Waterfall vs. Agile project management: What’s the difference?

Retrato da contribuidora Julia MartinsJulia Martins11 de outubro de 20214 minutos de leitura
Imagem do banner do artigo Gestão de projetos em cascata ou metodologia Agile: em que diferem?


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.

What is waterfall? 

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: 

  1. Requirements phase, sometimes split into an additional analysis phase

  2. System design phase

  3. Implementation phase, also known as the development phase or coding phase—depending on the type of project

  4. Testing phase

  5. Deployment phase, also known as the operations phase

  6. Maintenance phase

Read: Everything you need to know about waterfall project management

How waterfall works

This method is called waterfall because waterfall projects look like they’re cascading from one project phase to the next. 

Waterfall project management methodology

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. 

What is Agile?

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

What is Scrum? 

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

What is Kanban? 

Kanban is another subset of the Agile framework. This method typically comes to life via Kanban board tools, which allow teams to view each team member’s capacity and balance needs accordingly. 

[Visualização em quadro] Quadro Kanban de sprint de Engenharia para Scrum na AsanaCreate Kanban boards with Asana

How Agile works

Agile project management includes iterative backlog management, sprints, reflection, iteration, and more sprints. Each Agile sprint typically lasts two weeks. 

  • First, the product owner organizes the product backlog in a project management software. The product backlog is a list of every task that may be worked on during the sprint.

  • 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. 

Read: The beginner's guide to Agile methodologies

The pros and cons of each methodology

Now that you understand the basics of each methodology, let’s look at the pros and cons of each one.

Pros of waterfall project management

  • Clearly plan your work before beginning a project

  • Prevent scope creep

  • 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

Cons of the waterfall approach

  • Not flexible

  • 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

Pros of the Agile methodology

  • Adaptable to unexpected changes

  • Customer-centric

  • 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

Cons of Agile project management

  • 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

When to use waterfall vs. Agile

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:

Use the waterfall methodology if…

  • 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

Try the Agile approach when…

  • 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

Better project management with Asana

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. 

If you’re ready to get started, try Asana. Asana is a work management tool that helps your team organize work, track processes, and hit your goals. 

Try Agile project management with Asana

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