Waterfall Disease - Symtoms, History and a Cure

It is easy to spot the symptoms in aggressive cases but can present in subtle ways as well. It effects individuals and teams and is communicable. The cure is long and slow but the young heal much faster. If you have been infected with this disease for more than 20 years, the chances of a full recovery is slim.


A programmer feels the strong urge to open a documentation tool before a code editor. This is not a guarantee of infection but a strong indicator.

An infected team will wait for a task to be given to them and then talk about how it is the wrong task or how long it will take to implement. Similarly infected product owners will first ask how long before asking what should be accomplished.

A programmer will, when asked what it would take to implement a feature, answers in terms of the complexity and duration. For example, "OH that would be difficult, we would even have to change the code", or "We would have to talk to that other team, so that will take much longer".

An infected team or programmer assumes that the deadline means they will have to hack in a bad fix, even when there is no stated deadline. These individuals just assume that they will be pushed to make bad decisions so make them as the default, as thought there is no other approach.

A team member states "that is his responsibility", or makes a suggestion or proposal for a change like "I think we should do X". Each of these forms of communication relinquishes responsibility to others, ensuring that the team member does not have to take ownership of the idea they are sharing.

A team member will hand-off a task with the statement "you need to do X so that we can accomplish goal Y". This team member will, and watch for this for it is quick, turn on their heals quicker than normal, and walk away with a slight smile believing they have helped but actually are just passed the blame.

An infected team member will act out, taking actions in direct opposition to the teams goals, and other infected members will watch as though they have no control. They are thinking that the boss should fire that person, not realizing that they should also be considered.


Waterfall disease has been with us for decades. Until the late 1990's it was thought of as normal, even part of the best practice of what a programmer was. Only as the year 2000 approached and the new Agile medicine was introduced to the market did everyone start thinking that there might be another way.

Unfortunately, this Agile medicine tastes very bad and patients remain in denial of the problems, just because of that possible bad taste. It is not uncommon for teams, thrashing uncontrollably and screaming about the unacceptability of their plight, to also state that "the medicine will never work" and refuse to sign-up for the treatment program.


The treatment for waterfall disease is not easy and takes time. Unfortunately, this conflicts directly with the infected parties who have no patience for change.

The cure comes in 3 main phases: a strict diet of learning, combined with the constant guidance of mentors to re-map the brain pathways and finally a change inoculation.

The learning pills must be dosed carefully across time to avoid overload. An ideal learning pill regimen might look like this though results may vary depending on how acute the infection is.

  • Complete removal from the environment that promotes the infection. This might mean leaving the programming environment, the building where re-contamination is possible or even, in the most aggressive cases, leaving the company that actively promotes the disease, is the only way to avoid a relapse.
  • Daily doses of TDD to begin with interspersed with insights into why the current feelings they are experiencing are actually not normal. Knowing that they have a problem is an excellent step toward recovery but do not expect this to occur in these first rounds. Continue this repetitively for 2 weeks switching from a training environment to a practice environment until you start seeing the natural antibodies of the human body kick into gear. These changes show themselves in the form of surprised questions like "so this actually means I don't have to fix bugs anymore"?. Be gentle with the initial naive questions for the physical changes that are underway are only loosely bonded.
  • At some point a sense of wonder, and excitement about the future starts to seep in. Recognizing these moments is key to cementing the changes and reducing the possibility of relapse. Show your excitement about the future and talk of your new life, clean of disease.
  • Once two "sense of wonder" moments have passed it is time to move to the next phase of treatment. Collect one or more of these patients into a team and task them with a green field solution. The use of a green field solution simplifies the continuing diagnostic work that is going to be necessary as the work progresses. This also starts the mentoring phase of the cure.
The mentoring must be administered throughout the process for at any time, day or night, an infected individual will take an action that completely undermines their cure. Examples, might be:
  • Mid-night implementation of a new feature. Attempted under the guise of improving the teams velocity (and they will use that word even if they do not understand it), but actually, this action is driving a sense of self-congratulatory excitement of achieving goals without the mentor's gaze and without tests. Protect against this with early investment in fully automated functional tests. The next days failing build will identify the culprit and allow the mentoring to focus appropriate action.
  • Active creation of cliques, through a sub-team secret design sessions that can then be presented as great successes to the team, when in-fact, they serve more to isolate and inject mistrust amongst the team members.
  • Little code changes without tests will leak into the codebase, often with a source control comment unrelated to the change or misdirecting the mentor to a larger change. When challenged the response will likely be a sheepish grin, as though that still works now that they are fully grown up adults, and the statement like "that was just a one character change", or "its only in a tool, not the real app". These are actions that must be stopped, in group therapy sessions, to ensure that everyone agrees that they want to be cured.
The change inoculation is where most of the physical and mental pain is experienced. Analysis of relapsed patients bring to light complaints about the deep personal loss of family pictures and the requirement to move that caused discomfort. Screen sizes, keyboard types and strange IDE's are many of the hurdles that patients must push through. Also they will attempt apparently logical arguments explaining why sending an email is fare faster than walking 10 feet; "plus they have a record of the conversation don't they? Perhaps they want to refer back to it later? They won't have to come and ask me again? Just consider the time savings of not having to move."

