Current Episode

Episode 5:

How do you help PMs and Managers not fall back into their waterfall ways?

Switching from waterfall to an agile approach can be difficult. Managers, PMs, and others often cling to their old command-and-control ways in order to feel comfortable and, well, “in control”. Raj asks how he can help his organization move forward and improve their agile implementation despite this. Dave Prior, CST, PMP, and AAGG (All Around Great Guy) joins me for this episode. He has a very strong traditional project management background with a deep understanding of the struggles PMPs face. He shares some of his top tips for helping people make the switch to agile.

Like the podcast? I’d love it if you’d take 60 seconds to rate it in iTunes.

Mentioned in the show:

Build Your Own Scrum for coaching and training your team on the scrum framework.

Do you have a question for the show? Want the show notes or transcript?

Leave a Reply

Adam: Welcome to Agile Answers. I’m Adam Weisbart, your Certified Scrum Trainer and agile coach. Every week, I get your questions and you get answers, here on Agile Answers.

Today’s question comes from Raj. He’s working at an organization that’s adopted Scrum, but still seems to be clinging to their command and control ways. Seems like management’s concerned about losing control and is falling back to traditional project management techniques.

Well, thankfully for today’s show, I’ve got Dave Prior as a guest. Dave Prior is a friend of mine who has a strong background in traditional project management. He also is a Certified Scrum Trainer, so I thought I’d bring him in and ask him some questions. See if we can get to the root of Raj’s problem and maybe give him some solutions that will help him move forward. Stay tuned. Maybe some of the challenges Raj is facing are like the one’s you’re facing.

Hey, Dave.

Dave: Hey Adam.

Adam: How’s it going?

Dave: Pretty good. How are you doing?

Adam: Doing well, thanks. You’re in Atlanta, aren’t you?

Dave: I am. I’m in Atlanta. And I’m doing two shows this week. So remember to tip your waiters and waitresses, two classes in Atlanta.

Adam: Awesome. I wanted to have you on the podcast today, because if I recall correctly, you have a really strong project management background.

Dave: Yes. So the first part of my career was all project management and I even taught PMP certification. Now, I’m a CST, and the reason that I love having the opportunity to do what I do is because it’s a chance to help other people from my background, other project managers, hopefully transition to agile with less pain and discomfort than I did.

Adam: Awesome. With that in mind, I think we’ll listen to Raj’s question. Raj is calling from India and he recorded a little message for us. Let’s listen.

Raj: Hello, Adam. Good evening. I’m calling you from India. My question is a simple one. I have been in agile for the last five, six years, and I see lot of organizations where project managers not exactly following agile for the fear of losing control of their team. They still go by traditional waterfall method. And unfortunately, their own managers also support these people because if they don’t support the project managers, they feel the delivery will be impacted. And of course, with that, they really able to pay, and other things get impacted. So this is a big challenge, and how do we eliminate, how do we find a solution for this?

Adam: There’s so much in that question.

Dave: There’s a lot in that question.

Adam: His simple question has many facets.

Dave: Yes, it is deep.

Adam: Let’s see if we can dissect that a little bit.

Dave: Where do you want to start?

Adam: It sounds like the meat of that, like most of the question is around the organization, through the PMs and their managers, being scared of losing control, right?

Dave: Yeah.

Adam: Being scared of losing control.

Dave: That’s a really common thing, let’s just start with the project managers. It’s really common, they feel like when you switch to agile, because they don’t have the plan, because they can’t tell people what to do, they think everybody’s going to do stuff wrong.

Adam: Right.

Dave: The first piece of advice I would give to Raj is try to picture the project manager as being somebody who is in the middle of a giant ocean and the only thing they have to hold on to to try to protect them is what they’ve learned through waterfall which is a concrete life raft that’s going to drag them through the bottom of the ocean. Agile is you stand there just telling them, “Just move your arms back and forth and you’ll float and it will be fine.”

Adam: But they’ve never swam before.

Dave: Right, and they’re terrified, so the panic response is to grab on to the thing that you know, which, in this case, is going to drag them down to the depths of the sea. It’s easy to tell people why agile is going to work, but it’s really hard to help them get over the emotional and some of the other stuff that goes along with letting go of your entire value system and everything you’d spent your career learning how to do.

Adam: Right. You really need to give them some new tools, right? What sorts of things could Raj offer up to them? We’re doing this in a bit of a vacuum here, because we’re not speaking with them. But from your experience, what sort of tools will help those folks, what things would you lean on initially?

Dave: On the PM side, I think it’s really important to do as much as you can to have them embedded with the team and see if you can get them to be willing to just try to let go of a little bit of stuff and to become more aware of how their project management tendencies are creeping in and getting in the way of agile. So maybe having somebody that they can talk to who is – like when I started, I had other agile mentors, who also came from a traditional background. And I was able to talk to them about a lot of stuff, like Michelle Sliger was really great. I’d call her up and I’d be like, “Look, this is what’s happening. This is what I did.” And in many cases, I started to overcompensate and was trying to be extra agile which also worked against me. Having somebody who can mentor them through this change, that can go a long way. So I don’t know, Raj, if you got anybody around who has come from that and made the switch, just somebody for the PM to talk to about different situations and that mindset can be very helpful.

