Waterfall or agile project management methodology

Waterfall or agile project management methodology
Ivan Pavlov
December 12, 2019
Last updated: January 20, 2021

Both Waterfall and Agile are the methods of organizing the workflow of an IT organization. These approaches to handling the software product development cycle help professionals to achieve high quality in the shortest possible time and at a reasonable cost. When comparing Agile vs Waterfall, one needs to realize that these two concepts do not necessarily need to be direct opposites. Numerous enterprises make the most of both, creating a customized hybrid that takes into account the particular needs of their business.

Historically, the Waterfall paradigm was shaped far away from the IT industry — in building and industrial production. It is linear and sequential. This poetic noun likens the influx of new tasks to streams of water that fall down one by one.

The main priority of Agile is not the processes themselves but human resources, client satisfaction, collaboration and adaptability. It was invented as a smart alternative to Waterfall and is becoming increasingly popular. Nonetheless, the newcomer is unlikely to entirely replace its predecessor. Instead, there are probably numerous and diverse, intermediary methods between these two.

The Concept of Waterfall

Waterfall project management

Waterfall is a more conventional approach. Yet it is not obsolete — many organizations employ it and remain happy with both their products and their income. According to this method, the process of building the product is fragmented into phases. The developers stick to the following algorithm:

  • Collect the requirements

  • Carry out the analysis

  • Design the product

  • Compile the code

  • Complete unit testing, system and user acceptance testing

  • Use the product

The team moves on to a new phase only after the preceding one is completed. Later, they do not return to a phase that was finished — it is considered to be done once and forever. Between the phases, the developers either sign documents or receive and analyze results.

The workflow is plan-driven. It means that in the initial phase, the team goes to great lengths to collect as much information as possible. They design schedules, make budgets and allocate resources. If something unexpectedly goes wrong, the team would need to rebuild the product from scratch.

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The Primary Merits of Waterfall

Professionals highly appreciate this method due to the advantages outlined below:

  • Each team member clearly understands their role

  • The volume of work is clearly defined from the very beginning

  • Resources are rationally distributed across the tasks

  • The progress can be objectively measured

  • Budgeting becomes easier

  • The whole-system approach contributes to a better design

The IT collective envisages the results at the preliminary planning phase, which allows them to configure a realistic schedule and define feasible goals.

The Substantial Shortcomings of Waterfall

On the flip side, experts criticize this method because of the following aspects:

  • It is tricky to modify the workflow once the team already started to build the product

  • There are few tools to deal with uncertainty

  • Since tests are carried out strictly after the product is finished, debugging often turns out to be too costly and time-consuming. For large products, the expenses might be unacceptably high

  • Due to insufficient customer engagement, it often happens that the client is not fully happy with the final result

This is why many organizations objectively weigh the strong and weak sides of Agile vs Waterfall and eventually opt for the former. It offers greater flexibility and enables the developers to better concentrate on their commercial objectives.

The Essence of the Agile Method

Agile project management

In Agile, the workflow is split into fortnight-long 'sprints'. Client satisfaction is regarded as the primary priority. At the outset of each sprint, the team formulates its goals. At the end of the sprint, both the team and the client analyze and evaluate the result. Their insights and conclusions serve as the basis for the next sprint.

The two integral constituents of this method are Scrum and Kanban. Scrum is a management framework that ensures the efficiency and sustainability of the Agile approach. In every team, there should be a Scrum master who is in charge of the tools, principles and values of the enterprise.

Kanban is a control system that helps ensure the continual delivery of the project while preventing the developers from work overload. Kanban boards and cards permit the team to monitor their progress and manage their goals.

The Key Advantages of Agile

The approach successfully competes with Waterfall thanks to its meaningful merits:

  • The life cycle of the software development speeds up

  • Sprints are carried out according to a predictable schedule

  • Teams learn to manage products with maximum efficiency

  • Developers accept changes flexibly

  • Such an approach encourages effective communication

  • Customer satisfaction is the key

For those who deal with projects whose funding is not fixed, the choice between Agile vs Waterfall should be genuinely simple. You should opt for the former since it allows the company to spend its budget most efficiently.

