OUTsight/ Waterfall or Wetland

Photo by Jesus-in-Taiwan on Unsplash

Photo by Jesus-in-Taiwan on Unsplash


Manila, 18 July 2018 — Which model will help your business survive and thrive: Waterfall or Wetland?

The Need for Organizational Change

Changing an organization is tough. The consequences of failing to change are tougher.

Most of the leaders I work with have a story about how difficult it is to influence change in their workplace. Newton's law still works: actions to bring about change often provoke a resistance to that change.

It's only human. The unknown triggers fear in us, and we generally prefer to have things stay the way they are, assuming that we are happy with the status quo. It is easy to be a master of resistance to change, just as it is easier to avoid taking responsibility for becoming a changemaker.

In many organizations, the status quo has a color.

If you have been following my work, you know that I use a method called Work In All Colors to help leaders boost their influencing skills. In this method, we use seven colors, and each of these colors represents a particular way (value system) that people use to make sense of the world around them. This shows up in how they behave and communicate.

We can also see these colors in the culture of the organizations we work in or with. We know from research that organizational culture is a prime factor for businesses to survive and thrive. And, just as yesterday's solutions will in many cases not suffice anymore to solve tomorrow's problems, so it is with organizational culture. It has to keep changing.

The businesses that get this have a much better chance of doing well tomorrow and still do well ten years from now. On the other hand, the businesses that fail to embrace changes in their culture may risk.... going out of business, and that might be sooner than they think.

In case you haven't noticed, we live in a world of relentless and surprising changes. 

The Waterfall and Wetland Cultures

Today I will use a metaphor that draws on my earlier career as a change leader for water security in countries around the world.

Join me in visualizing a powerful waterfall in a river, and then think of a wetland in the low flat delta area of that same river, where the big cities are, and the industries, and the birds and fish that depend on the rich and fertile coastal ecosystems created by the river. Get the picture?

Now, you may know that Waterfall nowadays also describes a particular method of developing new software. IT companies use this method when the business environment for creating their new product is straightforward, stable, and predictable. Those conditions are increasingly rare today, hence the industry's fascination with other methods like agile, scrum, and kanban.


In today's metaphor, we will use Waterfall to describe the (Blue) culture of organizations that rely heavily on hierarchy, order, instructions, rules, and procedures to succeed. You might agree with me that these are an essential part of any successful organization. However, they are no longer enough to be successful in tomorrow's competitive and uncertain world. 

So what kind of organizational changes do we need for businesses to flourish into the future? Well, look around and you can already observe it in today's innovation leaders.

I call the cultural model of these innovation leaders Wetland and I used the Yellow color for it, in contrast to the Blue Waterfall culture.

Photo by Julien de Salaberry on Unsplash

Photo by Julien de Salaberry on Unsplash


Have a look at how the table contrasts some of the fundamental differences between these two organizational cultures. 

Where You Are

What about the culture in your business? Is the power at the top or distributed? Does information cascade down, or is everyone involved in learning together from experiences, with open communication channels in all directions? Is performance measured and optimized with rules or with agility to adapt to changing conditions?

Organizational Change Model July 2018.jpg

When staff analyzes the culture of their organizations with me during leadership training programs, what I hear most often is that there is too much Blue in the culture and that this is holding their businesses back from leveling up their performance and delivering excellent value to its clients going forward. 

While everyone agrees that some Blue aspects of hierarchical Waterfall culture will remain important, the majority of leaders I work with take it upon themselves to advocate for cultural change to allow more space for Yellow, the Wetland culture, so that their business can innovate and thrive in the challenges of today and tomorrow. 

A salient point here is that the need to embrace more of the Yellow Wetland culture is readily apparent to the majority of the Millennial professionals among the training participants. Seeing that, we can feel confident that we will soon have more advocates for organizational change in the right direction, and that we will be seeing more of the Wetland model than the Waterfall model.