The Waterfall vs Agile Methodology Debate: Which one is for you?

If you’ve been in the project management space for long enough, you would have definitely heard of this battle.: Waterfall vs Agile, the Montague and Capulets of the project management world. What is their feud all about?Advocates of Agile hail its flexibility, freedom and adaptability. Those on the Waterfall side exalt the security, clarity and dependability of strong robust structures. 

So what are the arguments from both sides of this notorious debate? To make it simple for you, we’ll go through everything you need to know about these methodologies so you can make out which side of the debate you stand on.

What are project management methodologies?

Before we get into their positions, we need to get into why we’re having this debate to begin with! Project management methodologies have become a point of obsession in the project management world, so just what are they and why do they matter?

A project management methodology is a foundational framework built on sets of guidelines and procedures that aim to optimise your project activities and performance. 

Just as projects are all unique and different, project management methodologies are just as unique and plentiful. Though you might hear Agile and Waterfall the most, there are others such as eXtreme Programming (XP), Six Sigma and many more that have cropped up to solve issues for specific industries, contexts and projects.

As our economic, technologic and environmental landscape continue to change, so will our processes and methodologies. So even with thousands already in existence, many more new methodologies are expected to rise in the coming years.

Agile has been the biggest buzzword to hit the project management world and it has taken it by storm. People hail it as the project management ‘silver bullet’ that will solve all their miseries and revolutionize their project processes. 

The reality is that though Agile methodologies can bring benefits, it doesn’t always suit everyone. Both sides of this debate, Agile and Waterfall, have their pros and cons and we’re here to tell you all about both of them.

What is the Waterfall methodology?

The Waterfall method is one of the oldest project methodologies, first outlined by Winston W. Royce in 1970 and was made in a response to the increasingly complex nature of software development at the time. It grew out of traditional manufacturing and construction industry approaches and follows a linear, sequential project design through which project progress is made in a continual downwards direction – similar to a waterfall. 

Its sequential form means that it is resource-heavy in its early planning stage by plotting out the entirety of the project from start to finish without much space for changes other than contingent and accounted for risks. Waterfall emphasizes the importance of completing phases before moving onto the next.

The Typical Waterfall Process

With the Waterfall methodology, projects often go through six phases. 

  1. Requirements: This phase involves capturing the initial scope and business case for the proposed project. This involves gathering and documenting all the project’s future requirements.
  2. Design: During this phase, teams select the clear processes and methods based on the project requirements they have laid out. They plan the future gates and milestones needed to bring the project to completion.
  3. Implementation: This phase is when the project itself is running. Team members will be continually updating on progressing and attempting to hit milestones to move through the planned out stages of the project.
  4. Testing: Once the product is completed, it goes through testing to check for any potential issues. If there are serious issues, the project may return to phase one.
  5. Deployment: At this phase, the project is fully completed and the team will hand off the project or product who will run on deploy the finished result.
  6. Maintenance: This occurs outside of the project’s specific scope and timeline but teams can sometimes be tasked with making updates or maintaining a project they have completed.

Waterfall methodology benefits

Easy to use model

No matter if you’ve been using Waterfall methods all your life or it’s your first time, the linear and sequential model of Waterfall is straightforward, easy to understand and easily applicable. Team members don’t need to learn a completely new language and processes to properly function and complete tasks.

Straightforward planning and design

Due to its dependency on research, data and clear requirements set out during the early stages, planning is a lot more straightforward with Waterfall. As there are minimal moving parts to the project with all resources and activities laid out clearly from start to finish, making cost estimations, scheduling team members and managing resources is simplified.

Define structures, scope, and roles

Waterfall not only benefits from strong structures and timelines but very clearly defined scope and roles. When the project’s scope is clearly defined, the project is less likely to suffer from scope creep which often leads to projects going off-schedule and over-budget. Additionally, clearly defined project scope allows teams to understand the full breadth of the project to allocate the right people to cover all the bases. When all team members know their roles and responsibilities, less time and resources are wasted scrambling to respond to changes in the project.

Strong documentation

Some projects require highly detailed documentation throughout their entire processes often due to legal requirements. For projects that have to navigate many legalities, the highly structured and clearly documented processes in Waterfall make monitoring and managing current and new factors of projects easier.

