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Mar 11

How to have a hybrid project in Jira? Waterfall and agile

Jia hybrid project management - waterfall and agilePurely agile projects are rare in real life. What we typically see in Jira are hybrid projects. Hybrid, or mixed project management is partially waterfall (high-level planning), and partially agile (iteration planning), [check update]. Let’s look closer at how to run hybrid projects in Jira, and why is it beneficial to have a project management app, such as BigPicture on top of Jira?

Why think ‘waterfall’ in the agile world?

You could be surprised that some 89 percent of project managers still use waterfall project management to a certain extent.1 Deadlines dictated by contracts or laws, budgeting – these facts of life call for classic waterfall tools, such as Gantt charts. You’ll typically see this standpoint at the high management level, responsible for long-term planning.

At the bottom of the hierarchy, on the other hand, we have teams that consider waterfall methodologies outdated. Instead, they love to manage their work in an agile manner. Two-week iterations, sprints, scrum – these terms have really become the norm at the team level in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd decades of the 21st century. Unlike high-level managers, modern teams don’t like to focus on dates and the timeline – rather they plan work on program boards or agile boards, or simply: boards.

Update: an alternative approach to hybrid project management exists, too. Instead of being waterfall-ish at the top and agile-ish at the bottom of the hierarchy, two subsidiaries might work as follows: one of them in an entirely waterfall manner, and the other one could be fully agile. How to go about such an arrangement?

1 PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2017®. Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, PA, U.S.A.

Hybrid projects in plain Jira

(with no project management app added on top)
Plain Jira does have – somewhat limited – agile boards2, but it completely omits the waterfall Gantt charts.

The bottom line: it’s hardly feasible to do agile and waterfall – mixed project management in plain Jira Software, let alone Jira Core.

However, Jira + some project management app on top will do the job. When browsing Atlassian Marketplace look for a Jira app that has both the Gantt charts and agile boards (with teams). What’s more, the two tools have to absolutely keep in sync. One such app is BigPicture.

2 boards in Jira Software cover iterations but they don’t support teams and long-range planning, such as SAFe’s Program Increments (four iterations ≈ program increment).

Waterfall agile project management, Jira Gantt chart

The Gantt chart of Jira BigPicture. Vertical green and violet bars are iterations – agile-related things. To make them visible enable View > Show > Cadences.



Waterfall + agile, mixed projects in Jira + BigPicture

Now, let’s go step by step through the workflow in a hybrid project:

1. Initiate a project WATERFALL

First, you import tasks from Jira and this happens automatically when you create a program in BigPicture. Obviously, you can import a subset of tasks and not all of them. Later on, BigPicture will keep the imported tasks in sync with Jira.

Alternatively, use the BigPicture’s Scope module to start from scratch and break the project into phases, large tasks, and milestones (see top-down planning in Jira). Instead of the Scope module, you can use the Gantt chart’s left pane, the work breakdown structure, for that. How rough should the planning be at this stage? Say, you are a construction company; building a section of a motorway might constitute a phase of the project.

2. Develop the mid-level of the work breakdown structure WATERFALL

We’re still on the Scope module/Gantt chart. Add the mid-level of tasks. For instance, ‘building of an overpass’ task. You’re still working on dates in this step, say, your task starts on the 1st of March and ends on the 15th of August.

3. Add milestones to the Gantt chart WATERFALL

What is the milestone? Milestones are one-day long tasks that represent crucial dates. Milestones represent things accrued from contracts, such as ‘commissioning a part of the highway’. Why even have milestones on the Gantt chart? Because these ‘unusual’, diamond-shaped tasks attract the attention of everyone from a team member to a project manager, motivating people to respect deadlines.



4. Now it’s teams’ turn. We’re submerging to the team-level and switching from the Gantt chart to Program board AGILE

and planning iterations in an agile manner. Before that, decide on how long your iterations (sprints) will last. Typically they are of a 2-, 3- or 4-week-long cadence.

Big Picture configuration, agile schedule, iteration

Here Program Increments are also used. The PI, however, belongs to SAFe, so if you are ‘just agile’, you don’t need PIs and you need to set the iterations only.


Now, during the planning sessions that prepend each sprint/iteration teams add tasks to the upcoming one or two iterations. When doing the agile planning teams, and Product Owners, should consult the Gantt chart and observe those high-level, ‘general’ tasks, as well as milestones, that had been set by the project manager.

Agile board in BigPicture

The Agile Board of BigPicture. Green bars – marked Cadence 2, 3, 4 – represent the iterations.


5. Align the agile, short-term planning with the high-level, waterfall plan AGILE WATERFALL

Back to the Gantt chart. Enable the cadences on the chart’s timeline:

Menu View > Show > Cadences

Something similar to the below picture should emerge – the waterfall Gantt chart overlaid by the agile iterations represented by those vertical green and violet bars. This is where hybrid project management happens.

Hybrid project management, Gantt chart, show iterations


Example: PRINCE2 and hybrid projects

PRINCE2 is a classic waterfall methodology, so PRINCE2 projects should utilize Gantt charts to plan work, shouldn’t they? Well, waterfall and agile, mixed projects are applicable here as well. Think of those ‘work packages’ that PRINCE2 project managers pass responsibility for to teams. Why not slice these ‘work packages’ into iterations in an agile manner on a Program board?

