How to Successfully Transition from Waterfall to Scrum

Agile Transformation Steps to Transition from Waterfall to Scrum

One of the most common conversations I’ve had with clients over the last few years is how to move from waterfall to Scrum. They want to understand the agile transformation steps, or, how to move from traditional development to using the Scrum Framework.

Based on those discussions and years of experience leading and supporting these transformations for my clients, I’ve compiled this short guide on planning and executing an agile pilot or an agile transformation in your organization. In it you will see the agile transformation steps clearly identified.

Making the change to the Scrum Framework is not simple. Many organizations have tried and failed. In the downloadable guide, I’ve outlined some of the patterns that have led to success as well as pointed out some of the common traps that others have fallen into.

Though there is no one perfect pattern, by following these guidelines and running small experiments, you too can successfully navigate the change from what you are doing today to success with Agile and Scrum.

Though it might sound a tad waterfall-ish, we recommend some specific agile transformation steps. Those include Planning, Training, and Coaching. And then Iterate.  I’ve summarized the information below and you can get the very detailed whitepaper here: 

waterfall to scrum ebook detailing the agile transformation steps

Key Agile Transformation Steps

Most successful transformation include a set of key Agile Transformation Steps. No need to reinvent the wheel, there are patterns for success that should be leveraged. At a high level, there is planning, training and coaching. Let’s look at each of these high level agile transformation steps in detail.

Before we dive in, I should point out that the transformation won’t be a success without leadership. You can read more why in How Agile Leaders Create Agility and the Leaders Role during an Agile Transformation.

Step 1: Planning for the Transformation

The first is planning. To effectively use Scrum, you will need to do some planning upfront to make sure you have the right people, processes, support, and tools in place. You will need to plan for the Scrum roles and a complete, cross-functional development teams that can take items all the way to done.

Identifying a qualified and interested person to be the Scrum Master is an important consideration. Certification for Scrum Masters is highly recommended as a starting point.

You also need a clear and prioritized backlog of work for the product and identify a Product Owner who can be engaged and empowered to manage that backlog. Like the Scrum Master, we recommend certification for Product Owners as well. 

Leaders will need to determine a sprint length that works with their product and other dependent teams.  Consider how the team will work with any dependent teams or vendors.

Finally, you need to plan for organizational support including looking at the potential barriers the team will face, the governance requirements, and interfaces beyond the team. It is hard to fully anticipate the obstacles that you will face when transitioning to agile ways of working though asking people to change can trigger resistance. Check out these related blogs for more:

Though we describe this step as once and done, it is rarely that. We will often use a Kanban board to track progress during the planning phase. And we revise our plans continuously.

Step 2: Training on Agile and Scrum 

The planning we did in the previous step is followed closely by Training and sometimes these activities overlap. That is OK, sometimes the people Planning need some training to make better plans! Both are important.

Because Scrum sounds pretty simple, many people are tempted to skip training entirely or save money by using internal trainers that haven’t used and don’t fully understand Scrum. Those short-term savings can have huge long-term costs as I outlined in this article, Yes You Do Need Agile Training.  You are going to want everyone to understand and buy-in, so spend the time and effort to do it well.

Hire trainers that have been through a Waterfall to Scrum Transition before, preferably someone who has supported dozens of organizations. You can find more information on selecting trainers and planning for training in How to Develop Your Agile Training Plan.

We highly recommend role-based training for organizations launching new Scrum teams.  This includes not only the previously mentioned Scrum Master Certification and Scrum Product Owner training but Agile for Teams and Agile for Leaders training for those managers and leaders who need to understand and support teams. Download the Agile for Leader’s flyer here

Step 3: Scrum or Agile Coaching

Like Agile and Scrum Training, coaching is an area where some organizations feel they can cut corners.  Don’t do it!  The challenge is that using Scrum or other Agile approaches requires a change in thinking and habits.  People tend to resort to old habits, especially under stress.

My primary coaching when working at the team adoption level is on the Scrum Master first, then the Development Team and Product Owner.

The Scrum Master is the best candidate to become the internal champion and so an investment in their development is warranted, and they will continue to support the agile transition after external coaches like myself are no longer needed.

The Scrum team and product owner are also a focus of Agile Coaching.  It will depend on the maturity and behavior of each of these groups and gauge that to drive coaching behaviors.

For a simple Agile Adoption of one or a couple of teams, coaching is needed most in the first couple of sprints.  I find that after 4-6 sprints, the teams are able to self-organize and continue to mature and improve under the guidance of a skilled Scrum Master.

However, it is in those first couple of sprints that people need Agile Coaching support to change their thinking and habits.

Coaching of the leaders and helping them to create an environment for Agile to succeed can take more than a couple of sprints.

Coaching Agile leaders to support Scrum Teams is a critical part of an overall Agile Transformation.  You can read more about the leader’s role in an Agile Transformation here.

Step 4: Iterate the Plan

Transitioning to Agile and Scrum may be once and done, but I find it more common that the process is iterative and incremental. Don’t treat the transition to Agile as a waterfall project with big planning up front! Continue to retrospect and incorporate continuous learning and improvement into your approach.

I have a current client that is standing up 3-4 Agile teams per quarter. Though we follow the same approach with each one, we find it helpful to review how we plan, train and coach to incorporate lessons learned into the process.

We take the opportunity to frequently step back, review, and make adjustments before we launch into the cycle of planning, training, and coaching.

Additional Resources for Agile Transformation

You can find more details about agile transformation and our agile consulting services on our coaching and agile transformation page. For the detailed guide on the agile transformation steps mentioned in this article, please follow the this link.

If you are a leader or manager adopting Agile or leading your Agile transformation, I recommend taking our Supporting an Agile Transformation course. You can download the flyer here

Finally, despite all your good intentions and best efforts, Most Agile transformations Will Fail. So aim high but be prepared for a slow difficult journey even as you follow the clear agile transformation steps laid out above.


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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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