In project management, waterfall frameworks entail projects being divided into phases which are completed one by one in a linear fashion.
Agile approaches to project management, on the other hand, break projects into smaller sections, and teams then cycle through a process of planning, delivering, evaluating, and making changes where appropriate.
This guide will run you through the merits and pitfalls of both approaches, so you can decide which methodology is most suitable for your project.
Agile vs Waterfall: What’s the Difference?
Waterfall projects are linear in nature, meaning they move in one direction from the concept to the eventual final outcome. In projects sculpted by the Waterfall approach, one project phase must be completed before teams can move on to the next one. Phases cannot overlap, and a new phase cannot start without the previous stage being approved/finished.
Agile methodology was actually developed as a reaction to the inadequacies of the waterfall approach, and was first utilized by software development teams that needed to adapt to changes quickly.
Agile is still the preferred methodology of many teams across the world, in a number of different industries, but particularly in software development.
Agile projects have phases that can be worked on simultaneously, and old iterations can be returned to for evaluation and inspiration. Waterfall involves little to no deviation from a pre-defined path and budget.
Unlike waterfall approaches, agile frameworks for managing projects are iterative, meaning projects are broken down into sprints – short periods of time in which specific tasks are focused on, in order to promote continuous delivery of features, products, or services that incorporate customer feedback.
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An Analogy: The Suit/Ball Gown Shop
One way to understand the big differences between waterfall and agile project management is by way of an analogy. Imagine a scenario in which you go into a shop that makes custom suits and ball gowns from scratch, tailored to each individual customer.
In this situation, you would be the customer, the shop owner would be the project manager, and the shop staff would be the development team.
- The waterfall approach would involve planning in detail what type of suit/ball gown you want, including the type of fit, the materials you want it to be made from, the color of the clothing item, and any patterns you wanted on it. You would provide your body measurements to the shop owner, who would set his staff to work to create a product that is as close to what you wanted as was possible.
- The agile approach would involve you planning out a rough idea of what you wanted to wear, but then heading into the suit/ball gown shop and becoming involved in the process of creating the clothing. You’d be able to test out how different fabrics feel, try on a variety of different fits, ask for trousers/dresses to be lengthened or shortened, and add various accessories to your outfit. The final outfit may be quite different from what you first had in mind, but your input would ensure you were satisfied with it.
Other key differences
There are various other differences between the two approaches. Below we've outlined some key distinctions we haven’t mentioned yet – as well as some that have already been introduced above – so you can see just how different the rival frameworks are:
- Focus – Waterfall is focused on the delivery of the project, whereas agile is focused on the continuous and potentially changing needs of involved stakeholders.
- Testing & Experimenting – Projects implementing the waterfall approach in software development spaces, for instance, will test everything before commencing the building stage of the project, whereas an agile software development team will test as they go along.
- Leadership & Hierarchies – Agile teams don’t necessarily need a project manager (although it is often helpful), whereas this is a pivotal role in waterfall projects.
- Direction – Agile teams can cycle back around to prior sprints or project phases, reflect on them, and implement changes going forward. Waterfall teams move in a linear or one-way fashion.
Benefits of Agile Project Management
The agile approach was first designed to move away from the rigidity of existing processes (like the waterfall method), so it inevitably has some interesting benefits for teams.
- Improved Productivity and Efficiency – By breaking projects down into smaller increments and instating numerous mini-deadlines, agile methodologies can create more efficient, productive teams that accomplish more.
- Flexibility – Agile frameworks originated in the software development world, so by nature they're designed to incorporate changes and adapt quickly to new information, unlike the waterfall method. This gives project stakeholders the freedom to introduce new ideas and provide feedback, no matter what stage the project is currently at.
- Stakeholder/Customer Input – Agile projects are specifically designed to ensure stakeholders or customers can input ideas at any stage. This increases the likelihood that those who have a vested interest in the project are happy with the end product.
- Team Empowerment – There’s nothing better than a team that can be trusted to deliver. In order for this to happen, team members need to take responsibility and ownership of the product or service they’re working on. Agile projects are driven by team members and the skills they possess.
Disadvantages of Agile
- Predicting Costs – Agile frameworks are built to handle uncertainty – agile teams don't often know what the end product of a project will look like when they start. This makes it harder to predict a lot of details about the project, but especially its eventual costs.
- Scope Creep – Agile's heavy emphasis on listening to customers/stakeholders and implementing changes along the way means that there's nothing to stop the scope of a project from continuing to widen and widen, especially if initial demands are miscommunicated or misunderstood.
Benefits of Waterfall Project Management
The merits of the agile way of working, although useful, do not consign waterfall to the scrapheap of obsolete project management methods. In fact, waterfall has its benefits:
- Clarity – The clearer a project's phases are defined, the less time you have to spend ensuring everyone is on the same page, and the more time you can spend developing your product. Waterfall frameworks and their sequential phases keep it simple, ensuring less confusion amongst team members.
- Ease of Planning – Unlike agile frameworks, waterfall approaches to managing projects aren’t built to deal with change – or, to put a more positive spin on it, goals are established from the beginning. The upside of this is that you can plan out absolutely everything you need for a project – including timetables, resources, and budget.
- Stability – Requirements can’t easily be changed mid-project in waterfall approaches, but this means more effort goes into the initial planning phase, and plans stay constant throughout the project. This gives teams operating in waterfall frameworks a level of consistent stability and routine across all project cycles.
Disadvantages of Waterfall
- Inflexibility – The waterfall approach doesn't make changing things very easy once a project is underway, so if your project does end up requiring significant modification further down the line, it might be a painful experience to implement.
- Limited Customer/Stakeholder Involvement – Especially when compared with agile frameworks, waterfall projects don't have much customer involvement beyond the conceptual stage. This can result in less satisfaction with the end product.
Should I Use Agile or Waterfall?
Whether you should use agile or waterfall largely depends on (surprise, surprise) the type of project you’re planning to deliver, and the type of product or service the project is being actioned to design or create.
Some factors that you should consider to help steer your decision include the project's size and scale, how long it will take to complete, how complex it is, how your team or staff typically organize around projects (including previous project experience), who your stakeholders are and what their expectations are.
An agile framework will be useful if:
- Project stakeholders want to be closely involved in project development.
- Numerous changes are predicted to be made throughout the project cycle.
- The project is continuous – for example, an app that will need updating.
- The biggest constraints on your project aren’t clearly defined.
- You're creating a prototype before building the final project outcome.
A waterfall framework will be useful if:
- The project you’re working on has a clearly defined initial scope or product.
- Constraints and limitations on your project are obvious from the outset.
- Your project has a concrete timeline and subsequent deadline.
- Your project is small and easy to complete over a short time period.
- Project stakeholders do not want to be involved in the project process.
How to Manage Agile and Waterfall Projects
If you'd like to implement the agile or waterfall approach for your project, but don't know exactly where to start, have no fear – there is dedicated software to help you do just that.
A number of project management software providers, like monday.com (which has a free trial available) and Jira, facilitate the implementation of agile principles – as well as a waterfall framework, with project boards, planning tools, budgeting, and resource management features, and various other useful functions.
Although the agile manifesto produced in 2001 by a group of software developers prides face-to-face interaction, the functionalities that project management software can provide in 2022 mean you can implement agile principles in remote environments easily.
The other upside to purchasing dedicated software means you won't have to shoehorn your agile project into software that's just not geared up to deal with it. Teams that don't invest in project management software often find themselves using multiple apps or programs that provide just one or two relevant functionalities. And software will also give you a great foundation for projects based on the waterfall approach:
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