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From Waterfall Walls to Agile Architecture: The New Era of Construction

This is a collaborative article cowritten by Lucas Marshall and Jason Braun.


Productivity is hard to measure. It differs depending on industry, for one. What’s more, the construction sector is what the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago considers “strange and awful,” representative of raw BEA data suggesting “that the value added per worker in the construction sector was about 40 percent lower in 2020 than in 1970.” For instance, the construction of the One World Trade Center in New York faced numerous delays and budget overruns, highlighting the challenges the industry faces. Labor shortages—whose “impacts on labor wages, cost overruns, and scheduling concerns in construction projects”—could be the driving factor here as companies struggle to fill positions while unemployment remains low. In other words, “few construction workers [are] seeking jobs, and therefore the pool to fill demand is shallow,” while onsite workers face the unique challenge of executing projects with limited resources—adding to these impacts and slowing growth.


At first glance, the worlds of software development and construction may seem poles apart. However, both industries grapple with the complexities of managing large-scale projects, ensuring timely delivery, and adapting to unforeseen challenges. For example, the development of the Windows 95 operating system was a monumental task for Microsoft, much like constructing a skyscraper is for a construction firm. Just as software developers transitioned from the rigid Waterfall methodology to the more adaptive Agile approach to address these challenges, the construction industry stands at a similar crossroads.


While it may seem alien to the construction sector, the software industry has subbed one framework (i.e., waterfall) for another (agile), resulting in success ratios two times greater, 37% faster delivery, and greater impact on improving product quality, a 2023 scholarly study found. Popular apps like Spotify and Airbnb have notably benefited from Agile methodologies, iterating rapidly based on user feedback.


In this article, we propose applying similar agile and lean construction methodologies illustrative of industrialized construction. Like software—which replaces a rigid, monolithic release cycle with a more agile framework—we explain that industrialized construction looks to replace the old-school, one-off “project” mindset with a fast and dependable productization framework. Consider the construction of modular homes, which are built offsite in controlled environments and then assembled on-site, mirroring the iterative development and deployment in software.


Software Project Management: From Waterfall to Agile

Companies in the software industry generally use one of two frameworks when building software products:



Waterfall is a more traditional approach to software development where production takes place in a linear, sequential manner (i.e., every task needs to be finished before the next one begins). This means new software solutions begin by defining requirements, then shifting into the software design phase, then shifting to the software developers building what has been proposed, then verifying the release is stable, and finally shifting into maintenance (i.e., finding and squashing bugs). For instance, the early development of Microsoft Office followed a Waterfall approach, with distinct phases and milestones.


Key point: Like construction projects that oftentimes involve a considerable deal of back-and-forth with approvals before breaking ground, then contend with unpredictable access to onsite labor and materials as well as rapidly changing weather conditions, we’ll argue later that construction is due for breaking from the waterfall-like processes through industrialization.



Agile is an iterative, team-based approach to software development where rapid delivery of functional products over a short period of time (known as sprints) is used (similar to lean manufacturing methods applied to construction). Continuous improvement is adopted, and subsequent batches are planned in cyclical schedules. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have adopted Agile methodologies for many of their projects, allowing for rapid iteration and improvement based on user feedback.


Agile methodology is more collaborative and customer-focused. Oftentimes, customers have the opportunity to offer their feedback through the software development process (e.g., beta releases). Through this approach, developers can improve the overall functionality of the software for the target end user and establish a 1-1 relationship based in trust and mutual respect. It also offers a fixed, predictable schedule and delivery, improved quality for customers through their hands-on participation, as well as adaptability through change.


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From One-Off Projects to Finished Goods through Industrialized Construction

Industrialized construction (IC) refers to “the process through which construction aims to improve productivity through increased mechanization and automation,” similar to how Ford’s early assembly line offered the mechanized approach necessary to meet the demands of customers for the Model-T while ensuring product consistency and quality through mechanized orchestration.


The mention of Ford’s Model-T isn’t merely a nostalgic nod to the past but a pivotal example of industrial transformation. In the early 20th century, the automobile industry faced challenges similar to today’s construction sector: Inefficiencies, inconsistencies, and a demand that outpaced supply. Ford’s introduction of the assembly line for the Model-T revolutionized production, offering a standardized, efficient, and scalable solution.


At a high-level, industrialized construction as a concept moves beyond approaching each build as one-off projects. Instead, practitioners apply a foundational framework where building deliverables are treated as building products and the same attention to build quality, customer satisfaction, and continuous improvement seen from manufacturers of marketable finished goods (e.g., automobiles, electronic devices, perishable goods, etc.) is applied to construction. A real-world example can be seen in the rise of prefabricated homes, which are built in factories and then assembled onsite, ensuring consistent quality and faster construction times.


