me on to:
  5. HypocriticalAre Waterfall Systems (more) Hypocritical?
    I’m phrasing this as a question as there seems to be a fair dose of Hypocrisy in the air these days no matter what the organisational and process type, but I felt an extremely strong presence at SCUMO who supposedly focused on and excelled in:

    • The Customer
    • Innovation
    • Efficiency
    • Integrity
    • Excellence
    • People

    but they managed to implement exactly the opposite of all of those! Systems Thinking anyone? If ever there was an argument against ruthless command and control systems, this must be it. No matter how hard they tried to shove, threaten, reward or cajole people about these values, nothing worked!

  6. Waterfalls help and encourage Dunning-Krueger
    Every organisation has their share of people who think more of themselves beyond their ability, but this organisation seemed to excel in it. BAPP was only one of many mediocre / “excellent” people there. It was not unusual to have a meeting with over 50% D-K people, in which case the best thing was to just sit back and let them pontificate amongst themselves… So we had a situation where the blind were not only leading the blind… They were reporting to a committee in a dark room!
  7. Weather SystemsWaterfalls have no concept of a system!
    Sounds crazy doesn’t it? Yes, they have Change Control Boards and a whole bunch of other crap, but at the end of the day, there is no acknowledgement that they are a system that is part of a wider system. Because of that, they don’t stand a snowflakes chance in hell of understanding their context or of being able to effect any change beyond minor tweaks such as changing the format of a table in a document which would often take months
  8. GarbageWhat a Waste!
    Coming from fairly agile environments that had at least some element of the lean concept of minimising waste, I was astounded at the amount of waste that was produced during a project – even sometimes even in things I was working on! As a rough estimate, easily 80% of what was being done over a whole project was waste, like documents that would be read once or never by the “supposed target” audience. What sort of impact would this have on a project basis? There was one project to change the background colour on a set of web pages which took months!
  9. What a Waste of People :-(
    Most of the people that I worked with on a daily basis were really trying to do the best for “the customer” (although they were quite often punished by BAPP’s and the organisation for doing so). Eventually, there seemed to be only 3 “attractors” which would allow people to exist in this environment:
  • Give in and just play the “jobsworth game”
  • Get involved in the politics and back stabbing – become a “power player”, BAPP COW or the like
  • Try and change the system – this was only really a temporary state as I never saw anyone that could truly maintain this as it sets up a cognitive dissonance
  • Leave

None of the above result in a person permanently acting to anywhere near their full potential within the organisation. If they’re lucky, they get to do a bit when they attempt change, but as mentioned, this can never be a permanent situation.

The sad fact is therefore that most or almost all of the people I worked with weren’t happy. Were the managers happy, in their controlling positions? For the most part, no. Some people had material happiness through incentives, but most of them seemed quite miserable too. Oh, there was one person who was happy – the security guy who sat at the front desk…

In summary, I found the whole environment extremely primitive (as in Cro-magnon) and insensitive (1950’s management). Not that I’m saying that Agile is nirvana, but more that in a company that uses some form of Lean / Agile / Kanban etc…, you’re more likely to get or be able to influence people to adopt a more effective, humane and respectful approach to software development.

Morpheus-Red-or-Blue-PillFrom a personal perspective, this just showed me how much I have learnt and grown over the past decade as the sad fact is that SCUMO are not the only company like this. What this experience gave me was the realisation that I took the red pill ages ago and that I really can’t turn back – it’s just too painful.

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.

You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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2 comments

  1. Andrea Chiou

    It must have felt good to get this all down on paper and out of your system, so to speak. Love your acronyms! How clever! It sounds like other projects I’ve worked on at big system integrator consulting companies….
    How much waste I feel I was part of during those years though didn’t feel so as much at the time.

    Cheers and best to you in the New Year

  2. Pingback: Five Blogs – 3 February 2014 | 5blogs

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