How to Successfully Transition from Waterfall to Scrum

Anthony Mersino
February 26, 2016

One of the most common conversations I’ve had with clients over the last few years is how to move from waterfall 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.  
Making the change to the Scrum Framework is not simple or risk-free.  Many organizations have tried and failed. In the 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.  We recommend an approach that consists of Planning, Training, and Coaching. And then Iterate.  I've summarized the information below and you can get the very detailed whitepaper here: How to Successfully Move from Waterfall to Scrum 

Planning for Scrum

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.  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.  

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.  

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.

Scrum Training

Planning is followed closely by Training and sometimes these activities overlap. 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 done this before. You can find more information on 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 Agile and Scrum Training for Teams, Scrum Master Certification, Scrum Product Owner, and Agile for Leaders training for those managers and leaders who need to understand and support teams.

Scrum 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.


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! 

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. 

For the detailed guide on transitioning to Scrum, please follow the link below.   

How to Successfully Transition from Waterfall to Scrum Signup Image

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.