Waterfall vs. Agile Methodology Guide
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Agile vs. Waterfall Project Management

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.

Differences between the Waterfall vs. Agile 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.
  • Your deadline is fixed, and you understand the project phases and tasks and can create a detailed gantt chart or project plan.
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Waterfall works best for teams with:

  • A strength in creating documentation
  • Team members who can work on their own and be accountable for tasks
  • Subject matter experts who can be brought in to complete tasks/phases
  • A project manager who controls the scope, timeline, and communications
  • A client or boss who wants to view a timeline and know what to expect at any given time 

You should avoid Waterfall when: 

  • The project has an unknown solution.
  • You don’t need resourcing (i.e., everyone is on the same dedicated team working on the same project).
  • You’re part of a startup software team who’s trying to learn and iterate as you go. (This is where Agile development or a blended approach comes in.)

When to use Agile project management

Here are some reasons why you might prefer Agile vs. Waterfall project management.

  • You’re implementing changes to a product and have the ability to do it incrementally, test and gain feedback, and iterate.
  • You have an idea, but maybe not a full set of requirements for what you’re creating.
  • You’ve got a team who can be fully focused on one project.
  • You don’t have to worry about dependencies within or outside of the project (i.e., your project stands alone).
  • You don’t have to deal with managers who want clear timelines with distinct phases, tasks, or dependencies.

Agile works best for teams who are:

  • Experienced and accountable to tasks, with the ability to self-organize
  • Trained in the ways of Agile and Scrum
  • Open to change and rework when needed
  • 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.

NEXT CHAPTER: Hybrid Project Management: A Blended Approach to Agile and Waterfall Methodologies

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