Capacity for geographically dispersed teams

With clearly defined stages, roles and activities, all team members are clearly aware of what is expected of them and do not require extensive amounts of collaboration. This is particularly beneficial for geographically dispersed teams as all members can work on their allocated tasks without being strongly impacted by different time zones and workflows. So long as everyone gets their tasks done, the project carries on.

Waterfall methodology limitations

Overly rigid structure

Sometimes your best qualities can become your biggest limitation when it doesn’t suit the specific context and its needs. For projects that have many moving variables, are constantly being fed new input and need to adapt to fast-paced environments, the strong structures and processes in Waterfall become arduous and time-consuming.

Front-heavy project planning

In Waterfall projects, the bulk of the project is actually done during the planning stage. All the research, organizing, contingency planning and scope setting activities are set out from the very beginning. Though this makes for very clearly defined projects, if the scope is not set out properly in the beginning, the methodology lacks the flexibility to allow you to adapt to new information and you may have to start from scratch all over again.

Less client engagement

Due to the bulk of research in the planning stages, clients are only involved in limited stages of the project – often the very beginning or the end. In the Waterfall methodology, testing is often done during a later stage which means teams put in a lot of work and effort but can end up presenting a completed project that completely misses the mark for the client.

Higher risk

From the mix of rigid structure, lack of flexibility, late-stage testing and resource-heavy planning, Waterfall projects often end up having to start from scratch due to new variables leading to increased costs or fail to meet the clients needs at its completion. These factors can contribute to higher chances of project risk of failure.

Waterfall methodology is best suited for

  • Large projects that have defined deadlines, requirements and deliverables
  • Projects that require in-depth documentation
  • Projects that need flexible team members and resource sharing 

What is Agile methodology?

The Agile methodology also formed out of the growing needs of software development but mainly in response to the inadequacies of the Waterfall methodology in the more modern, fast-paced and competitive software industry. Agile’s in focused on gaining the critical adaptability and agility missing from prior project management methodologies and did so through shorter focused project cycles, incremental growth and team-centered processes. 

Agile Values and Principles

Unlike Waterfall, Agile is not necessarily a methodology with a clearly laid out structure and process to follow. Rather, it is a guiding philosophy with core values and principles that are outlined within the Agile Manifesto

Agile Values

There are four core Agile values:

  1. Individuals and Interactions Over Process and Tools

The original Agile Manifesto creators saw traditional Waterfall-style methods as overly bureaucratic that took out the intrinsically creative human element to projects. Tools and processes cannot respond to changes, people do. By focusing on people more than the tools they use, teams can build a more fluid, adaptable and collaborative team that brings out the best of each person.

  1. Working Software Over Documentation

This is phrased in its original software development context, but this value essentially pushes teams to focus more on focusing on what is important – the actual finished product. This does not mean they want you to throw all documentation out the window. It simply means to streamline processes so teams are only doing what they need and not getting caught up with unnecessary bureaucratic processes.

  1. Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation

Working in any project, it happens often that what the customer wants isn’t always what the customer actually needs. With Waterfall approaches, customers often need to lay out, define and agree upon their desired outcome during the planning phase. However, often research and progress throughout the project implementation stage gives us new insight into new opportunities or dangerous risks that were unaccounted for. This would traditionally mean having to re-draft and re-plan the entire project timeline, scope and plan. The Agile philosophy believes it is important to actively collaborate with customers to make sure teams are hitting the right marks rather than waiting at the end and realising it didn’t solve the actual problem.

  1. Responding to Change Over Following a Plan

Traditional methodologies see plans as the backbones and root of all project success – deviations from it are seen as a risk and cost for the overall project. With shorter project cycles, Agile projects can easily respond to change and the continual process of refining goals, scope and deliverables through every iteration is the key to success

Agile Principles

There are twelve guiding Agile Principles:

  1. The highest priority is customer satisfaction through early and continuous delivery of value
  2. Actively accommodate requirement changes throughout the project delivery process
  3. Delivering value more frequently
  4. Collaboration between business stakeholders and team member throughout the project
  5. Support, motivate and build trust in teams
  6. Face-to-face conversations are central for efficient and effective communication
  7. Delivering functional value for the client is the primary measure of progress
  8. Promoting sustainable development through Agile processes
  9. Continually focusing on technical and design excellence leads to enhanced agility
  10. Simplicity is key
  11. Self-organizing teams make for the best frameworks, requirements and designs
  12. Regular reflections teach teams to become more effective

Though there is no specific Agile process, there are many methodologies that have branched off and build specific processes based on these values and principles with popular one being Scrum, Lean and Kanban. Read more about those methodologies here.

