Agile and waterfall- no, they’re not yoga positions. These opposing approaches to project management can determine whether you successfully implement your plans or meekly peak with a PowerPoint presentation. And so, when you compare Agile vs. waterfall, there's no room to sit on the fence you'll have to pick a side.
But which is which? And why does it make such a difference to your outcomes? What does Mr. Burns from The Simpsons use to manage his nuclear power plant? So many burning questions.
Here’s what you will discover inside this article:
- What is Agile project management?
- What are the benefits of the Agile methodology?
- What is the downside of the Agile methodology?
- What is Waterfall project management?
- What are the benefits of the waterfall methodology?
- What is the downside of the waterfall methodology?
- Agile vs. Waterfall: What are the key differences?
- Agile vs. Waterfall: Which one should I choose?
- 3 things to consider before you implement Agile project management
Come with us as we compare Agile vs. waterfall methodologies to give you all the answers you need to make the right choice for your team.
What is Agile project management?
Agile methodology is a project management strategy that breaks large projects into smaller cycles, called sprints. This iterative approach focuses on frequent deliverables and fast market feedback. Scrum masters oversee sprint planning throughout the lifecycle of this lightweight framework.
Traditionally, Agile project management is the preserve of software development projects. But now, non-IT organizations and teams favor this flexible approach. According to the 15th Annual State Of Agile Report from Digital.AI, 94% of companies now practice Agile methods.
The original Agile Manifesto sets out four core values for Agile project management:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Before you grab the hammer, you should collaborate with Homer and the rest of your project team members.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation. Strategy without execution is pointless. Forget your spreadsheets, and focus on making sure things work. Less presenting, more action.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Your customers can offer you the feedback you need to deliver better outcomes. Involve people to improve performance.
- Responding to change over following a plan. You must pre-empt disruption and remain fast and flexible. If you stick to a plan like Bart sticks to his skateboard, you'll eventually crash.
McKinsey & Company believes that “agility is catching fire” as more companies embrace innovation, technology, and adaptability in the digital age. The thought of a fire in a nuclear power plant might be bad news for Mr. Burns, but the concept of agile project management is something he should consider.
Let's find out why.
What are the benefits of the Agile methodology for project management?
There’s a reason that more companies are making the switch to Agile. Actually, there are lots of reasons. Here are ten advantages of Agile project management:
- Increased flexibility. When you use iterative strategies, it’s easier to adapt to sudden changes—which explains why 83% of Agile companies cite flexibility as the best benefit.
- Better team alignment. Agile fosters a close-knit culture where cross-functional collaboration comes easy. You can blur the boundaries, so everyone shares information.
- Greater control. When you break up the campaign into smaller, donut-sized projects and increments, your managers can keep a close eye on quality. You can catch issues before they become disasters and make sure everyone stays on track.
- Reduced risks. The Agile approach is less likely to result in a complete nuclear meltdown (even if you have a few Homers in the building). The step-by-step approach makes it easier to predict outcomes and correct mistakes.
- Better outcomes. With iterative strategies and continuous testing baked into this approach, Agile project management paves the way for better execution, which means higher quality products.
- Increased customer satisfaction. As the Agile methodology thrives on market feedback, it’s possible to create and improve products in line with their expectations.
- Improved team morale. The autocratic leadership approach is dead (sorry, Mr. Burns). An Agile philosophy empowers your people with feedback, support, and structure. When you give people responsibility and clarity, it boosts employee engagement and motivation.
- Continuous improvement. Motivated employees do more effective work. It’s not rocket science. Focus on collaboration and empowerment, and you’ll drive game-changing innovation.
- Faster growth. Agile teams don’t require a lot of approval from above (no knocking on Mr. Burns’ office and risking being flung down a trapdoor). When you allow teams the autonomy to self-organize and improvise, they can do more meaningful work in line with the organizational goals.
- More relevant metrics. Agile is outcome-focused in its use of key performance indicators (KPIs). The metrics tend to be more accurate and relevant, which helps your teams make smarter, data-driven decisions when they want to measure performance and identify bottlenecks.
What is the downside of the Agile methodology for project management?
This Agile vs. waterfall clash looks a little one-sided, right? It reminds us of Homer's foray into boxing, where he wore opponents down with his unique strategy—blocking punches with his face. The truth is, the Agile approach isn’t always perfect (just like Homer’s strategy or face).
Here are four drawbacks to agile project management:
- Requires better talent. You must hire well, upskill, and focus on execution to realize the true value of this approach. If your team has a lot of bluffers like Lenny and Carl, the entire company could suffer.
- Impacts resource planning. It’s a challenge to predict outcomes from day one, which poses problems when it comes time to assign resources.
- Offers limited documentation. Quite often, documentation appears just in time for the next phase, and people don't always get the clarity and context they need right away.
- Demands more time and commitment. You’ll need robust systems to keep communications focused on high-priority activities.
What is waterfall project management?
The waterfall methodology approaches project management that favors a linear progression from the beginning of the project to the end. In waterfall project management, teams map out the project into a distinct sequence of phases, where the next phase of the project only begins after the completion of the previous phase—like a kanban board.
Here are the five phases of the waterfall methodology:
- Requirements phase. The project manager gathers all information about the project requirements and explains everything to the team.
- Design & development phase. The team uses the requirements to create a high-level solution, which describes the project scope and purpose.
