Agile vs Waterfall — Which Methodology Should You Use?

The agile vs waterfall methodology debate can be so fierce that objective advice is tough to find for those new to project management.

You’ll hear from the agile camp that it’s more modern and adaptable, while the waterfall faithful argue that it’s a tried-and-true method for managing stakeholders and delivering results at scale.

Both methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses. In this guide, we’ll explore their differences so you can make an objective decision about the right methodology for your next projects.

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Agile vs Waterfall: An Overview

Agile Waterfall
Description Build a simple solution and work with the customer to continuously adapt and improve it. Plan the best solution with the customer upfront and deliver it in logical stages.
Pros Collaborative, iterative, flexible. Predictable, scalable, organized.
Cons Unpredictable, hard to scale. Inflexible, bureaucratic.
Best for One-off projects with small, motivated teams where the potential solutions are unclear. Repeatable, structured projects where the problem is clear and the solution is well established.

What is Agile Methodology?

Agile is a project management approach that prioritizes short development cycles, customer feedback, and frequent iteration to achieve goals.

The project team repeats this process until a final solution is agreed:

  1. Review feedback to understand new problems.
  2. Find the simplest way to solve them.
  3. Release the new solution to the customer as quickly as possible.
  4. Gather more feedback from customers and users.

Before the concept of agile was introduced in 2001, project management methodologies focused on creating a detailed plan and minimizing any changes to that plan throughout the project.

The agile approach suggests the opposite: Focusing instead on understanding the problem, finding the simplest solution, and getting the customer to use that solution as quickly as possible.

Customers give feedback on the solution, which creates a roadmap of features, improvements, and changes to be made during the project lifecycle.

Many methodologies follow the agile approach, such as scrum and kanban, and all suggest starting with a simple solution and learning how to improve it through experience and feedback rather than trying to define the best solution upfront.

Agile Methodology Pros pros

  • Encourages engagement with the customer
  • Flexible, it encourages learning and refinement
  • It’s widely adopted. Most are familiar with it
  • Makes it easy for teams to plan and collaborate
  • Stakeholders get updates in quick delivery cycles
  • Promotes better engagement than other methods

Agile Methodology Cons:cons

  • It’s unpredictable
  • Long-term forecasting and budgeting are challenging
  • It’s hard to scale for larger projects
  • Low resistance, as there’s less reliance on documentation
  • Can take longer than other approaches
  • Changes (i.e. a team member leaving) can severely disrupt workflow

When to Use Agile Methodology

The Agile methodology best suits projects where no firm decisions have been made on the solution to the problem.

Agile suits software and IT projects, where the consequences of changing a decision cause less impact than in construction or manufacturing projects, but it’s great for any small team.

Here’s a summary of when you should embrace the agile methodology:

  • How to solve the problem hasn’t been decided
  • The project team is small and motivated to learn about the customer’s problems.
  • There is a strong team leader who’s capable of prioritizing and delegating work.
  • The customer is flexible on scope and requirements.
  • The customer is willing to engage with the project team regularly.
  • The team is empowered by project leadership to find the right solutions.
  • The team is willing and able to share valuable updates regularly.
  • Changing the project plan during the development process has no significant cost implications.

Related:

What is Waterfall Methodology?

Waterfall describes a traditional, linear approach to project management. The focus is on detailed, upfront project planning, ensuring each phase is completed before moving on to the next:

  1. Project deliverables are scoped and documented before design work begins.
  2. The designs are checked to ensure they meet the requirements.
  3. Development work won’t begin until the designs are completed and agreed upon.
  4. Development should build exactly what has been designed.
  5. Testing will ensure the delivered solution matches the designs.

The theory suggests that a lack of clarity causes waste, mistakes, and inefficiency. Everything is cheaper and easier to fix in the initial planning than at any other stage of the project.

If the project team agrees with the customer on what to deliver, when to have it finished, and how it should be done, there should be no need for any changes to that plan when the work begins.

This makes it easy to estimate timelines, budgets, and resourcing requirements. This makes the waterfall approach particularly appealing to stakeholders.

This is especially true for those managing large budgets, multiple dependencies, or lots of risks.

Waterfall Methodology Pros pros

  • Detailed planning makes it predictable
  • It’s highly scalable
  • Waterfall projects can be reused with multiple teams
  • Provides clear guidance on the roles and responsibilities
  • It’s easy for inexperienced teams to adopt to best practices

Waterfall Methodology Cons:cons

  • It’s inflexible, so changes are difficult to handle
  • The documentation and structure required can feel restrictive
  • Requires the solution to be documented before work can begin
  • Depends on PMs who can manage ample tasks and documents

When to Use Waterfall Methodology

Waterfall methodologies are most effective when the problem is clear, the solution to the problem is well established, and the desired outcome has been delivered before.

This allows teams to focus on delivering the solution, plus the benefits are greater if the solution needs to be delivered at scale. It’s particularly suited to construction and manufacturing projects.

It often requires a larger project team with more management overhead than other approaches, but there’s less expectation to delve into customer problems.

As each team member is primarily required to complete a specific task in the process, recruitment and training are much simpler, and there’s less risk of disruption caused by personnel changes.

To summarize, you’d want to use the Waterfall methodology when:

  • The challenge is coordinating the delivery of a known solution, not finding a new one.
  • The project team is large, with multiple stakeholders and different departments.
  • There is a trained project manager capable of managing large amounts of documentation.
  • The customer requires clarity and commitment to fixed delivery timelines or budgets.
  • The customer is willing to support the documentation and sign-off process of the project.
  • The team accepts that leadership will have final decision-making authority.
  • The project manager can track and share the progress of a project using a timeline.
  • Changing the project plan during the development process will likely have significant cost implications.

Related:

Conclusion

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Waterfall methodologies prioritize detailed planning, making it possible to coordinate resources, track progress, and communicate updates with stakeholders over the medium to long term.

On the other hand, agile methodologies prioritize problem-solving and iterative development, creating an opportunity for genuine innovation. Both are methods available with the best project management software.

Choose agile if you have the freedom to create a new solution that must adapt to new requirements over time, but choose waterfall if you have multiple stakeholders who expect the efficient delivery of a proven solution multiple times to a strict deadline.

FAQs

Is agile better than waterfall?

When would you use waterfall instead of scrum?

References

  1. Embracing Agile (Harvard Business Review)
  2. The Waterfall Model (IBM)

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Joe Crocker
SaaS Product Expert

Joe is a former police officer with over 10 years of cybercrime detective work under his belt. He's coordinated the response to thousands of complex investigations involving multiple stakeholders, analyzing complex datasets, conducting interviews, and writing comprehensive reports. Joe also served as a hiring manager for 3+ years, growing and managing the unit's team. Upon leaving the police force, Joe began his career in product management, helping companies build and launch digital products. He now brings his many years of experience in cybersecurity and digital product management to Techopedia.