Agile vs Waterfall Leadership Styles

1 minute read

TIL that the leadership style best suited for a team operating in an agile environment is different from that of a waterfall environment.

Last month, Sr. Director of Technology Jill Henry shared thoughts with us about her career in software management during the Expedia Fireside Chat series.

She raised a point that I had never really considered: your leadership style should change to accomodate the environment in which your team operates.

Waterfall Environment

In a waterfall environment, software teams move through different phases of product development in a step by step manner. It is a methodical and rigid process, which can often lead to products that don’t quite align with customer expectations…

Jill noted that waterfall environments lend themselves to top down managerial styles, where management dictates to software teams exactly what to build and when. Deciding power resides with team leadership, instead of being distributed amongst team members.

This style of leadership reflects the waterfall process itself: each phase dictates the next, from requirements to design, implementation and testing, without much say from those implementing the process. Leading in a waterfall environment is similarly rigid and “top down”.

Agile Environment

Contrast this with Agile: an Agile environment is designed to cope with the ever changing requirements of an in-flight software product. Teams implement features with the best knowledge available to them at the time, and move small features through each phase of product development every sprint. It is a flexible and… dare I say it.. agile process, that favors delivering incremental value to customers instead of a full product all at once.

Jill mentioned that agile leaders should not lead top down, and should instead focus on empowering teams to make their own decisions and resolve problems without intervention. This style of leadership is often referred to as servant leadership, as the manager acts as a servant to the team by focusing on making the team more productive by removing blockers and facilitating meetings.

A servant leader knows that the best work is accomplished by a high functioning team. Since agile by nature has many fast-moving parts and features being developed in parallel, it is critical that the team feel empowered to make decisions and avoid a managerial bottleneck. Agile just wouldn’t work as well with a top-down managerial style, since the process favors distributed decision making to keep things moving forward.