Coping With The Loss of Waterfall

The Five Stages Of Grief by Ion Moldoveanu

A change, and in particular cultural change in a big organization, is never easy. Therefore there are many models  defined to help the change managers and ease the   transition. Kotter’s  8 step change model is one such example. While researching, I found only few of these models support the experiences of those impacted by a change. I came across a model from an unexpected source “The Five Stages of Grief” by Kübler-Ross[1].  This model applies to the fear of death or other tragic losses. They say fear of public speaking is higher than the fear of death. What about the fear of change?

Kubler-Ross has named the following five stages of grief people go through following a serious loss including the loss of waterfall. It is like the death of an old rigid mentality, which results in the starting of the nimble Scrum process. Sometimes people get stuck in one of the first four stages. Their lives can be painful until they move to the fifth stage - acceptance.
  1. Denial: Our processes, or sometimes lack of it, works fine. We have been doing the same thing for many years. There are some usual problems but everybody is used to the existing practices. Scrum does not work for our projects, so it does not even make sense to try.
  2. Anger:  Why is this happening to me?  I used to be comfortable with a long and rigid process. There was always somebody to blame and not much change going on. I used to be an authority in the old system, now I have to go back to school.
  3. Bargaining: This project has already started. Let’s go to agile next time.  This does not work for the particular project I am working on because it does not have very much UI.
  4. Depression: What am I going to do from now on? I will wait and probably this will go away. I know after all this agile thinking is going to fail because of scope creep.
  5. Acceptance: Everybody is doing it these days. I cannot fight anymore. Better adapt to it rather than fight. It will at least look good in my CV.

The steps do not happen in the strict chronological order and different people may not experience all stages or the same intensity. Early adopters will jump form a short denial to become change agents while laggers will be stuck in denial.

During grief, it is common to have many conflicting feelings. Sorrow, anger, loneliness, sadness, shame, anxiety, and guilt often accompany serious losses. Having so many strong feelings can be very stressful. Yet denying the feelings, and failing to work through the five stages of grief, is harder on the body and mind than going through them.

Grieving and its stresses pass more quickly, with good self-care habits and implementation of the best practices e.g. unit testing, continuous integration etc. It also helps to have a close circle of agile family or  friends to guide through the stages.

Kübler-Ross models how people cope with a tragedy like dying, divorce, diseases. Why do then many organizations react to change and in particular to  agile as if they are losing somebody? The paradox is that we are afraid of such changes  and fail to remember the basic law of nature, “only the species those are able to adapt shall survive”.

Note: The classification is done based on personal observations of people around me as well as my own reactions. It is not based on any formal survey.

About the Author
I, Ion Moldoveanu, am a software development manager in Oracle. I am passionate about all things that require an open mind such as innovation, leading change, self-development as well as building new skills capabilities in teams.

[1] Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0415040159


  1. This model is often used by coachs and therapists to help people going throught a change they didn't expected.
    What helps people to go up to acceptance stage is to find a sense to the change they live (it makes sense).

  2. "Kübler-Ross models how people cope with a tragedy like dying, divorce, diseases.Why do then many organizations react to change and in particular to agile as if they are losing somebody?"

    Does the above mean that people are able to cope with organizational change like the way the cope with losing someone?

  3. Thierry, good suggestion. Thanks for that. People need indeed to find sense to get acceptance. In the business world that comes from leadership, vision and clear objectives.

  4. ASalam, while Kübler-Ross model did a real study, I only used as an analogy. I cannot not say for sure if we can use the same copying strategy in a change as not everybody will have the same ways to cope with a “real” loose. Because we can see a change as losing something (the old ways of doing things) we can try to see if the same strategy works.

    By the way, can’t we try to look at this in reverse? There are many theories about managing change, why can’t we apply some to a personal loss as well? Arguably, death is a change process form old to new or going to some type of spiritual life. It is a matter of perception if we see it as a change or a loss as we may perceive an organizational/cultural change as an issue or opportunity.

  5. See also William Bridges' "Transitions" and "Managing Transitions", the work of Virginia Satir, and, incidentally, the Marshall Model (white paper).


    - Bob @FlowChainSensei

  6. more comments on linkedin:

    Posted by Thomas Ulan
    "I think it is important for management to thank everyone and help teams acknowledge that good work had been accomplished with Waterfall, AND the new development environment will help the teams be even more successful."

    Posted by Anthony Register
    "Couldn't agree with you more. I've led this type and size of change before. Recognizing, understanding, and coaching is vital to working through the "loss" mentioned."

  7. Totally agree. Having a mentor, coach, sometime executive support or a simply a group of enthusiasts to believe in the vision of the leader is critical. They can help directly with the change but as well provide emotional support and feedback. We cannot do anything alone in life and even more in facing a stressful change.