This phase should not be trivialized. Your patients complaints will seem small and full of self-interest but they are one of the biggest drivers of resistance to the medication. Failure to attend to these details will initiate a slow drift back to habits that are more comfortable. Many retrograde steps will be subtle, almost imperceptible; a head turned to the floor during a standup, an extra second of reluctance to approach the board and be part of the team. The feelings of isolation, and failure will compound this situation accelerating the relapse.

The inoculation itself can take many forms but centers around making change the norm through the use of intentional disruption. For example,
  • Throw away all desktop computers and replace them with laptops to promote movement. In the same vein, ensure that wireless network access is available and the old wire is disconnected.
  • Interrupt the team with cake but do not take it to their desks. Instead, place it 20 feet from them so that they are encouraged to move. Repeating this makes movement more normal and bridges the gap to a time when movement to communicate with team members is the new habit.
  • Mandate pair programming and make sure that it is with new people all the time. Having to work with team mates ensure that they know each other's names and start gaining insight into other cube silo's.
  • More radical, but utterly required to ensure success, is the removal of cubical sitting structures. Some powerful conversations with CIO's will be necessary to drive this kind of medication. 
  • Disabling email for periods of time forces movement for simple conversations, changing the quality of communication so much that teams will start experiencing a high velocity team feature known as "common thought". At first this is startling, and must be called out by mentors as a healing step, but will soon become the natural order in which simple 30-second exchanges can accomplish what was once days worth of drifting, misinterpreted email exchanges.
The change inoculation is fraught with complaints like "but I liked my privacy" and I would rely on your mentor to resolutely and clearly state the futility of these gestures. Perhaps offer "we could build you your own office if you like" or "aren't we all so lucky to have private homes to go to". Lean on the emotional content of these interactions, logic is not as effective in this inoculation process. Only the emotions of team membership and commitment to common goals will drive the lackadaisical thoughts from the air. These thoughts are drivers of relapse so be attentive in all locations: sit with the team in the team areas, be there in break rooms, and accompany likely offenders during the walk to their car, especially if they are accompanied. Contamination is an ever present threat.

This cure is a 3 to 6 month process and after the 6 months is over the need to continue to encourage advanced learning is critical to maintaining the positive progress.

Waterfall disease shares a similar trait to alcoholism. Once infected, you will always carry the old urges. Even well established mentors have been known to succumb to the comfortable old habits of believing their code actually works without tests. Why just yesterday, I was party to the disabling of thousands of distributed machines because I knew of a change being made and said nothing about it not being tested.

Yes, I have waterfall disease.

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