Waterfall, Agile and the Construction Industry

When people ask me to explain the difference between agile and waterfall methodology I usually give an analogy based on the construction industry:

The Construction Industry as “Waterfall Heaven”

  • When you are building a home it is often quite possible to know in advance exactly which steps to take and in which order. You simply cannot start with the roof, continue with the walls and finish with the basement. You cannot apply the wall paper before the walls. Furthermore, you can easily predict how much time is required for applying X square meters of wall paper, or Y roof tiles etc. There are manuals available for project managers containing a wealth of data on standard work and its cost etc. In effect, it is possible for a competent construction project manager to create a plan for a project like this and to follow it with no small chance of success.
  • In software engineering on the other hand, things are a lot more difficult to predict. You cannot know in advance how long it will take to implement requirement X. This is because you are not assembling house number 1000 in a long line of identical houses. The whole idea of software engineering is to take something which is more or less unknown and transform it into something well known. So while designing the software is not really a predictable process impressing it on a CD and shipping it is.

Risks Levels Have Increased

Well, it turns out that the construction industry is not all that predictable anymore either. According to Everts et al. a lot has happened in the construction industry in recent decades. Where there used to be 70% of construction taking place on virgin land at the edge of the city with relatively predictable conditions there is now 70% of construction taking place in already built-up areas with of course a much higher level of unpredictability. Also, at least 50% of construction work is not new buildings but repairs, remodelling and the like. Working with old buildings is naturally much more prone to surprises, just like working with old software…

Tightening the Waterfall or …

So far, the response of the construction industry have been to increase bureaucracy by generating more paper work for incident reports, change requests etc. If you are in the software industry, you will recognize this instantly…

… Move to Agile

Everts et al. takes things one step in another direction by surveying which skills would be needed and/or are lacking among construction project managers and building project managers in order to be able to work in a more agile way. They lists skills such as:

  • Negotiation skills
  • Cultural awareness
  • Conflict management

Conclusion – Not a Waterfall any Longer

Skills which are equally useful for a software engineer or manager! And that’s not all. With smart buildings the software component of the construction work is increasing. Intelligent building of intelligent buildings will be a new and major challenge for the construction industry. I guess I will soon have to switch to another example when I want to explain under which circumstances a non-agile project management style is most appropriate.


  • P. Everts, F. Pries, and S. Nijhuis, “Towards agile project management and social innovation in the construction industry,” in Misbe2011 – proceedings of the international conference on management and innovation for a sustainable built environment, 2011.
    abstract = {Is project management developing towards a more human- or culture-oriented discipline?
    Two recent studies of the Dutch construction industry dealt with this issue, and the results of
    these studies have led to the conclusion that project management has developed in the
    opposite direction over the past few years, towards a 'harder', more instrumental approach
    with an increasing degree of specialisation. This approach works well with relatively simple
    and repetitive construction assignments, but project managers have noticed that their
    environment is rapidly increasing in complexity, and that this development limits their
    effectiveness. Some of these issues include the project's immediate surroundings (for projects
    in the city centre), legislation, regulations, procedures, the number of parties involved and
    judicial matters.
    The highly instrumental management style described above is not entirely suitable for these
    increasingly complex construction projects. We have observed that these new construction
    assignments require new management paradigms, but that the existing paradigms are
    tenacious in their hold on managers' thinking. The dominant form of management today is
    still technical, Taylorian and instrumental, and the dominant management culture is still
    task- and results-oriented.
    And yet there are some new developments in the field; lean or agile project management is
    clearly gaining momentum (or so the trade journals would have it seem). Within this
    'movement', the human aspect takes precedence over the structure. The average project
    manager may be satisfied with his competencies in general, but he gives himself a low score
    on the 'human' or 'social' side of project management. That is also the facet he would most
    like to improve about himself; especially with regard to skills such as negotiation, conflict
    management and leadership.
    There is a general trend towards social skills and away from purely technical expertise. This
    implies that project managers do not necessarily have to be engineers. The project manager
    of the future will definitely have to have people skills, but according to the project managers
    themselves, they still have a long way to go.},
    author = {Everts, Paul and Pries, Frens and Nijhuis, Steven},
    booktitle = {MISBE2011 - Proceedings of the international Conference on Management and Innovation for a Sustainable Built Environment},
    citeulike-article-id = {9729807},
    day = {19-23},
    editor = {Wamelink, J. W. F. and Geraedts, R. P. and Volker, L.},
    isbn = {9789052693958},
    keywords = {20110831b},
    location = {Amsterdam, The Netherlands},
    month = jun,
    organization = {Delft University of Technology},
    posted-date = {2011-08-31 12:28:55},
    priority = {0},
    publisher = {Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands},
    title = {Towards Agile Project Management and Social Innovation in the Construction Industry},
    year = {2011}

About Greger Wikstrand

Greger Wikstrand, Ph.D. M.Sc. is a TOGAF 9 certified enterprise architect with an interest in e-heatlh, m-health and all things agile as well as processes, methods and tools. Greger Wikstrand works as a consultant at Capgemini where he alternates between enterprise agile coaching, problem solving and designing large scale e-health services ...


  1. Interesting. I wrote about Agile construction earlier this week.
    Construction projects can be Agile! http://agilescout.com/lean-agile-in-construction-

    • Hey! That's a really interesting article you wrote there. What do you think about the surmise that construction project managers lack certain social skills to help make them more agile?

  2. Pingback: Waterfall, Agile and the Construction Industry | Smart Engineering Management

  3. Pingback: 4 myths about software development productivity - Greger Wikstrand

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