Waterfall and Agile are the two most common project management methodologies for software development teams—but what exactly do these words mean? In this article, we cover the difference between waterfall and Agile project management, and explain how you can use project management tools to use both frameworks effectively.
Waterfall. Agile. What do these two words have to do with project management?
They might not sound like it, but waterfall and Agile are two of the most popular project management methodologies out there. These frameworks are typically used by development teams in order to successfully deliver a software development project, but any team can benefit from waterfall and Agile.
Both methodologies are easy to learn, but they offer different advantages and disadvantages. The best methodology for your team depends on the types of projects you’re running. Before you implement one of these approaches, learn the difference between waterfall development and Agile project management to decide which one is right for you.
The waterfall model divides each project into different phases and moves through the phases in sequential order. No phase can begin until the phase before it is completed. Typically, each phase ends in a project milestone that indicates the next phase can begin.
The specific phases of the waterfall software development process depend on exactly what your team is creating, but typically it looks something like this:
Requirements phase, sometimes split into an additional analysis phase
System design phase
Implementation phase, also known as the development phase or coding phase—depending on the type of project
Deployment phase, also known as the operations phase
This method is called waterfall because waterfall projects look like they’re cascading from one project phase to the next.
Implementing this project management methodology requires a lot of up-front planning and preparation. A big part of waterfall project management is creating an airtight project plan so your team clearly understands the project requirements—and restraints—before they get started on the work. That’s because there isn't a lot of room for variation, adaptability, or error once a waterfall project is set in motion.
With careful planning, you can successfully achieve your end product with clear, predictable workflows. This project methodology is great for time management and progress tracking, though it is less flexible than other models.
Agile project management is an iterative methodology where work is completed in short, two-week sprints. By prioritizing a flexible approach and continuous delivery, the Agile method is more flexible to unexpected project changes—but can suffer from scope creep as a result.
The Agile methodology was developed to counter traditional waterfall-style project management. As software development became more prevalent in the early 2000s, developers needed an iterative approach to prototyping and project management—and thus Agile software development was born.Try Agile project management with Asana
Scrum is a subset of the Agile methodology that has its own rules and processes. Scrum introduces a new role, the Scrum master, to oversee Scrum sprints and keep the team on track.Read: What is Scrum? What it is and why it works so well
Agile project management includes iterative backlog management, sprints, reflection, iteration, and more sprints. Each Agile sprint typically lasts two weeks.
Before the sprint, the entire project team participates in sprint planning to identify the best tasks to work on during the two week period.
During the sprint, Agile teams meet every day for 15 minute daily stand-ups to discuss blockers and action items.
Once the sprint is over, team members get together to run a sprint retrospective and identify what went well and what could have been better.
Now that you understand the basics of each methodology, let’s look at the pros and cons of each one.
Clearly plan your work before beginning a project
Easy to track progress between different phases of the project
Deliverables are defined early in the project process
Customers only need to be involved at the initiation and QA phases
Focused on project delivery
Team members can work on multiple projects and don’t have to be completely dedicated to one initiative
Better for managing dependencies
More effective for cross-functional projects
Very hard to make changes to previous phases
The same people may not work on the project from phase to phase, which can lead to loss of information without clear documentation
QA happens late, which can lead to unexpected bugs
Not good for large projects with uncertain deliverables
Increased project risk without careful planning
Reduced customer involvement can decrease satisfaction
Adaptable to unexpected changes
Testing happens concurrently with product development, which makes it more likely for your team to successfully spot issues and quickly course correct
High emphasis on teamwork and team member involvement increases intrinsic motivation
More direct team member involvement—team members typically talk every day
Focused on customer satisfaction
More likely to lead to scope creep
Some customers don’t have time or bandwidth to engage as needed
Team members are exclusively focused on the Agile sprint process, and can’t work on other initiatives
Unclear—and often increased—project budget
Not well suited for virtual teams
While most teams can benefit in some way from either waterfall or Agile, here’s an easy breakdown to help you decide which methodology is best for you:
You’re working on a sequential project, and no phase can begin unless the other is complete
You want to tightly control scope creep
You value clear, effective planning
You want to understand the entire development lifecycle before beginning the project
You value functionality over quick delivery
You want to use a more iterative process
You want to deliver results quickly—even if that means improving them later on
Your team moves quickly
Your team values adaptability over predictability
Your customers want to be active stakeholders
Whether you’re implementing a waterfall or Agile approach, make sure you’re tracking your work in a central tool. When team members have clear insight into who’s doing what by when, they can more accurately plan their own work and hit their deliverables.Try Agile project management with Asana