Agile methodology benefits

Flexibility and adaptability

The inherent focus of Agile is to better respond to change, an inevitable factor of projects, making them much more flexible and adaptable than traditional Waterfall methods. This quality gives teams more freedom to be experimental, producing out-of-the-box ideas that can be ground-breaking for both the team and the client.

Predictable schedules and outcomes

Through shorter and more focused cycles, Agile projects can have more predictable schedules and outcomes. Project cycles, sometimes referred to as sprints, usually run for a period less than 30 days. Rather than planning for long-term projects and running the risk of not having a complete product to account for anything in the end, the iterative focus of Agile makes sure that there is always value delivered no matter how big or small.

Higher chance of client satisfaction

Short project cycles mean more opportunities for client input before each iteration of the project. Rather than having to wait until the end of a big project, Agile emphasizes the importance of getting client feedback throughout the entire project lifecycle so make sure the clients needs and demands are being met. There’s no use of presenting a completed product if it doesn’t end up solving the problem the client wants solved.

Empowering teams and teamwork

With a core principle being self-organisation of teams, Agile projects focus more on working with your team’s strengths rather than simply following a structure for structure’s sake. By giving teams more autonomy and responsibility over the project, they are more likely to be more invested and dedicated to the success of the project than in cases where they are simply ticking boxes on tasks.

Lower risk

By focusing on team strengths, having more client feedback and being more adaptable to change, Agile projects are able to quickly address issues, grow and refocus leading to lower overall chances for project failure.

Agile methodology limitations

Less predictability in the long-term

Though Agile projects are more predictable in the short-term, the lack of defined scope or end goal can lead to continuous scope changes. Projects can end up becoming more costly and time-consuming than was initially planned for.

Can be more costly in the long-term

Due to the constant changes and growth that can occur, future iterations of Agile projects can become more complicated and costly. This can be particularly worrying for large organisations running multiple Agile-style projects as they can end up blowing entire portfolios over budget and out of focus.

High dependency on team members

Methodologies and processes that branch off from Agile philosophies often have a unique set of language, processes and structures that take time to understand and implement. Sometimes these practices need to tackle years and even decades of ingrained habits and the reality is that not everyone can easily adapt to change. Agile teams work best with well-experienced and highly skilled team members who can be self-organizing and highly collaborative.

Challenge for geographically dispersed teams

Due to their focus on collaboration, particularly through face to face conversations, and short intense cycles, Agile methodologies are not ideal for geographically dispersed teams and client bases. Though our softwares and workflows have greatly improved in response to sweeping digital transformation efforts, it still encounters limitations that simply cannot be replaced.

Agile methodology is best suited for

  • Projects that have a high level of complexity and uncertainty that requires flexibility. 
  • Projects that do not have fixed product deliverables, costs and scope, typically those that are long-term.

How to pick the right project management methodology for you?

Though this guide may clarify both ends of the debate, how do you pick where you stand? What if you fall in-between the two of them? Lucky for you, that’s actually where a lot of project managers are at and many of them have built unique methodologies to suit their specific needs and contexts. So don’t feel bogged down if you don’t fit in any of these two camps! But before getting lost in the hundred of methodologies out there, here’s a quick 5 steps you need to take before deciding on your best fit project management methodology.

  1. Evaluate the project’s needs
  2. Understand your organisation’s context and structures
  3. Determine your current team’s values, practices and capabilities
  4. Identify your stakeholder needs and expectations
  5. Assess your tools

To read more about these steps in detail, make sure to read our guide on the top project management methodologies and how to pick the right one for you.

How to find the right PPM tool for Waterfall and Agile

No matter which methodology suits you better, a PPM software is critical to getting the job done. In fact, nearly every project manager uses some form of PPM tool or software to properly manage their projects. Though PPM tools are meant to be methodology agnostic, the reality is that some PPM tools are better equipped for certain methodologies due to their available features and capabilities. 

We’ll go into detail of the specific PPM tool features you need to look for based on the methodology you choose.

PPM Tool features for Waterfall projects

The Waterfall method is all about structure. There’s layers and layers of planning, documentation, and reporting that allows for projects to effectively progress through their phases. To handle all this activity, there are certain software features project managers need to look out for. We’ve listed down the top three most important features needed to run Waterfall projects efficiently.

