7 Mile Race Planning – Waterfall or Agile?

Okay – this is going to be a stretch, so add salt!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how things actually work in the real world – not how they look on paper, or in your PMP training or your Scrum training – but you know – the real world.

See – I’m an avid runner, and last year needed to get speedy for a 7.4 mile race (part of a relay that I do every year). My team came in 2nd place the year before, and we thought we might be able to win last year, but it would require peak performance from everyone on the team. So I wanted to get as ready as possible.

If I make some gross generalizations about using Waterfall to get ready for a race, I might have planned and executed like this:

  • Assess race distance
  • Review schedule, costs, timeline
  • Put together a training plan based on the 7.4 mile distance
  • Pick a per mile time goal, and start running at that pace 12 weeks out
  • Train for the race near my home
  • Race day

And if I took a page from the Agile book, it might be like this:

  • Decide to run the race
  • Start running the race
  • Stop for a new pair of shoes
  • Notice that I wasn’t fast enough
  • Decide that I really wanted to run a 3 mile race instead (at a slower pace)
  • Tell my team that we weren’t going to finish first

Okay – you can see that I’m being silly here – because the truth is that I borrowed a bit from each methodology to run my most successful 7.4 miles. Here’s what I did:

  • I put together my team – made sure everyone was available, knew what they were doing for the relay, had time to train, and could make travel and gear arrangements. This already sounds like waterfall.
  • I created a scorecard for my fitness level: body weight, hours of sleep, weekly mileage, fastest mile, best 8k recently. This also sounds waterfall like – but I didn’t use this as my plan – I used this to start my training iteration. Agile-fall, anyone?
  • I took immediate action: I needed to be a bit lighter, and I needed to visit the track far more often. I did – and based on my results – starting adjusting my training plan. Agile, all the way.
  • I realized that I wasn’t running a general 7.4 mile race, I was running a very particular one. And I could go and practice there, so I did. Even though I’ve run that course multiple times – I’d never really thought about the course in particular. And thinking about it in particular was huge. It turns out that just about the 4 mile mark, the gentle downhill turns into flat as a pancake. When I compared my previous runs along the course, I noticed that I slowed considerably here, while maintaining the same effort. It taught me that right there, at that spot, I had to pick it up – I had to increase my effort. And to do that meant changing my training plan. More agile, don’t you think?
  • I changed my last few weeks of speed training, so that I was running my very fastest track efforts AFTER 4 very hard miles of running.  Again – agile takes the upper hand.
  • I went back to planning mode though – I spent a ridiculous amount of time reviewing the course elevation, my speed and my heart rate – and used that to update my race day plan. I even wrote each half mile time and heart rate on a card and taped it to my wrist. A little of each – waterfall and agile.
  • Race day had a series of hiccups. Our cyclist double flatted, so instead of starting my run in first place, I started pretty far back. And the race director (and friend) suffered a heart attack. That meant that my carefully planned warmup wasn’t going to work – I warmed up, I waited, and then (not knowing about the flat tire) – couldn’t stray very far from the starting line. I resorted to jumping up and down, push-ups, and other calisthenics to see if I could still be ready for running at my top speed from the very word go. Agile takes the win here.
  • Once I started – I stuck to my plan though – I hit each half mile right where I was supposed to, and when the going got flat, I got going. But since I’d raced the course 3 times in the last 3 weeks – I knew just what to expect. Waterfall, perhaps?

Okay – that was a bit tortured. But you can see where I’m headed. At their best – each methodology has a lot to offer. But at their worst, neither would have led to success for me on race day. My running project needed a mixture of careful planning  before I started, iterative work along the way, and then sticking to a plan (that was tested in advance) on race day.

My most successful tech projects are like that: You plan some, you do some, you re-visit the plan. You focus on the actual work, not just on initial assumptions. You find out what is happening in the real world and adjust. And when it comes time to launch – all things being equal – you go back to your launch plan.





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