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Agile vs. Waterfall: The Pros and Cons of Each Methodology

Wed Dec 08 2021
Sean Blake
Written by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

Do you know the difference between agile vs. waterfall, and have you considered which is best for your business?

Don’t go chasing waterfalls — unless you’re seeking a project management methodology. 😁 The waterfall method is a common framework teams have utilized for years. But it isn’t the only way of doing things, and it may not be the best way, depending on the needs of your team.

In this post, we’ll cover the differences between agile and waterfall methodologies, including the pros and cons of each. We’ll also share a potential alternative called the hybrid method, which can provide the best of both worlds for certain teams.

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Agile vs. waterfall

When it comes to agile vs. waterfall, these methodologies don’t share a lot in common. In many ways, agile is the answer to the limitations of the commonly used waterfall method. However, there are definitely still pros and cons to each framework.

Let’s dig into both of these methodologies in more detail.

The waterfall methodology

We’ll start off with the waterfall approach since it’s a little easier to explain. While the idea of a waterfall may sound majestic and bold, the waterfall method is fairly traditional and straightforward.

The waterfall model is used to describe traditional project management, where a project plan is laid out by a project manager before work begins. Project requirements and tasks are planned in advance and given to the team, who then work on one task and then the next until project delivery.

Tasks are completed in the order they were laid out in the original plan. The sequential order of tasks cascading from one to the next is what gives waterfall project management its name.

Waterfall is a widely used project management methodology, but it does have its limitations. The strict approach helps teams know what to expect through every step of a project, but it isn’t very adaptable, and it can lack input from the team as a whole.

This lack of flexibility has hindered modern teams. It makes it more difficult to switch gears if and when you need to. A predetermined plan doesn't leave much room for change, and it misses out on adapting to invaluable feedback from both stakeholders and customers.

Waterfall Pros

  • Clear goals and objectives are provided at the outset.
  • There’s a straightforward structure that’s repeated project after project.
  • It’s easy for team members to understand what’s expected of them.
  • There’s less general pressure on employees.
  • It’s easier to learn the ropes, especially for new employees.
  • Information is easily passed on to all team members.
  • Success is measured by the completion of tasks, which provides faster gratification.
  • Budgets can be more accurately predicted.
  • The end result of a project is decided from the beginning, so the journey is clear for everyone involved.
  • Most planning is led by one person.

Waterfall Cons

  • The process is not as flexible as agile approaches.
  • It’s difficult to foresee roadblocks and dependencies that could delay work.
  • Work is not always evenly spread out across the team.
  • Project overload is possible.
  • Short-lived teams may ignore conflict for the sake of getting to the end of the project.
  • It’s difficult to change directions or the scope of deliverables once a project begins.
  • There’s less customer involvement throughout project or product development.
  • Stakeholders may not see progress until the end of a project or until a final product is complete.
  • There isn't an early testing phase to ensure a project or product is on the right track.

The agile methodology

Agile is an iterative approach that puts emphasis on testing and adapting. It uses early feedback and stakeholder involvement to determine the best possible path forward. There’s still a plan with agile, but it isn't rigid or strict, and it leaves plenty of room to adapt and grow along the way.

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The plan evolves as new information is acquired to ensure the end result meets customer and stakeholder needs. Adaptability plays a big role in agile practices, and that’s what has drawn so many teams to the methodology. The ability to adapt in the face of change is a sought-after strength today, given the pace at which change is occurring across technology, the economy, global markets, and more.

Agile Pros

  • The entire team is involved in the planning.
  • Feedback is central to the process.
  • Customers and stakeholders are involved.
  • The customer journey is top of mind when a decision is made.
  • The team can adapt as new information is acquired.
  • Changes can be made along the way to avoid roadblocks or stalled work.
  • Each team member's capacity (workload) is continually assessed to prevent burnout.
  • Long-standing teams continue to learn how to work together.
  • Processes are continually improved upon throughout every phase of the project/product.
  • All voices on a team, no matter the role, are heard when it comes time to gather retrospective feedback.

Agile Cons

  • Agile techniques and terminology can be tough to grasp.
  • It can take teams a while to learn proper agile methods.
  • Agile teams may not get the support they require from management and business owners.
  • Not all team members may buy into the agile framework, presenting a disconnect across the team.
  • A lack of documentation can make the details unclear.
  • Budgets can become unpredictable if it turns out the project/product needs to go in another direction.
  • The scope of a project/product can continue to grow (scope creep).
  • The many agile meetings take up a lot of time.
  • It’s harder to find new employees who are experienced with agile methods.

Agile is a broad term that covers a number of different frameworks that utilize agile practices. Lean, DevOps, Kanban, and Scrum are all various forms of agile that fulfill different needs.

For example, the Scrum framework involves repeating sprints that are commonly used by agile software development teams. If you haven’t heard of Scrum before, this might be a lot to take in. 🤯

A Scrum takes two weeks, beginning with sprint planning, when the product owner makes prioritization decisions about which backlog items (tasks) should be accomplished in the upcoming sprint. From there, the team works on the specified tasks, guided by a Scrum Master who leads daily standup meetings to keep everyone informed of project/product progress. Lastly, a sprint review and sprint retrospective occur at the end of the sprint to ensure the team continually evolves and improves.

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Interested in learning about other popular agile methodologies? There are so many to choose from! We covered 8 popular development methodologies in a previous post.

The hybrid methodology

Does the choice need to be agile vs. waterfall? You might be thinking, can’t we put all of these benefits together? The hybrid agile approach can offer the best of both words for some teams.

A hybrid model blends the valuable techniques provided by both waterfall and agile frameworks. For example, you might begin with a set of agile sprints for prototyping and gathering feedback, followed by a single plan of action associated with non-agile techniques. It can be the best of both worlds, and it can serve as a stepping stone while a team attempts to make a complete agile transformation.

A hybrid approach often comes into play with agile project management and other non-traditional agile uses. Agile was originally designed for software development, but teams in all sorts of industries continually adopt aspects of agile. The agile methods observed by software developers don’t always work for other types of teams. Agile can be a difficult transition to make, especially when teams are used to things being done another way.

An approach that meets your needs

When choosing which approach is best for your team, business, or enterprise, take time to consider the needs of the team as well as your customers and stakeholders. Agile may be a tough transition to make, but if you believe the benefits will enhance your processes and help your business long-term, it might be time to make the switch. A hybrid approach can help you get there gradually without as many disruptions to your current processes.

Easy Agile is passionate about helping teams work better using  agile tools designed for Jira. If you want to learn more about agile and other methodologies, follow the Easy Agile blog. It’s filled with how-to guides, tips, and strategies — and if reading content isn’t for you, we have a podcast too! 📢

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