Gates and Milestones

Waterfall projects are broken down to phases, often with clear gates and milestones that mark progress throughout the project timeline. It is important for projects run with the Waterfall methodology to have their software capable of not only visualizing their project timeline, gates and necessary milestones but also simplifying these processes.

With pmo365, our intuitive software not only simplifies but automates your project gate tracking activities. Project managers no longer have to list out, input and track down the requirements of each phase manually anymore. Your gate review process is as easy as a click of a button! Read more about how we do this here.

Project scheduling tool adapted to WBS approach

Waterfall projects often use a work breakdown structure (WBS) that acts as the foundational blueprint from which project managers plan the project in its entirety. This approach not only defines role, tasks and resource requirements, but also lays out all project dependencies that can impact the project timeline. An effective PPM software for Waterfall projects needs to be able to adapt to the WBS approach to allow for easy planning, visualization and communication of the project timeline and activities.

Pmo365’s handy schedule management tools helps you identify, track and organise your task dependencies by linking them directly with your WBS. We also make your reporting and communication activities smooth as butter. Read more about how we can upgrade your schedule management activities here.

Resource management tools

Unlike Agile projects that often have team members allocated to a single project due to the intense manner of their sprints, the highly planned nature of Waterfall projects allows for resources to be shared across multiple teams as work loads and responsibilities are all clearly communicated. However, without an effective PPM system, properly managing resources is an impossible task if you have many different projects at the same time. 

Pmo365’s resource management tool gives you complete visibility over all your resources within your portfolios so you can easily plan and allocate resources as efficiently as possible. Our software fully integrates with all your project activities such as cost management, schedule management and much more so you can plan effectively in real time. 

PPM Tool features for Agile projects

The Agile method is all about speed, focus and collaboration. To accommodate for this work style, PPM softwares for Agile projects needs to enhance these specific values to make sure teams are not being pulled back because of inefficient software. Every second counts! So here are the top three features to watch out for.

Collaboration capacity

Being all about teamwork and self-organisation, an effective PPM software for Agile projects needs to not only help teams communicate with each other, but ease barriers to collaboration. Just having an in-built messaging platform doesn’t cut it. A fully collaborative platforms needs to efficiently bring different team members and data from multiple sources into a single space easily, allow for team members to be alerted of updates and clear visibility of activities happening across the project as a whole.

For pmo365, collaboration is our forte. Our fully integrative platform acts as your team’s single source of truth so you never have to leave the platform to plan your activities. By integrating all your activities from schedule management, risk management, daily communication and everything in between, your teams will have all the data at their hands to work agile.

Real-time 

Agile projects aren’t about waiting for a 24 hour update on their progress to plot their next move. If projects are to adapt to change and move fast, teams need to be running in real-time. That’s why having a cloud-based PPM software is critical for Agile projects to keep ahead of the game.  

pmo365 builds on Microsoft’s 365 cloud to guarantee your team complete visibility and control over the ins and outs of their projects so no opportunities or risks go amiss.

Issue Tracking

Agile is all about adapting to change, both good and bad. The sad reality is that negative risks often crop up during a project and they carry the ability to make or break a project. Being able to effectively identify, prioritise and mitigate risks as they arise is a critical factor to the success of Agile projects. 

Pmo365’s software uses RAID logs to help you log, document and track risks, assumptions, issues and dependencies in your projects in real-time so you can quickly address them as quickly as possible. 

Though these may be the top three features to look out for in your PPM softwares, they aren’t the only features! There are hundreds of PPM softwares out there ready to sell you sparkly features and complex tools they think you need. But how do you pick the right one for you? Don’t worry! We’ve made a quick guide that with help you find the best PPM software for you!

Any methodology you use, pmo365 is the best PPM service for you

No matter if you’re team Agile or team Waterfall, we’ve got your back! Our PPM service is made to cater to your specific needs and requirements. From our intuitive software, all-round support services, our simplified pricing packages and our extensive PPM experience, we’re confident we can bring your organisation’s project management activities to the next level. If you know just how we can revolutionize your project management activities, make sure to book a free trial and speak directly with our PPM experts.

Maurizio Marmotta

Maurizio Marmotta

Maurizio is a PMO Specialist at EPM Partners and has 25 years of experience in workflow software, data-driven decisioning tools, digital marketing.

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