The traditional approach to construction, as we highlighted earlier, comes with its set of challenges. For instance, 45% of all construction projects face disruptions due to inclement weather. A staggering 93% of construction firms grapple with material shortages. Furthermore, the limited access to skilled workers, a point we touched upon earlier, restricts the efficiency of an onsite workforce, especially under tight deadlines. This can jeopardize schedules, budgets, and even the quality of work.


For instance, the construction of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport faced numerous delays due to planning and execution challenges, showcasing the need for a more streamlined approach.


The transition towards Industrialized Construction isn’t just a theoretical proposition; it has tangible, real-world implications that can redefine the construction landscape. For starters, IC can lead to significant cost savings. By shifting much of the construction process to controlled environments, we can mitigate the risks and uncertainties of on-site construction, from weather disruptions to labor shortages. This not only ensures projects stay on budget but also can lead to faster completion times. For example, the Broad Sustainable Building company in China constructed a 57-story skyscraper in just 19 days using prefabricated modules, showcasing the potential of IC.


Industrialized construction, meanwhile, looks to improve quality by affecting factors within a business’s control:

  • Third-party prefabrication and offsite construction partners or building out your own infrastructure to support offsite preassembly can improve schedule certainty by 90%, while cutting down on construction costs by 10% and improving quality by mechanizing the preassembly process in a temperature-controlled factory setting where stringent quality measures can be enforced.
  • Robotics and additive manufacturing technology to increase output, capabilities, and design freedom of human installers; smart tools and IoT solutions in the hands of these installers, meanwhile, can further assist in performing installations more safely with reporting/quality verifiability. For instance, the use of drones in construction sites for surveying and monitoring has become increasingly common, providing real-time data and insights.
  • Building information modeling (BIM) can help construction professionals and stakeholders (e.g., customers, inspectors) collaborate virtually, envisioning finished products in their natural environment while improving the 1-1 relationship and trust through construction projects similar to how earlier discussed software teams run beta tests. The construction of the Shanghai Tower, for example, heavily relied on BIM for its design and execution.
  • A wealth of data via digital twins (e.g., real-time inventory data, predictive analytics, data synchronization to remove information silos, etc.) can help professionals manage projects with more certainty and deliver data-driven insights to drive proactive decision-making and quality.


In the broader discourse on project management methodologies, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez’s article, “It’s Time to End the Battle Between Waterfall and Agile,” offers a compelling perspective. Nieto-Rodriguez critiques the rigid dichotomy many project leaders maintain between Waterfall and Agile, suggesting that such binary thinking has fostered tribalism within the project community, stifling innovation and potential. This tribal mindset has even led entire organizations to “go agile,” often at the expense of sidelining the foundational principles of traditional methodologies that certain projects might still benefit from. The real-world implications of this divisive approach can result in tangible losses for organizations. Nieto-Rodriguez advocates for a more nuanced approach: hybrid project management methodologies. By merging the meticulous planning of Waterfall with the adaptability of Agile, these hybrid methods can address the shortcomings of a one-size-fits-all strategy. Such an approach not only bridges the divide between the two methodologies but also paves the way for more effective and innovative project outcomes.

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Bottom Line

The construction industry and its fragmented ecosystem is in desperate need of industry-governing interoperability where critical project data is shared in real-time, enabling collaboration and a nimble building process adaptive to change.


As project managers in our industry look to the software industry for ways to improve quality, one conclusion they may come to is breaking away from the monolithic, waterfall delivery methods. Instead, they may implement an agile framework and industrialization of processes that facilitate the same increased output and uncompromised product quality that allowed the iconic Model-T to roll off the production line and meet customer demands.


About Authors

Jason Braun is the author of Designing Context-Rich Learning by Extending Reality and an educator with over a decade of producing, delivering, and promoting critically acclaimed multimedia learning experiences. Recognized for collaborating effectively with programmers to create educational software featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education and with subject matter experts like New York Times best-selling authors and FBI cybersecurity agents.

Potential Challenges With Ongoing Projects

When joining a project that has already started or when tasked to review an existing project, a Project Manager is faced with a number of challenges. These primarily relate to not having been with the project team from the beginning and, therefore, not having been part of the planning process. As noted in a prior article, scope, schedule, and budget are probably already set. Many other decisions have also been made, some explicit, some implicit. This leads to the first challenge that the new PM has—what is the true status of the project? We’ll describe how to determine the true status of the project in more detail in a future article, along with providing some useful tools. Before going there, we should look at potential challenges that arise because a change in PM is contemplated or occurring. These challenges or issues will be added to those that already exist in the project and will also need to be addressed as part of the takeover and recovery plan.


