The end of the waterfall model in Strategy.3 min read

The waterfall model is well know in IT and general project management. Basically it’s model where you first let all business people work on requirements. When these are all clear, you let some outside ‘designers’ translate this ‘business language’ in project or IT language, then you hire an army of programmers to build the stuff. When they are ready, you invite the business guys back in and show them what you build.

It has taken a lot of time and money for companies to realize that this model is not always good: You have to invest a lot of money in order to actually get a shippable product, markets are changing faster than you can develop the ‘perfect’ product, projects take so long that you are forced to pull the plug out of them before there has anything been sold, people get demotivated because what they asked is not being delivered (business to IT) or because nobody seems to have an idea on what is exactly the requirement (IT to business).

Since once image says more than thousands words: it’s quite clear here:
The alternative that now is being used a lot is the scrum methodology, where you have iterations of short cycles where you create a shippable prototype, learn from that and continue to build further. In a world were market conditions change constantly, this is also the only way to make sure that you do not spend 2 years building to realize that is no longer what your customers want.


The strange thing is that with strategy, people still tend to use a waterfall model:

  • The CEO knows he needs a vision and strategy.
  • He hires a bunch of highly paid strategy consultants.
  • Those people mobilize the complete management to work on plans, create business cases,…
  • A committee is set up to decide upon and steer the actual projects that will be done.
  • Lot’s of interdisciplinary project teams are defined to do the work.
  • After one year, half of the projects are dead, the other ones have an outcome that is not what we expected.
  • The CEO is replaced or other strategy consultants are hired to determine why the organization was not able to deliver.

I dare to argue that in today’s world, strategy should also use a scrum kind of approach. Small teams of the most skilled people in your company should be able to challenge and convince the leadership that should give them the feedback and resources in order to try to set up small but strategic changes.

Imagine the typical timeline:

  • Hire a strategy consultant : 1 month
  • Let them take the the time of all your top people to come up with slideshows : 3 months
  • Decide on the priorities of the plans : 1 month
  • Let your people redo half of the business cases to ‘fine tune’ them: 1 month
  • Re-priorities: 1 month
  • Assemble project teams for your top 15 priorities: 1 week
  • Set up governance structure: 1 month
  • Do projects: 1 year
  • See results and ask yourself why the bottom line is not better even with the numerous projects: 3 sleepless weeks

And then it all starts over…

…or you can go for the following scenario:

  • Start with a strategy 1.0 workshop tomorrow: 1-2 day(s)
  • Empower your best people to try a first solution, develop a first beta version, test an approach: 1 month.
  • Let them come back after 1 month to see what it delivered. With their feedback, go into strategy 1.1 workshop: 1 day
  • Give them extra power to bring the next iteration quicker: 1 day
  • Let them do the next iteration: 29 days.

Ps: Don’t make it about problems, make it about solutions.

JOINED! can help you in challenging the strategy work you need to deliver this month, not in the years to come!

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