Agile vs Waterfall

Agile and waterfall are two popular methodologies or processes for project management. While both methods are similar in that they result in high-quality project outcomes, there are plenty of differences between the two and when you should use each one. In this definition, we cover agile vs waterfall, as well as the benefits, features, and applications for each methodology.

What Is Agile Project Management?

Typical project management strategies involve approaching each project as a whole with tasks and a concrete timeline prepared in advance. Agile is different. Through the agile methodology, projects are broken down into sprints or iterations that are repeatable throughout the life of the project. 

After each sprint, project teams gather feedback about what went well, what didn’t, and where changes must be made before moving forward. As a result, project teams can respond to change and pivot accordingly for the next sprint rather than following a set project plan. This results in a circular path of development versus a linear path.

A graphic that describes agile development and agile project management.

The agile methodology can take a few different forms depending on a project team’s needs. Popular forms of agile development include the Scrum and Kanban methods.

Agile is used across industries and niches. However, there are a few key scenarios in which agile is the method of choice. For example, teams that handle deliverables related to rapidly changing software benefit greatly from agile. Agile is also a solid choice for projects that require customer input or for projects without a clear end goal.

Key features of agile project management

The key features of agile project management are best illustrated by the 12 agile principles. These 12 principles were developed based on the Agile Manifesto and highlight many key features of agile.

Continuous delivery in particular is a hallmark feature of agile. Teams work in iterations to complete project deliverables continuously instead of all at once at the end of a project. 

Another key feature is continuous improvement. Project teams work to continuously improve processes and all deliverables by stopping between sprints to identify opportunities and implement changes. Through this process, the end result is higher quality.

What are the benefits of the agile method?

  • Flexibility: Agile project teams don’t have to follow a strict project plan from start to finish. Instead, teams can change their processes quickly based on updated goals or evolving customer expectations.
  • Better project quality: Using agile, products are tested thoroughly after each sprint to ensure quality before moving forward. Continuous feedback is also gathered from stakeholders and customers so deliverables can be improved throughout the project.
  • Improved planning: Sprints result in improved predictability when it comes to project planning. For example, internal resources can be flexed throughout the project to make sure project teams have what they need to move forward.
  • Better collaboration: Agile teams meet continuously to keep projects on track. This constant communication results in better collaboration across teams and higher quality results.
  • Enhanced customer experience: Throughout a project, the customer gets to see deliverables regularly and has many chances to share feedback. This means the end result is more likely to fully meet their expectations.

Also read: What Are Agile Project Management Tools?

What Is the Waterfall Method?

The waterfall method is a linear approach to project management that is used for a variety of project types. Using waterfall, projects are completed in steps, and each step must be completed before moving forward. For a project to succeed under the waterfall methodology, the end result and the needed steps to get there must be clearly defined.

The waterfall approach was first developed in 1970. The original approach is still used today and includes five common steps, listed here in their simplest form:

  1. Requirements/analysis: Identifying a project’s key requirements such as timelines, scope, and success metrics
  2. Design: Designing potential solutions to reach a planned end goal, including the physical design of hardware or software solutions, if required
  3. Implementation: Implementing the solution
  4. Testing/verification: Testing the solution after implementation to ensure it meets all requirements
  5. Maintenance: Updating the solution to match stakeholder feedback and performing continuous maintenance to ensure quality

What is the waterfall methodology in software development and project management?

The waterfall method is commonly used for projects that are straightforward and don’t require a high level of flexibility. For example, software teams often use waterfall to make simple updates to existing business software or apps. Another example would be a vehicle manufacturer who follows the same steps each time when designing and building a truck.

Key features of waterfall project management

The hallmark feature of waterfall project management is its sequential methodology. In waterfall, projects are completed in a sequence; tasks are specific and often contingent upon each other.

Another feature of waterfall project management is the strict project process. Each project has a clear, concrete result that must be reached. If a change occurs mid-project, the entire process must start over so the project plan can be redone. Unlike agile, projects are completed as a whole without flexible iterations.

What are the benefits of the waterfall method?

  • Clear project outcomes: The waterfall method provides project teams with a clear end goal. This helps everyone to stay on the same page as the project progresses.
  • Predictable budgets: Budgets are set at the beginning of a project. There’s rarely a need to prepare additional resources such as finances or team members.
  • Simplified project process: The sequential waterfall method is straightforward enough for anyone to follow, including those who join the team in the middle of projects or those who may be unfamiliar with project management.
  • Easy adherence to time restraints: Just like budgets, project timelines and deadlines are set at the start. Projects are then planned accordingly to ensure adequate time is given to each step. This helps project teams deliver results on time.

Agile vs Waterfall: Key Differences

Both agile and waterfall methodologies are useful across a variety of project types and scopes. However, it’s important to recognize their differences before you select a methodology for your projects:

Project flexibility

In waterfall, project changes mean that the process must be scrapped and a new plan must be created before starting over. In agile, project changes are handled during the sprint, pivots to project plans are made, and the project continues forward.

Timelines

Waterfall projects have strict timelines and periodic deadlines throughout the project process. In agile, timelines may shift as projects move forward or as stakeholder feedback causes the project to change its priorities.

Feedback and input

In waterfall, all customer requirements must be gathered at the beginning of the project in order to meet their expectations for the final product. In agile, customer feedback and input are gathered at every stage of development and incorporated into future project sprints.

Results

In waterfall, the desired end result is clear and determined early. In agile, results and end product goals tend to change over time to meet evolving requirements.

Learn about top Waterfall Software Development & Tools here.

Brenna Miles
Brenna Miles
Brenna Miles is a contributing writer for Webopedia and TechRepublic.com, where she covers CRM, PLM, security, and IT automation. Since 2013, she's written everything from blog posts to industry white papers about everything from SaaS to network security and back again.

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