There are many reasons for another PM taking over a project, and the project itself may not be in trouble; it may truly be in “Green” status. While that is great and makes things easier for the incoming PM, there are still challenges tied to the change in management that must be dealt with. Let’s review a few of these.


First, the previous PM may no longer be available. They may have left the organization, be out on extended personal leave, been moved to a different project, and not available for a hand-off, etc. This means the incoming PM is unlikely to have access to all the information that the previous PM had, especially around the reasons why certain decisions were made. For example, why was the delivery broken into three increments? Why are there four Scrum Teams instead of three? While interviewing the Business Owner (BO), Sponsor, Customer, and delivery team should provide some insights, if we can’t talk to the previous PM directly, we are unlikely to know why they made the decisions that they did.


Second, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the former PM may still be around, perhaps due to subject matter or technical expertise. Since they are still part of the delivery team, there are likely to be team and political issues with them no longer being in charge. The incoming PM needs to understand the reasons for the change and the decision to keep the former PM on the team. Specific actions will be needed to reduce any team or political fallout from the change and to ensure that the team continues to move forward as a team.


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Another challenge can arise if the Sponsor, Business Owner, or Customer change at the same time as the PM. Or if one is assessing a project due to a Business Owner change and a project review is requested. There have been cases where a successful Business Owner and PM that work well together are moved to higher priority programs or projects, especially if the current project is going well. This adds to the existing incoming PM challenge of building a relationship with the new Business Owner and rebuilding the team dynamic. Many Business Owners joining a project want to review prior decisions, change requirements and agreements, and potentially alter the goals of the project, all to mold the project to meet their goals and add their personal stamp onto the project. While this is a natural human reaction, it can be deadly in a project. The incoming PM needs to hold the line and minimize the disruption to the project, often without a full understanding of the rationale behind decisions already made. This is difficult to do, even while promising to look further into issues raised by the Business Owner. Diplomacy and firmness are both needed to avoid unnecessarily impacting the project.


Of course, there can be non-political challenges as well. When Project Managers discuss situations that they have found when assuming leadership of a project, it is striking how different they are from starting a new project. One of the key differences is that the ongoing project may already show evidence of problems, or have challenges. We’ve listed some common project challenges and possible causes in the table below. The challenges identified when a new PM is being asked to take over a project will influence the initial steps in assuming command, and should be discussed with management as part of accepting the new assignment. We’ll cover how to handle this in upcoming articles.



As you can see in the table, many challenges (symptoms) can result from similar causes and be related to multiple issues. It is important to avoid jumping to conclusions or developing action plans before getting to the real causes of the challenges. Future articles will describe the how to get to the root causes and ways to address them. In the meantime, how would you assess the true status of a project that you are joining?


For more information on how to handle this situation, and a guide for taking over an in-flight project, please check out my book on the topic. There’s a New Sheriff in Town: The Project Manager’s Proven Guide to Taking Over Ongoing Projects and Getting the Work Done.

Progressive PMOs are harnessing the power of Citizen Developers

A few of my colleagues raise eyebrows when I mention that I used to be a programmer back in the days, I am not talking about assembly language, but I could write a few things in Java and C++. Recently I picked up some new skills creating Power Apps, connecting data with Microsoft Dataverse, building Power BI Dashboards, automating processes with Power Automate, and building chatbots with Power Virtual Agents whilst preparing for Microsoft’s Power Platform Fundamentals certification. This is part of a growing trend of what has been termed Citizen Development.

Citizen development is an innovative approach to dealing with application development needs that a lot of Project Management Offices (PMOs) are now adopting. This innovative and inclusive approach to application development addresses the ever-increasing need for PMOs to keep abreast with technological change and the associated demand for user-friendly, hassle-free applications. Enterprise Technology departments are not always best to shoulder all the responsibilities related to digital transformation.

That’s where the inclusive idea of citizen development comes in as a broad-based and innovative solution. It enables project managers and implementers to develop applications on their own and in accordance with the most pressing PMO needs. Of course, they need to have advanced level of digital skills to use the low-code/no-code (LCNC) platforms, but with those skills taken for granted, almost any team member could take a stab at it.

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Citizen development has multiple benefits for the PMO and project management. By project management, I mean its agile and strategic version. Initially, this is far better for the current needs of success-oriented PMOs. Although traditional, waterfall types of project management would also gain. The benefits span many different sectors, whether it be public sector agencies, financial services, or non-governmental organizations. There is growing evidence that citizen development works, and that it works well for both organizations and individual employees. Let us examine what these benefits are and why they are important for the PMO and project management, irrespective of the field.