The Inevitable Drawbacks of Agile

Before implementing the Agile guidelines into the workflow of their organization, one should consider potential drawbacks of Agile:

  • Some clients prefer to receive the product when it is ready, without intervening with the development process

  • This paradigm contradicts the guidelines of efficient self-management because each member of the organization needs to concentrate on the project in its entirety

  • This method requires maximum efficiency of communication, which means all the staff should be physically working from the same office

Additionally, the team might fail to deliver the desired results within a restrictive time frame. Consequently, they would need to add extra sprints to the development process, and the final cost of the product might rise.

Differences between Agile and Waterfall

This table can handily explain the distinction between Agile vs Waterfall:

Waterfall

Agile

Linear and sequential

Incremental and iterative

Projects are fragmented into phases

Projects are fragmented into sprints

Optimal for completing one project

Ideal for carrying out multiple small projects

The primary value is the successful project delivery

The core value is client satisfaction

The requirements are gathered only once, at the initial phase of the project

The team prepares the requirements daily

If the requirements are modified, the team would need to restart the project from scratch

The requirements can be modified at any stage

Testing is carried out strictly when the build phase is over

Building and testing take place in parallel

Test teams are not allowed to modify the requirements

Test teams are invited to have their word in the requirements change

The project manager takes the leading part in every phase of the workflow

Teams self-organize without a supervisor


Reasons to Switch from Waterfall to Agile

After reading the above-mentioned characteristics of Agile vs Waterfall, you might ask yourself: should you switch to Agile? Below are the three tell-tale signs that would justify this decision:

  1. You are not fully happy with your revenue. At first sight, your enterprise might be flourishing. Your developers might deliver state-of-the-art solutions, innovative technologies and set the bar high for the whole industry. Yet the aim of your business is not to be smarter and cooler than your rivals — the aim is to generate revenue. You need to evolve, expand your client base and boost your sales. Your IT talents might subconsciously hinder this process because self-actualization is more important for them than profit. You should not let them indulge in perfectionism too much. After switching to Agile, your team might complain that their products are not as "ideal" as they used to be — but you would deliver more frequently, and your customers would gladly spread the word about your enterprise.

  2. You have faced the scaling problem. Your business cannot grow because it is not flexible enough and its communications with customers are not too effective. If you lose your long-term clients, it might be difficult for you to attract new ones. In this case, it would be reasonable to sacrifice the rigid structure of Waterfall and adopt the Agile principles.

  3. You are not ready to put up with high risks of last-minute testing anymore. Because of the inevitable human factor, even the most skilled and experienced teams sometimes make mistakes. It is excusable — yet any fault detected at the final stage of the software development life cycle in Waterfall would cost you time, effort and funds. If that repeats too often, you would accumulate huge losses. In Agile, the risk curve stays rather flat regardless of the characteristics of the products that you are currently working on.

If you decide to abandon Waterfall, the transfer to the alternative approach would take a few months. The most challenging part of it would be to convince all the staff that you seriously need this change. Everyone should distinctly realize the essence and the objective of this "mini-revolution". Encourage your staff to be proactive and speak their minds. Teach them to self-organize and un-scale — that is, to fragment a bulky project into several smaller ones and accomplish each of these small projects in groups of 3-4 individuals.

But mind that all your efforts might fail if your customers are too conservative. You should abandon Waterfall only if your customers are eager to participate in the development process and welcome the innovation.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this text came in handy and now you can clearly see the differences between Agile and Waterfall. If your company still uses the latter, you might consider switching to the former because thousands of organizations can confirm its efficiency. You would not need to become a trailblazer who learns from their own mistakes. Instead, you would adopt the positive experience of many other enterprises and adapt it to your individual needs. Consequently, you would be able to deliver more frequently, and customer satisfaction would grow.

However, if you are happy with your product and business as it is, there may be no need for you to switch to Waterfall. If you do not specialize in large products and are satisfied with your commercial indicators, then the implementation of the Agile guidelines hardly makes sense. However, you might want to consider a hybrid of these two approaches to improve selected aspects of your workflow.

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