In software development, there are two main methodologies that teams rely on to take a project from concept to completion: waterfall and agile. While there are ways to customize a unique methodology using techniques from each, most projects follow one or the other.
Deciding which is right for your team typically falls on the product manager. As someone involved with both clients and the development team, It’s up to them to consider team dynamics, project scope, and client requests when choosing between waterfall versus agile.
To help product managers – and developers seeking to better understand the project management methodologies – I compiled research to create the pros and cons for each while delivering useful advice for implementation when you make your choice.
What is the difference between agile versus waterfall methodologies?
Both methodologies – or ways of organizing the work for a development team – are widely used in software development today.
One of the biggest differences is that waterfall originated in the manufacturing and construction industries. Its linear characteristics make it suitable for building a product from the ground up. Each stage depends on the completion of the one before.
Agile, most often associated with the scrum framework, came about in part as a response to the increased speed in which businesses operated. Rather than focus on completing each phase before moving to the next one, the agile methodology is more iterative. As such, different milestones can act as pivot points to take what was learned in the previous phase and apply it to the next phase. In this way, agile is more dynamic than waterfall.
The waterfall methodology can be described like a relay race on a track. Team members are distributed throughout the track ready to take the baton – the list of specific tasks – through each leg – or phase – of the timeline before ending at the finish line. The course – like the methodology – is scheduled out with each lap measured and known. While there may be obstacles like a loose shoelace or a sudden cramp, the team knows ahead of time what each corner of the path looks like.
The agile methodology can also be contextualized in the form of a race, but instead of taking place on a paved circular track, it’s on a cross country course. While the distance – or project goal – is known from the start as in waterfall, team members can’t know what each curve or straightaway looks like – or where it's placed. Rather than completing one phase at a time, team members work dynamically to place in the race results. Speed is adjusted depending on the built-in obstacles of the landscape and some team members may race ahead – confronting different facets of the course – or project – while other team members focus on obstacles in other segments of the race before arriving at the finish line with their teammates.
Pros and cons of waterfall development methodology
Despite its association with manufacturing, waterfall fits into software development fairly well.
The arguments – or pros for – waterfall begin with the setup. Waterfall’s structure puts everything on the table before a project begins. Development teams and clients agree on the design before the first task begins. This can be especially helpful for smaller projects with new clients, who may appreciate the straightforward nature of waterfall and can feel confident about the new partnership.
While customers may appreciate design laid out at the beginning of a project, teams can also appreciate it because it allows for multiple components to be built at once in tandem with each other. With the design built out, there’s no question or dependencies on tasks happening around the building of a specific component.
Waterfall may also appeal to teams and customers thanks to the low customer involvement after setting out the initial terms. Milestones like status updates, reviews, and approvals can still happen, but with tasks laid out in well-tuned schedules, there’s little question as to what is happening and when.
As for drawbacks of waterfall, customers may not be able to understand the information and details laid out at the beginning. The requirements drawn up are typically technical in nature and very detailed. While it is great to have things laid out definitively, teams may struggle to turn all of the details into meaningful information for customers.
The waterfall approach can also be difficult when applied to projects with longer terms. The amount of detail required for the waterfall methodology is difficult, if not impossible, to gather for a project with a far-off end date.
Aside from the overall cons, it’s important to understand that some customers may not like the limited engagement and the testing happening only near the end of the project. Customer preferences can change from one customer to the next, so determining the type of customer can be important for project success.
Pros and cons of agile development methodology
The overall “pro” for agile is its flexibility. It can be suited to more types of customers and projects. Customers can be more involved throughout the process. If deadlines and desires are pressing, teams can build a basic product to work on the delivery date before going back to add more features and updates.
In addition to flexibility, there is a greater chance of getting a product to market sooner. With a base product on the market, developers can work on new iterations, updates, and improvements to the product without being held to a rigid process structure that can delay a market debut.
This flexibility has a downside, however. With frequent customer involvement, deliverables can change – prolonging the length of the project timeline with the addition of more sprints to accommodate changes. The level of customer involvement may not suit each client. Some clients may prefer to know less when they run up against constraints on their own time or may simply lack interest in the minutiae.
Additional sprints may also be added to accommodate for a high amount of reprioritization thanks to the more open and flexible timebox style of working that focuses on deliverables rather than specific tasks. In planning, you know what you want delivered but the details of specific tasks needed to reach those deliverables are not determined. This opens the potential for delays – and increased costs.
Each project is unique with specific needs. At a glance, you can measure up both methodologies based on client desires, budget needs, and more.
Best practices for teams using waterfall and agile
Waterfall can fall behind agile where speed-to-market and flexibility take precedence. You might think that makes the methodology obsolete. In reality, some projects, in the financial and medical industries for example, can impact wallets and human safety. High-stakes projects can benefit from a linear project structure where each phase is fully decided before reaching the project’s end.
The flexibility inherent in agile allows teams to focus on deliverables and building toward them as they move throughout the project timeline. This makes it a natural choice for complex application development, software releases, and more. A typically faster speed-to-market helps ensure that a base product hits the market at the right time. This can be especially crucial in emerging technologies.
There’s no reason both methodologies can’t come together to provide a custom fit for a particular project. The potential interplay between both secures a place for each in the toolbox of teams across software development.
For remote teams operating with these methodologies – or custom iterations of them – it’s imperative to properly define meetings and their respective content and purpose. Setting clear expectations for meetings – like the daily stand-up in agile – keeps ambiguity away while ensuring all stakeholders understand the current positioning in the project timeline. For projects in waterfall, apply the same level of detail you do to planning out each process. For projects in agile, clearly define meeting structures and consider which ones bring out the best engagement from team members – and other stakeholders. Clear expectations are a powerful weapon against any negative side effects from the asynchronous communication that often rules remote work.
With either methodology, there are project management tools to help you and your team meet project goals. The Clockwise Blog covers a myriad of tools, including agile tools for project management like Gantt charts and project management apps (Asana, Trello, etc.). The blog also offers tips for boosting teamwork and productivity.
The best methodology
If you haven’t guessed it by now, there is no clear one-size-fits-all methodology when choosing between waterfall and agile. Conceptualized decades apart, they each contribute a powerful structure for teams pushing the ball forward in their respective industries.
To make the most out of either, product managers should know the client and the team. Look at the needs of the project ahead when it comes to flexibility, budget, time to market, and size fit. Don’t be afraid to customize your own methodology based on characteristics from both. As a developer or engineer, consider how each methodology could boost future projects and share with leadership when an opportunity to improve arises. At the end of the day, waterfall and agile bring unique traits to the table – and you don’t want to leave the relevant ones behind.