This is an obvious one. With application development demands being extremely taxing on Enterprise Technology departments, LCNC platforms provide substantial cost-saving opportunities to PMOs. PMOs can thus channel the savings to other, under-resourced needs. Experts estimate that by using LCNC resources, applications can be developed 10 times faster when compared with traditional methods.

PMOs can also expect savings on the maintenance of the new applications. Maintenance and application support are normally separate line items in operational budgets. Higher-end products usually require significant inputs to avoid disruptions and breakdown. The maintenance and support cost are minimal for the applications developed by citizen developers. The overall cost to develop and maintain LCNC -based applications is estimated to be 74% lower than the cost of traditional development led by Enterprise Technology resources. In addition, LCNC platforms hosting present sizable cost reductions, as shown by the experience of Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance. The company was able to save $1.4 million because of creative use of LCNC tools.

Breaking Down Silos

As citizen developers engage in software or application development, coordination with other business units of an organization becomes an absolute must. LCNC platforms do not require expert digital skills to use, but they need citizen developers to ensure that the end products are relevant to the PMO’s needs. From the perspective of effective PMO role, this is a great way of breaking down silos, which exist in all organizations. Improved teamwork and camaraderie are the important by-products of citizen development, which have long-term benefits. Citizen developers cannot go it alone, and it always takes a team effort to ensure that the end-product meets the critical needs of an organization. Importantly, this includes coordination of Enterprise Technology and non- Enterprise Technology resources too.


Citizen development also has the potential to make the PMO more agile. It expects non- Enterprise Technology resources to demonstrate adaptability and willingness to learn – two key attributes of an agile organization. From the perspective of the PMO, citizen development becomes a new and unconventional way of spurring continuous learning as an iterative and inclusive process.

Innovation and Creativity

By encouraging non-Enterprise Technology department resources to become software and application developers, PMOs can create a workspace conducive to creativity and innovation. As it happens, when people are given space and opportunity to punch above their weight, they usually outdo themselves by coming up with something extraordinary. Citizen development consequently becomes a great approach to egging people on to think outside the box. Agile organizations need to be innovative and creative. Equally, they need to be adaptive and committed to continuous learning.

Digitisation and Organizational Culture

The more employees get involved in citizen development, the better for the PMO and digital transformation. As PMOs take steps to adapt to the needs of digital transformation, citizen development becomes a timely and cost-effective method. It nurtures an organizational culture favourable for project resources and other non-Enterprise Technology resources to embrace change and make it work for themselves and the organization. It is this type of culture that becomes pivotal in weathering the storm of imminent changes and making the most of new opportunities for development.

Relevance and Flexibility

The involvement of PMO resources as citizen developers warrants the relevance of newly developed software and applications. No one could be more intrinsically motivated to ensure that they serve the purpose than the end-users themselves. I’m sure you can recall cases when even very expensive IT products turned out to be missing the mark. When developed in isolation from an organization’s core strategic goals and needs, they become underutilized. With less stringent requirements imposed; citizen developers have more flexibility to adjust as they go. As application development becomes faster, citizen development makes it easier to maintain the end products.


Citizen development has been winning over an increasing number of progressive PMOs and organizations. There is growing evidence that it leads to substantial cost-savings, encourages innovation, and makes organizations more agile. PMOs use it effectively to ease the workload of Enterprise Technology resources. Such departments are often understaffed or incapable of dealing with an ever-increasing list of requests and demands.

Citizen development makes a valuable contribution to an organizational culture that promotes creativity and initiative. In the current era of digital transformation, it is critical for agile organizations to create opportunities for their employees. This is to test and improve their digital skills. The experience of organizations that have embraced LCNC platforms for their non-Enterprise Technology resources to develop new applications shows that citizen development is definitely worth the effort.

Is Project Management Being Devalued By Non-Project Managers?

As Project Managers, most of us have experienced someone that works in our organisation slapping a on a PM badge and joining the party.  This party is one with an endless bar tab, the end time doesn’t matter drinks are spilled over glossaries containing project buzz words and generic document templates found on Google.

Only us actual PMs are at the party next door.  Having sensible conversations.  With the right people.  About the right things.  And we brought our own coffee.

Project management is changing where we are seeing more people adopt the role of PM in addition to their day job.  This is due to a number of reasons such as the recruitment of a PM will take too long, project management courses are inexpensive so upskilling is easy and staff know the business better than anyone so it can’t not be a success.

Why is this a problem?