Now, let’s see how ‘agile’ meets ‘waterfall’. Consider a couple of scenarios:

  • a team failed to deliver a task in the current 2-week iteration and put that task off for the next iteration using their beloved agile Program board. The delay should be noticed by the project manager observing the Gantt chart, as the Program Board keeps in-sync with the Gantt chart. This 2-week delay could hit the whole high-level plan.
  • the project manager is doing budgeting. Very typically, teams are hired and paid per iteration, so with iterations evident on the Gantt chart it’s easy to do budget forecasting.

Tip: how do tasks get transferred from the Program board onto the Gantt chart?

When you follow the above five-step tutorial and step 5 in particular, you’ll immediately face a dilemma: the low-level tasks sourced from the Board sometimes don’t look good on the Gantt chart. This is because as long as we look on the Board the tasks don’t really have dates. In other words, the start and end dates of a task don’t really matter at this stage. Once we get back to the timeline of the Gantt chart, however, and this happens in step 5 discussed above, it may turn out that the bars that represent the iteration-level tasks look to ‘tiny’ or ‘short’. Or, quite contrary, a bar may overflow an iteration. This is why we added the following two options to the Program board configuration in BigPicture:

Program configuration (cog icon) > Board > Task period synchronization > Precise alignment or Smart adjustment

What do they do?

Precise alignment – ‘no matter what’ sort of strategy. Once a task has been attached to an iteration on the Program board, this task aligns with the start and end dates of the iteration. Example: once attached to an Iteration 1, task X ‘takes over’ the iteration’s dates, i.e. now it starts on the first day of the iteration and ends on the last day of the iteration. So now, the task lasts as long as the iteration. This is an appropriate setup for very agile teams, who don’t face deadlines. See more in docs.

Smart adjustment – once a task has been assigned to an iteration, BigPicture tries to keep its original start and end dates – those set in Jira or on the Gantt chart – as much as it can. Sure, the task period has to be trimmed oftentimes, but Smart adjustment strategy will never stretch a one-day errand to align it with a two-week iteration. Rather it will move the tasks on the timeline so that the task is contained within the iteration, but the Smart adjustment will keep the one-day duration of the task. See more examples in docs.


  • The ‘Waterfall vs. agile’ dilemma is no longer valid. You can have a single Jira project and utilize both waterfall and agile project management at the same time.
  • Many enterprises think project managers need their MS Project and users need Jira. So the organizations keep both applications alive. Yet all they actually need to work both waterfall- and agile-style is Jira with BigPicture ‘extension’. Check the MS Project vs. Jira + BigPicture comparison.


Update – Approach #2: two subsidiaries (or departments); one of them is fully agile and the other one – completely waterfall

Approach #2 stands in contrast to what we’ve said so far. Two subsidiaries, or departments, or even teams, could collectively work on the same project in a hybrid way, even though one of them would work 100% agilely and the other one – 100% waterfally. How do they align en route to the finish line?

They align at milestones, that mark significant accomplishments. A release of a piece of software could constitute a milestone. A prototype of a product could act as a milestone. In the construction sector, completing the blueprint for a building could make a milestone. You should designate several milestones in the course of your project.

What tool would the agile team/department/subsidiary use to align with the waterfall one? The Gantt chart would again be central. Have a look at the below example. Note the three yellow, diamond-shaped milestones in the Gantt chart. They had been positioned at the end of iterations (represented by green and violet areas) to let both waterfall and agile teams know that they would be aligning their work on these particular days. Other than the dates marked by the yellow points of reference, the agile team would be planning their work in the Agile Board of BigPicture while the waterfall team can plan its tasks in the below Gantt chart. Both views are capable of keeping in sync. Now, what does that ‘keeping in sync’ exactly mean?

Imagine that the Agile party is lagging behind and they’ve decided to reschedule their ‘Prepare a draft survey’ task to the next iteration, in the Agile Board. The task will be automatically rescheduled on the Gantt chart’s timeline, too. So, if the task had been previously linked to other tasks(s) in the Gantt chart, the delay could potentially affect the schedule of the Waterfall party and push back the milestones both bodies were supposed to adhere to (especially with the ‘Auto bottom-up’ and ‘Auto top-down’ task modes enabled in the Gantt chart).


Agile, waterfall teams align at milestones

When is Approach #2 to the hybrid project management useful?

Here are a few standard set-ups:

  • An organization merged or acquired another business. Whereas they are reorganizing, they are collaborating on a joint project. One of them is committed to the linear model, while the other one to the incremental one. They can collaborate using BigPictures Gantt chart and the Agile board.
  • An organization has commissioned another one to complete a part of a project. For instance, a plane manufacturer has outsourced the software component of aircraft development. The software factory could work according to Scaled Agile Framework, while the plane manufacturer could maintain a waterfall work environment.
  • International corporations; individual subsidiaries and branches could maintain their own waterfall or agile work environments.


About The Author

With his automotive background Marcin goes beyond the 'Jira + software development' standard. He likes simple, up-to-five-sentence answers to complex questions.