Agile vs Waterfall…

Waterfall vs AgileAre you familiar with the exploits of Alexander The Great?

He was a Macedonian warrior king who, by the age of thirty, had conquered one of the largest empires in ancient history — stretching from the Ionian sea to the Himalayas’. Undefeated in battle, he’s considered one of the most successful commanders of all time. So much so, that top military academies throughout the world still teach his military tactics today.

One of Alexander’s greatest battles was fought at Gaugamela, against the Persian king Darius III.

And although his army was outnumbered two to one by the Persians, Alexander kicked Darius’s butt all the way from Gaugamela to Arbela (modern-day Iraq).

So how did Alexander win against such great odds?

The answer is simple…

Alexander adopted an Agile approach — whilst Darius was Waterfall.

Thinking he had the advantage due to the larger size of his army (assumptions), Darius committed his forces to a decisive win from the beginning.

However, Alexander took an iterative and incremental approach, constantly probing his enemy and adapting his strategy based on what he learnt from their responses (feedback loop).

Darius came to the battlefield with a predetermined plan of attack (up-front requirements; static Gantt charts).

But Alexander knew the importance of being flexible — especially under rapidly changing circumstances. And he responded to change by not committing to a specific plan of attack until the right opportunity presented itself (just-in-time execution).

Because Darius didn’t know his generals on a personal level, he didn’t have their — or his armies — full loyalty. Which explains why his army deserted the battlefield and Darius was eventually killed by one his own generals.

Alexander on the other hand took the time to know each of his generals on an individual basis. And as a result he was able to build his strategies around their individual strengths and weakness. Add to that the fact that he lead by example and empowered his generals to make decisions, Alexander inspired fierce loyalty amongst his troops — to the point they were prepared to fight to the death for him.

Lastly, Darius relied heavily on a predefined signal systems (documentation) to communicate with his army.

However, understanding the importance of personal, clear communication channels — especially within volatile situations — Alexander’s communication system was also backed up by personal messengers. Which is why he was able to quickly respond to the danger on the left flank that could have lost him his whole army and caused his victory to be short-lived.

So there you have it – that’s how ‘Alexander The Great’ (Agile) kicked Darius’s (Waterfall) butt. And this victory against such great odds can teach us some useful lessons about how to improve the delivery of our software and product development projects;

1. Avoid committing too early — especially when you don’t have all the information you need. You’ll make better decisions if you wait till the last possible moment.

2. Collecting requirements upfront — and assuming they will never change over the duration of a development project — can cost you dearly in terms of delayed delivery times, additional development costs and an end deliverable that has little or no value to your customer.

3. It’s better to develop software, products and services incrementally. Because with each iteration we learn more. And the more we learn, the better we get.

4. Empowered teams make better decisions, are more productive and develop higher quality software/products.

5. Face to face communications are much more effective than documentation at eliminating ambiguity and ensuring everyone is working towards the same objectives.

Hope this helps.

Do feel free to share your  thoughts below;




  1. September 23, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    Nice story Ade – thanks.

    I wonder how much Alexander’s teacher, Aristotle, contributed to his approach. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, taught that truth exists in an unknowable realm. Aristotle taught that reality is all around us and things are what they are. This the benefits of inspect and adapt – ergo Agile. 🙂

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 24, 2014 at 8:39 am

      Thanks Jay.

      And Plato’s teacher, Socrates, once said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing…” I guess this awareness of the ‘unknown unknowns’ was passed down to Alexander – and found it’s way to the core of Agile! 🙂

  2. Kim Collier-Reply
    September 23, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Love it!

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 24, 2014 at 8:39 am

      Thanks Kim!

  3. September 23, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    For a fascinating read, and a wonderful expansion and exposition of these ideas, check out Stephen Bungay’s “The Art of Action.” Bungay starts a bit closer to home — von Clausewitz and von Moltke of the 19th century Prussian army — and expands much more on these methods as applied to business. Bungay isn’t an “agile” author, but he’s singing harmony and it’s very informative, even inspirational.

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Sounds interesting – added it to my reading list. Thanks Ned!

  4. Johanna Telford-Reply
    September 24, 2014 at 10:38 am

    A very creative way to describe the difference between the Agile and Waterfall development methodologies!

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 24, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks Johanna!

  5. September 26, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Yes this is a great way of comparing Waterfall to Agile with a history lesson as a Trojan Horse. Nice work, storytelling and Agile go hand in hand.

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 26, 2014 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks Tom – much appreciated!

  6. Atul Dwivedi-Reply
    September 29, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Shared with my teammates, so very well written story which appeals the reader’s interest.
    Thanks Ade

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      September 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Cheers Atul – I appreciate the feedback!! 🙂

  7. Eli-Reply
    September 30, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Darius’s generals turned on him after Alexander marched on Babylon.

    • Ade Shokoya-Reply
      October 1, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      Thanks for the contribution Eli!

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