Project management requires a specific skillset, ability to quickly assess and understand the corporate landscape and appreciation of how a project fits into the bigger picture.  PMs are trained to expertly balance the science of budgeting, scheduling, resource planning and estimating with the art of confidently managing risks, issues, dependencies, stakeholders and fluctuations in any aspect of the project.

Where a business function problem exists, there is often a tendency to purchase a new piece of software and bend the internal processes to fit.  Someone is selected as the PM, usually someone who is familiar with the team and processes.  They are chosen over Dan the IT guy as he has no capacity at the moment to manage this project.  So an SME is now also a PM.  Let’s call this PM Chris.

After Chris is given the PM role, they Google sales reporting software and finds a supplier.  Chris liaises with the supplier, who guides says they will get the new software implemented within the quoted 3 months and within budget.  Contracts are signed and everyone is happy.

Chris sends some requirements to the supplier, who can deliver 75% of them but the rest is chargeable. There is some contingency in the budget (nice Googling!). Chris says yes as they’re all must haves anyway.

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Chris returns to the project after spending 2 weeks on some priority work at the point of data import.  A sales data spreadsheet is sent to the supplier, which is sent back as some columns need renaming and there’s some data misspelled and missing.  Chris doesn’t have the time to do this so forwards it to a colleague.  When Chris gets it back, it’s forwarded to the supplier, who has more questions.  This 3-way game of data file tennis goes on for 3 weeks.  Chris is now really busy and is feeling the strain.

Testing is overdue so Chris asks a colleague to help but it’s going to take a little longer than expected as the colleague has booked a week off.  The go-live date is no longer achievable and Chris sends an update to their bosses saying go-live is delayed by 4 weeks.  The bosses ask yet again for an update on project spend and a list of deliverables.  Chris forwards a supplier email and reminds them they have a copy of the contract, which should give them everything they need.  It doesn’t.

Go-live day arrives and a short email is sent to the whole company saying the system is live and the project was a success. The broken sales spreadsheet and dodgy monthly report are replaced with a shiny new system. Yaayyy!  However, the budget of £23,000 was exceeded by £5,500 and the project was delivered 8 weeks late and there are no metrics to show what value was delivered.

After a few weeks, it is found that the sales data that was missing from the spreadsheet is missing from the system and the dodgy monthly report looks nicer but is missing the same information.  There are 3 teams who used the spreadsheets and didn’t know they wouldn’t have access to them.  They don’t have another solution so need emergency training on the system.  Most people are asking why they got rid of the spreadsheets.  If the missing information was added to them, this wouldn’t be happening.  People aren’t happy.  Chris’s reputation has taken a battering.  Chris is exhausted and depressed.

We can see that although Chris is knowledgeable about the business area receiving the new system, they are not as experienced at supplier and contract management, requirements gathering and prioritisation, scheduling, stakeholder and role management, testing and communication in a project environment.  Even with experience in some or all of these areas, that experience still needs to be within the project domain or the business will see someone applying generic experience to a complex and sensitive practice, often with disastrous results.

It’s clear that hiring a PM or BA would have meant this project would have prevented damage to a number of areas.  What’s more, that PM or BA could have saved the business from doing the project at all.  The issue was broken processes, which could be fixed with service review, redesign, workshops and training.  Instead, the wrong decision was made, one which probably scared Chris away from project management forever.

Allowing an SME to run a project sends a message that anyone can be a PM.  That doesn’t mean anyone should.  If there are PMs in the organisation that aren’t selected to run the project for whatever reason, it only reinforces this message.  It can massively impact morale, risk the PM’s reputation and affect the organisation’s perception of the value their role delivers.  Having business leaders not understand business analysis and project management can lead to poor strategic decision making.

How do we fix this?

Do we preach defamation of our profession?  Do we mentor the SME/PM through the treacherous journey that lies ahead of them?  Or do we step back and watch the circus that often ensues and hope they won’t do it again?  It’s a delicate balance as we want to help others but we also don’t want to facilitate the erosion of value of our profession.

You can see it’s not just about reading a textbook and applying the techniques.  It’s about rich experience in understanding the purpose of the project and its place within the business.  However, it’s also not just about projects.  It’s about influencing the adoption of project management principles to help the organisation breed a widespread culture of collaboration, accountability and value delivery.  Just like how the Finance department advise us to be cost-efficient or HR advise us to be conscious of how we conduct ourselves at work, we want to broadcast a message to this affect but we can’t do this on our own.

Unfortunately, the company culture is one of acceptance or even worse, encouragement of non-project professionals managing projects. Our leaders must help us raise the profile of project management in our organisations so people appreciate what it means, the value it delivers and just how god damn difficult it is to get right.  Only then will the organisation see that when there is a project that needs doing – only a proper PM will do.