Hybrid Agile is a frequently used term that is so ambiguous that it creates confusion and misunderstanding. Two people using the term can have two completely different intentions. This post provides a framework for understanding what people usually mean and helps bring clarity to the term, related terms and the various interpretations.
What is a Hybrid?
Let’s start with a definition of Hybrid being used as an adjective:
relating to or produced from parents of different species, varieties, or breeds
having or produced by a combination of two or more distinct elements
having two different types of components performing essentially the same function
So hybrid is used to describe two or more elements in combination. The intent is to create something better by taking the best of each of the underlying components. Here are some common examples of hybrids:
Harry Potter – Harry Potter is perhaps the most well-known hybrid ever! He is a hybrid of a wizard (someone with magical powers) with a muggle (someone with no magical powers). The obvious benefit of being Harry Potter is that you will get books written about you.
Mule – In the animal kingdom, a good hybrid example is a mule which is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Mules are more patient, hardy and long-lived than horses and are described as less obstinate and more intelligent than donkeys.
The Prius – The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid car. The car contains an electric motor and batteries for city driving, and a gasoline engine and fuel tank for longer excursions. The benefit of the hybrid Prius is that it produces a better balance of fuel economy and performance than either pure electric or pure internal combustion propulsion.
So far so good, right? But once we begin to examine Agile and then Hybrid Agile, things start to get wonky.
What is Agile?
The dictionary definition of agile provides very little help. From Merriam Webster, Agile is:
marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace
Most of you probably know the story of the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” from 2001; a meeting of experts where the 4 agile values and 12 agile principles were produced. Since that fateful gathering in Snowbird Utah, we have a clear sense of what “Agile Software Development” means.
Most people have shortened down “Agile Software Development” down to just “Agile”. In addition, those values and principles from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development are being applied to other types of work that doesn’t include software. This includes marketing and sales, automobiles, and even personal agility. Calling something agile today could mean different things.
I personally interpret “agile” today to mean a way of working, or philosophy or development method that is compatible with those agile values and principles. That generally means an approach that:
Puts customer satisfaction first
Leverages frequently deliveries to gain feedback and predictability
Believes in empowering and trusting the team, asking them to work at a sustainable pace, and lets the team self-organize
Values delivery of working solutions over producing interim deliverables like documentation
Expects and leverages customer feedback and changes, rather than trying to restrict or avoid change
Believes that teams need to collaborate closely with customers, requesters and end users
Values communicating face to face rather than through written documents
Prefers building quality throughout rather than cutting corners to hit a fixed deadline or arbitrary commitment date
Inspects and adapts to continually improve the way of working
Benefits of Agile
Why adopt these ways of working? Well, the key benefits include customer satisfaction, speed of delivery, and flexibility or responsiveness to change. These provide business agility which is needed in today’s competitive environment.
It is when we begin using the term “hybrid agile” that the wheels begin to fall off.
Contrary to what most people think, hybrid agile is a blend of two or more agile approaches. Mixing agile and waterfall, such as the common “Water-Scrum-Fall” is more properly called a “hybrid development approach”.
This use of hybrid agile is consistent with how Digital.ai uses the term in their Annual State of Agile Report. Take a look at the chart below labeled “agile methods and practices” and the hybrids mentioned. After Scrum, the next three highest categories of agile methods are hybrids including general hybrid, ScrumBan (Scrum + Kanban), and Scrum/XP.
The key here is that we are hybrid, but we are still very consistent with agile ways of working and those principles I listed above.
But wait, That’s Not What I Meant by Hybrid Agile
I know, I know, that is not what YOU meant by hybrid agile. What you probably meant was hybrid development approaches.
The method used to create and evolve the product, service, or result during the project life cycle, such as predictive, iterative, incremental, agile, or a hybrid method.
Unfortunately, most people tend to use the term hybrid to refer to a mix of Agile and Traditional. In a 2020 survey by Dr. Ayelt Komus and his team at Koblenz University, he asked respondents how they used approaches for the planning and execution of projects or development. A whopping 43% said they used a mixed form or hybrid approach of agile and traditional. Surprisingly, only 20% said they were using purely agile approaches. (Only 9% said they work in a consistently traditional project management mode)
Or if you are from the PMI camp, you might be thinking hybrid project lifecycles. PMI tends to downplay the agile values and ways of working and seem to have relegated agile to a type of project lifecycle. Per the PMI Agile Practice Guide:
“A project life cycle is the series of phases that a project passes through from its start to its completion. A project phase is a collection of logically related project activities that culminates in the completion of one or more deliverables. The phases can be sequential, iterative, or overlapping.”
