Why do decent people use the waterfall method?

It seems everywhere I go the waterfall method dominates the mindset of the management and most of the technical staff. I wonder why that is? It seems to me that any rational person would admit that the cost of fixing a defect grows exponential as time passes from the moment it was introduced. Most rational people would admit that in the waterfall method most defects are caught at the end of the project life cycle, thus guaranteeing they will be very expensive to fix and that most project will have to resort to testing the quality up to a level that is relative to how late the project is (the later the project the more defects they will consider shipping). Given these assumptions, why do any project using a method that caps the outcome to mediocrity? Maybe my own past can help me understand this.

When I was first paid to do software (circa ’91) I thought the right way to do software was the waterfall method. It was what I learned in Grad school as part of the Software Engineering series and it seemed everyone I met was using it in one form or another. When my job involved the CMM it fit very nicely with this belief. Anyone who though differently was obviously a Cowboy Programmer and was just too lazy to do a professional job. Being young gave me such confidence (ignorance seems to do this).

As I gained experience, I started to doubt my belief in this classic approach. I worked once with a client who gave me new requirements every other week or so and my team of two gave him working code every week or two. It worked well, but I didn’t think why. Later I started teaching others how to deliver software on time and started to really question my belief. I saw projects being executed by CMM level 3 and higher organizations consistently go over budget and deliver sub par systems. About this time I read some Agile books, some Lean books, and the classic paper by Gilb “Evolutionary Delivery versus the waterfall model” and though what a dope I had been!

I seemed to have overcome a belief that wasn’t founded on solid principles, but others seem not to. Humans tend to behave in irrational ways in order to “fit in”. Maybe what I see is just a group dynamic caused by fear of the unknown. They know the waterfall method and the devil they know is better than something they have never tried. The more I think about it, it reminds me of OO adoption. Back when I first read about OO in ’92 (and it wasn’t a new idea by any measure then) I thought this is got to be the way to program. It came naturally to me, but it was years before I was in the majority.

Maybe Agile/Lean (Whatever you want to call it) just needs to ride the adoption wave until the majority accepts it. Then the fear factor will be with those who don’t do it? Then some new idea will come along and some guy will blog about idiots like me who do it the “old way” 🙂


One Response to “Why do decent people use the waterfall method?”

  1. kacalapy Says:

    I share the same views and after years of experience found management prefers to stay in the safe zone mainly so that no one points the finger at them with any negative light. Inherent in this is that spending way more on technology in general is ok and acceptable.

    Managers all piss their pants at the thought of being blamed for anything. They avoid chances and a shot at real accomplishment as a result of this fear. Also that is the reason they are professionals at passing the buck, passing the blame and back stabbing.

    The idea that a project will move forward on the brink of chaos and not according to a predefined plan, timeline, and project plan is impalpable to them. They need to show a detailed plan so that their supervisors and the higher-ups can see words that they have no idea what they mean. All this work and money spent on a false sense of security astounds me.

    Good luck fighting the good fight to get agile adopted. Try explaining agile to management skeptics in a way they understand. Charts!!! See this for help: http://kacalapy.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/agile-waterfall/

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