- Implementation phase. Teams take ideas to implementation, making the vision a reality with on-the-ground execution.
- Verification phase. It’s time to check the product’s functionality with extensive testing, where you can identify flaws. If there are serious issues in this testing phase, it means going back to phase 1.
- Deployment & maintenance phase. Your team releases the final product to the market and takes real-time user feedback to find defects, make updates, and maintain performance and functionality.
This strict approach has roots in the pre-digital ages and industries that needed a linear system to complete activities, like construction and factories (and nuclear power plants). Progress is sequential. For example, you put the footings in first, then pour the concrete foundation.
What are the benefits of the waterfall methodology for project management?
We're sure you can see the likely winner in Agile vs. waterfall—but it's not over yet. Here are three undeniable benefits of waterfall product management:
- Improves training. This approach emphasizes in-depth documentation, which provides context and clear guidance for every new employee.
- Shows progress and aids planning. The linear system makes it easy to see the status of every project and how far it is from completion at any time. Therefore, it helps with setting accurate project timelines.
- Simplifies management. With the sequential phases, people can focus on each step of the journey and stay on track.
What is the downside of the waterfall methodology for project management?
On the other side of the coin, there are several notable drawbacks to waterfall project management:
- Less chance to collaborate. Unlike the human-centric approach of Agile, the waterfall method doesn’t have customer involvement during design and implementation.
- Inflexible with new ideas. Plans are set in stone, so when someone has a brainwave down the line, they'll have to say "D'oh!" and get on with things. Once you complete a step, you can't go back.
- Impossible to correct mistakes. This inflexibility is a major problem if you make a mistake—you have no way to undo things.
- Subject to delays. With this chronological approach, a backlog can cause progress to grind to a halt. When there is a delay in one phase, the whole project slows down, impacting deadlines.
Agile vs. Waterfall: What are the key differences?
Now that you're familiar with these two methodologies, and their benefits, let's put them head-to-head. Here are the four main differences between agile and waterfall project management:
Agile project management follows an incremental approach where testing and development happen simultaneously.
Waterfall project management involves a sequential design where testing happens after the build.
Agile project management adapts to your key stakeholders and involves people to drive continuous improvement.
Waterfall project management dictates to your people and requires them to deliver your plan without considering their ideas or feedback.
Agile project management is a system built on iterative strategies where you can salvage issues at any phase and adapt to any unforeseen problems.
Waterfall project management is a rigid system that doesn’t allow you to make changes or correct mistakes.
Agile project management is hard to project timelines but easier to deliver updates and improvements quickly. It's best for small projects with short-term deadlines projects.
Waterfall project management can lead to bloated timelines and missed deadlines, especially if there are any issues with the plan. It’s best for long-term projects with in-depth planning.
Agile vs. Waterfall: Which one should I choose?
If you use the waterfall approach, it doesn’t mean you’re going to turn into Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, with its daily core meltdowns and prone-to-sudden-onset-narcolepsy employees. In certain instances, it can work.
Let’s imagine you have::
- Simpler projects
- Strict budgets and timelines
- Less motivated or skilled employees
In such cases, waterfall may be a good fit. You can clearly define requirements, goals, processes, and roles to deliver predictable outcomes. You won't have the flexibility to adapt, and it could be an expensive disaster and colossal waste of time if you make any mistakes, but it can work.
By comparison, Agile offers more flexibility and the chance to innovate and evolve your strategy.
Suppose you have:
- Engaged employees
- More disruptive competitors
- Bigger ambitions and growth goals
In these scenarios, it's crucial to foster a culture of strategic agility. If you don't nurture your people's desire to do more meaningful work, you could lose their loyalty. And if you don't adapt to rapid changes in a disruptive market, you and your hopes of winning your market could be left in a puddle of radioactive goo.
Agile makes sense when you want to create a boundaryless organization, improve collaboration, and remain flexible to involve people, feedback, and new ideas along the way.
You can unlock these benefits and the full value of an Agile approach when you use Cascade for goal management and collaboration.
3 things to consider before you implement Agile project management
Not every organization is ready to make the switch. If the order came down from Mr. Burns, let’s face it, it would be the makings of another hilarious yet disastrous episode (okay, maybe not so hilarious for your business!)
Consider the following:
- The need for teamwork. Your employees must be ready and willing to communicate ideas and information openly. Cross-functional collaboration is critical to success.
- The company culture. You must have self-motivated employees who seek out better ways to do things. If you’re going to reimagine the future and bring your vision to life, you need people with a mindset for innovation and evolution.
- The tools and technology. You must track KPIs, manage workflows, and maintain open lines of communication. Without order, it’s chaos. Without the right project management tools, you’ll struggle. Cascade’s strategy execution platform helps everyone connect to the vision and achieve their goals.
Go agile or go home
We know there is some irony in the fact that a waterfall cascades, but that’s where our affinity with this approach to project management ends. It’s an inflexible, old-school method that isn’t built for the modern age.
In 2022, strategy is everyone’s business, so a top-down approach is not the way we’d recommend. Your vision needs flexibility in its strategy, and your organization needs its people.
Bring them together with an agile approach, or chase the companies who do. It's your choice, but when it comes to agile vs. waterfall, there is only one winner.
Agile is no longer the secret of software development teams—it’s the future-proof approach to project management that you must embrace to succeed with disruption instead of becoming one of its victims.
Discover how can non-tech businesses implement Agile methodology.