The practice guide goes on to lists the following lifecycles:
Predictive – Bulk of planning up front, and then execution by sequenced phases in one pass. Also referred to as plan-driven or waterfall.
Iterative – Use feedback from partially finished work to improve the work.
Incremental – An approach that provides finished product throughout the lifecycle without waiting till the end.
Agile – Approach that leverages both iterative and incremental to refine work items and deliver frequently.
When most people use the term hybrid agile, what they mean is a hybrid lifecycle, or hybrid development method. More specifically, they mean, mixing an agile framework (such as Scrum) with a predictive approach (such as waterfall).
Wouldn’t the mixing of the two approaches provide less benefits? Lear more in my article about the success rates of agile projects vs. waterfall projects. In short, agile projects are 3X more likely to succeed.
All Chaos Breaks Out
And this is where all chaos breaks out. Forget the Scrum/XP hybrid or the weird sounding ScrumBan, these are both true agile hybrids. Instead, consider the following terms, most of which mean Scrum + Predictive/Waterfall:
Water – scrum – fall – Also can be written as water-agile-fall or more accurately, water-scrum-fail. The idea here is to spend time on planning the project thoroughly up front, then using agile or Scrum to develop a solution, then use more predictive approaches for deploying the solution.
Scrummerfall – A blend of Scrum and Waterfall, similar to the above. One expert describes this as The practice of combining Scrum and Waterfall so as to ensure failure at a much faster rate than you had with Waterfall alone.
Waterfail – See previous item.
WaterScrum – This has been likened to having both an American Football team and a Soccer team on the field playing at the same time.
Agilish – This could mean pretty much anything. Maybe you slept at a Holiday Inn Express.
“The reality is that the approach many organizations follow, though inspired by the Agile Manifesto, is constrained by both organizational culture and intuitive governance. The result is Agile adoption that is both challenging for the Agile team and that fails to realize Agile’s business benefits, such as faster time-to-market, increased business value, and improved flexibility and responsiveness.”
— Forrester Research
These findings are consistent with the previously mentioned Digital.ai Annual State of Agile report. The 2020 report mentions culture, resistance to change, and inadequate management support as the top challenges experienced with adopting Agile.
Waterfall + Agile Approaches Fail More Than Agile or Waterfall
Does this agile alchemy work? As you can imagine if you have read this far, those approaches that mix waterfall and agile are less likely to provide the desired benefits. This is backed up by a recent study done by Hewlett Packard Enterprise that included 400 IT professionals which you can download and read here.
The report from the Hewlett Packard speculated on the reasons that these mixed approached tend to be less successful:
Why would the hybrid approach fare worse? It is the one approach that implicitly straddles two development methodologies that naturally pull in different directions. Perhaps they are incompatible.
— Agile Projects are More Successful than Hybrid Projects, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP (2016)
No Agile Culture = No Agile Benefits
Another key reason that those projects that mix waterfall and agile don’t work relates to culture. Most people that are mixing those approaches are focused only on process and documentation. But agile is really more focused on mindset and culture. It seems obvious to me that without adopting the agile culture, mindset and ways of working, people aren’t going to get those agile benefits.
A few obvious questions emerge. First why all the resistance to change? Second, why pursue “agile” if you aren’t going to gain the benefits?
I wonder if the main driver for pursuing “hybrid agile” is actually not about agile at all. The driver for “hybrid agile” seems to be to cling to previous ways of working like predictive/waterfall approaches.
I hear this frequently “Can we take the best of both approaches to create something better?”
I don’t know. Can you take the best of paleo and vegan diets and put them together?
My theory is that people want the benefits, but they don’t want to give up their traditional ways of working. They want customer satisfaction but they don’t practice frequent deliveries, short feedback loops and accepting changing requirements. Or they want productive teams but they don’t want self-organizing teams. Or they want predictive delivery but they impose unrealistic deadlines on team rather than letting the team decide how much work to take on.
Quick Note – Bi-Modal Approaches May Work
There is another flavor that is not a true hybrid. This is where organizations have multiple development methods and employs different methods by project. So one project might follow an agile approach while another follows a more predictive or waterfall approach.
I think these are generally OK. I’ve seen different approaches used within the same program with success. Where I draw the line is using both approaches for the same people, team or project.
Are We All Clear on Hybrid Agile Now?
I hope that this discourse was helpful to you in understanding some of the variance in terminology. And I hope you are able to more clearly understand hybrid agile. We further explore agile alchemy in my related article, how to succeed with hybrid and blended agile approaches.
I’d love to hear your take on this. Are you using a agile hybrid or a hybrid development method? How is that working out for you?