Choosing a project management methodology is one of the first decisions you’ll make as a project manager (unless it’s already been decided by your organization). And you’ve got lots of options when it comes to how you manage your projects.
Sorting through all the different methodologies to figure out which approach is right for your team and projects can feel overwhelming. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at the 2 most popular methods in project management: Agile and Waterfall.
Learn how to compare Agile vs. Waterfall and when to use each methodology for your team and projects. You’ll also get a peek into when combining the Waterfall and Agile methods into a process of your own can bring the best of both approaches to your projects.
What’s the difference between Agile and Waterfall?
It helps to understand some key differences between Agile and Waterfall methodologies. Let’s start with a few basic differences between Agile and Waterfall methodologies.
Process: The Waterfall process features predefined project phases that happen one at a time in sequential order. Project requirements must be defined and documented before work begins. Agile delivers a working product incrementally in sprints, improving and iterating on it over time or in additional sprints.
Scope & timeline: A project's scope of work is strict in Waterfall. If any change occurs during the project, it will impact the overall timeline and likely the project budget. Agile keeps scopes and timelines fluid so teams and projects can easily adapt to change.
Team: Team members are not always 100% focused on the project with a Waterfall process, as it relies on cross-functional work that leads to a hand-off. Agile teams are 100% dedicated to one project and self-organize so they work together to plan sprints and collaborate often to meet goals.
Waterfall vs. Agile use cases
So is Agile better than Waterfall? Or should you use Waterfall over Agile?
Only you can decide which process will work best for you. If you’re looking to test the waters with Agile versus Waterfall project management, you’ll need to consider the project, people, and other factors.
When to use the Waterfall methodology
Here are some common scenarios when you might choose the Waterfall model vs. Agile for your projects.
The stakeholder knows exactly what they want and has specific goals, detailed specs, use cases, tech stack, etc.
You’re building or developing a corporate product or something for internal use that doesn’t require frequent updates and won’t become outdated during development because it has a long shelf-life. You’ll just have to maintain it.
You’ve got thorough, thoughtful team members to write and review documentation so the project can pass to other team members with ease.
You and your stakeholders know and accept major changes during development are not possible without significantly impacting the project.
Your project scope is fixed, and work has been accurately estimated.
Open to tight collaboration as a team and with users
Adaptable to the cadence surrounding sprints, which can feel very demanding and structured
You should avoid Agile when:
Your project is very urgent, and you must meet a very short deadline.
Your project is too complex and difficult to break down into stories or even smaller, sizable tasks.
Your team is inexperienced and can’t self-organize and meet goals on their own without task management.
Your stakeholders require every step, turn, or move to be documented.
Your stakeholders want the ability to provide feedback and approvals at every stage and require a lot of time to do that.
Your organization is not educated and invested in Agile.
When to use a blended Agile-Waterfall approach
If Agile and Waterfall don’t provide a perfect fit on their own, you may want to consider combining these methods to create a hybrid project management approach. Blending Agile and Waterfall together enables you to pick and choose different aspects from each methodology to form a process that suits your team and projects best.
This approach works well if you have flexibility in your timeline, scope, or budget, but still need to maintain certain boundaries or regularly report on project status. It may also make sense if you’re running a tech-focused project where development is just one piece of the bigger puzzle.
Blending Agile and Waterfall works best for teams who:
Have educated individuals who understand the ins and outs of process and how their team or organization succeeds
Are open to working together to plan and execute projects and committed to investing in the process and making it better
Are open to flexibility and change and can be honest with themselves about when something’s not working
Want to innovate, not only in their work, but also in it how it happens
Benefit from project leadership and look to one person (typically a project manager) to create plans, schedule work, and facilitate sprints and meetings
Continue your learning
Now that you understand the difference between Agile and Waterfall project management, why not take your learning a step further? Keep reading to discover how to combine Agile and Waterfall to create a process of your own.