Adam: Yeah, and if Raj is responsible for helping the PMs do that, because he says he’s been doing Scrum or agile for the last five or six years, it seems like one of the first things he could do is try to help build trust between the PM or perhaps that PM, hopefully, is operating as a product owner, who knows, and the team, right? Start building some trust there. Do you have any tips for things that will help do that?

Dave: I think for me, that’s always about small little wins. You just have to help the project manager find a way to give something a chance, and I think that’s a big part of it. I think the more that they can become self-aware of what’s going on with them as professional knowledge workers who are trying to trust, the more they can become aware of their lack of trust and being open to taking a chance on people. As long they’re working with the team and they’re communicating well, what usually happens is the team surprises the project manager and they start to do amazing things. It’s just the PM has to be willing to let that happen.

Adam: Right. And I found one of the best ways to help there be a chance of that happening is to make sure that the team really has a good product backlog. I’ve often seen organizations really trying to micromanage and manage teams, because frankly, they don’t have a great product backlog, and since they’re doing everything on the fly, the team ends up getting super tripped up and not being able to move forward. And then, they say, “Oh, see, we can’t trust that team. They can’t get their work done.” But they’re really falling down before they get there, not the team, but the organization. They haven’t put together a proper product backlog that a team could actually be successful with.

Dave: Yeah, I think the prioritized, well-formed product backlog is really important. And then also, getting to a point where the team is making and meeting commitments. I think that as much as Raj can help the PM or whoever is in that rule allow the team to take ownership and responsibility for that, so there might be a big training component here too. You might have to teach them altogether about this is how the world’s changed. And it does create a big space for the PM where if they’re not telling everybody what to do, they’re suddenly standing around saying, “What am I supposed to do all day?” So hopefully, they can fulfill that product owner role a little better or Scrum Master, whatever job they’re transitioning to.

Adam: Yeah. And Raj, since you mentioned that you’re doing Scrum or you’re being agile currently, but you are still falling back to some waterfall ways of doing things, I’d recommend grabbing a copy of Build Your Own Scrum, which is available on my website, and having your team try Build Your Own Scrum. This is where you’ll take little icons, basically, off the Build Your Own Scrum Worksheet, cut them out, and build their understanding of the Scrum workflow. Once they’ve done that, you’ll have a clearer idea of what areas you might be able to help them through coaching and training improve in, because if you’re doing parts of it, awesome. Focus on the parts that you can make some improvements on. And that might be a good tool for helping assess that.

Dave: Can I add one thing?

Adam: Sure.

Dave: So I think the retrospectives can be a really helpful area here as well. The more that you can get, whatever that role the PM is playing with the team, if they can be with the team in the retrospectives, and they can get to a part where they’re all equally sharing stuff and talking about what’s going on, both from a process standpoint and from the what concerns do we have, how is this making us feel, because the process part is a traumatic change. The value system ship, does it change? If the PM feels like there’s chaos, that causes a lot of stress too, both for the PM and for management. You have to let that stuff air out a little bit. Sometimes, you can get almost like a therapy session, but that’s part of the app, to have this release valve.

Adam: Yeah, and hopefully, through those conversations, and hopefully other conversations, you’re finding out as a team, and as an organization, what ways you can help the product owner, the person who is falling back to their project management ways.

Dave: Yeah, and also helping support them in their interaction with management. So he mentioned management as well. And when it comes to reporting and things like that, you have to remember that management is accustomed to traditional reports and that’s all they know to ask for. Listening to what they’re requesting and figuring out what they do with that, and then finding a way to maybe meet their need without answering specifically their request. So if it’s a senior manager who wants a status report, I always ask him, “What are you going to do with this report? Why do you need this information? Whose questions do you have to answer?” If you find out what questions they have to answer, you can take the output of the Scrum team or whatever, and create a specialist report for them that gives them what they need without you having to put together a Gantt chart.

Adam: Yeah, excellent. Is there one top actionable tip that you would give Raj moving forward? There’s probably a bunch of steps he needs to go through, ways to help his organization go, but what’s the first thing or rather the next thing you would do if you were him?

Dave: I think that training is important. I think that constantly trying to raise awareness of how this stuff, how this way of working can be beneficial is a really big deal. And Raj, most of all, I would encourage you to just try to be patient with these folks. It’s hard to let go of everything you were taught to do, and for management, what got them into their office. I think patience is a big deal.

Adam: Hey, Dave, thanks for joining me.

Dave: Hey, thanks for having me, man. This was cool. Good luck with the podcast.

Adam: Thank you so much. Thanks for submitting your question, Raj. I hope our answers were helpful and you’ve got some good next steps.

If you have a question you’d like answered on the show, you can submit it at, that’s And there on the home page, you can record a message that I might answer on future episode. If you’d like the show notes to this episode, you can go to, that’s forward slash and the number five. I want to thank Dave, again, for joining me in the show, and for Podington Bear’s music which backs this episode.

Hope you’ll join us next time for Agile Answers. Until then, stay agile. Never change.



Past Episodes

Episode 24:

What should we do instead of painful “Annual Planning”?

Episode 23:

Agile Virtual Summit Preview: Lyssa Adkins

Episode 22:

How do we make sure we have cross-functional teams and why does it matter?

Episode 21:

What agile practices can you recommend to our game development studio?