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Agile vs. Waterfall: How to choose the right framework

It’s the age-old debate in the world of project management: Agile vs. Waterfall.

Agile (renowned for its flexibility and adaptability) operates on iterative progress through small, manageable units of work, while Waterfall (loved for its structured progression) adopts a linear and sequential approach, where each project phase must be completed before the next one begins.

We’re not here to dispute which is the best—instead, we want to help you find the right framework for your projects. Each methodology has advantages and drawbacks, making it a better fit for different teams, workflows, and company cultures.

The right framework helps you navigate each project’s scope, time, and budget constraints. It ultimately influences how your team collaborates, adapts, and delivers.

Below, we walk you through the nitty-gritty details between Agile and Waterfall product management methodologies to help you make the best decision for your business.

What is Agile project management?

Agile methodology is guided by core principles that prioritize adaptability and customer satisfaction. It focuses on the following tenets:

  • Individuals and interactions > processes and tools
  • Working solutions > comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration > contraction negotiation
  • Adapting to change > following the plan

Agile thrives on continuous feedback and regular adaptations. It delivers functional products in short, iterative cycles (known as sprints).

“Agile is an attitude, not a technique with boundaries,” says Alistair Cockburn, signatory of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. “An attitude has no boundaries, so we wouldn’t ask ‘can I use agile here,’ but rather ‘how would I act in the agile way here?’ or ‘how agile can we be, here?’”

Pros and cons of the Agile approach

Agile project management isn’t all donuts and coffee. It brings a set of advantages and challenges you’ll need to weigh.

Pros of Agile model

  • Adaptability: Allows for easy adaptation to changes even late in the development process.
  • Feedback: Continuous customer and stakeholder involvement ensures the product meets expectations.
  • Risk management: Regular iterations allow for early identification and mitigation of issues.
  • Fast time to market: Agile facilitates quicker product releases and adaptations.

Cons of Agile model

  • Scope creep: The flexibility can sometimes lead to an expanding project scope without clear boundaries.
  • Resource intensive: Agile often demands more time and resources for continuous management and iterations.
  • Less predictability: The lack of a defined end-point can make it challenging to estimate timelines and costs.
  • Overkill: Agile might be overwhelming for projects with well-defined requirements and minimal changes.

“Unfortunately, in their desire to be agile (with a lowercase a), many firms have attempted to do Agile (with an uppercase A). They have traded a goal for an orthodoxy—adopting the methods and certifications but not the theory behind them. And this is fatal.” — Aaron Dignan, angel investor

Use cases for Agile project management

Agile methodology shines in environments where uncertainty and change are prevalent. Here are a few scenarios where Agile projects might make the most sense:

  • Product development: The product might need to pivot or adapt based on user interactions and responses, especially when user feedback is crucial.
  • Software development: Where technology and user requirements can change rapidly, and iterative development is key.
  • Marketing campaigns: Agile can be beneficial in creating and adapting marketing ideas and strategies in response to shifting market trends.
  • Innovation teams: Where exploring new ideas, testing, and iterating is crucial for developing new solutions or products.

The following well-known companies use Agile methodology:

  • Apple
  • Microsoft
  • IBM
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Cisco
  • Panera Bread

What is Waterfall project management?

Waterfall methodology approaches projects with a sequential workflow, meaning that any phase in the project process begins only after the prior phase is complete.

Waterfall operates on clearly defined stages, including the following:

  • Requirements
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Verification
  • Maintenance

Each stage is distinct, with specific deliverables and a review process to determine whether the project is ready to advance to the next stage.

“For the waterfall method to work, you must know all your software requirements upfront, and they basically have to be set in stone, in that you can’t change them,” says Simon Swords, Managing Director of Fundipedia.

Pros and cons of the Waterfall approach

Waterfall has advantages and disadvantages you’ll need to consider before choosing the right methodology for your projects.

Pros of Waterfall model

  • Clarity: Each phase has specific deliverables and a review process, making it easy to understand and use.
  • Defined stages: Clear, structured stages make it straightforward to manage and allow for meticulous planning.
  • Documentation: Comprehensive documentation ensures a clear record of all aspects of the project.
  • Minimal scope creep: Defined stages and requirements minimize the risk of expanding project scope.

Cons of Waterfall model

  • Inflexibility: Once a stage is completed, reverting or making changes becomes challenging and costly.
  • Delayed testing: Testing is typically performed after the build phase, which might delay identifying issues.
  • Resource intensive: It may require more resources, especially if changes are needed after the project progresses beyond the initial stages.
  • Lengthy timelines: The structured nature might extend the project duration before any working model is produced.

Use cases for Waterfall

While the Waterfall methodology originated in the manufacturing and construction sectors, it’s effective in various other use cases. It finds its strength in projects where clarity and predictability are paramount (and changes are minimal):

  • Software development projects: Particularly when requirements are well-understood, and customer input is minimal post-launch.
  • Event planning: Where each phase—such as booking vendors, securing venues, and sending invitations—follows a logical order.
  • Supply chain management: In managing and optimizing a supply chain where each stage from procurement to production to distribution follows a set order.

Agile vs. Waterfall: Key differences

Looking through these approaches, you’ve likely been drawn to aspects from both methodologies. Adaptability and flexibility are nice, but so are structured workflows and solid expectations. Both Waterfall and Agile methodologies (while rooted in completing successful projects) are tailored to different project environments and requirements.

Let’s take a closer look at the side-by-side comparisons:

  • Flexibility vs. stability: Agile prides itself on its adaptability and ability to accommodate changes even late in the development process, while Waterfall is chosen for its stability and defined stages.
  • Customer involvement: Agile encourages continuous customer or stakeholder involvement throughout the project, whereas Waterfall generally restricts customer involvement to the initial stages.
  • Project phases: Agile operates on iterative cycles with phases often overlapping, while Waterfall follows a linear approach with distinct, non-overlapping phases.
  • Testing: In Agile, testing is done concurrently with development, while in Waterfall, testing is typically a distinct phase that occurs after the development phase.
  • Risk management: Agile allows for early identification and mitigation of issues through its iterative nature, while Waterfall might only identify issues once testing occurs (often after substantial project work has been completed).

How to choose the right framework for your business

Knowing the differences isn’t always enough to come to a conclusion. Below, we walk you through a few factors to help you narrow down your decision.

Evaluate your project needs and team dynamics

Check to determine the requirements of your project or the product requirements document for your upcoming build. Will it require a more adaptive approach, or will the workflow follow a predictable, sequential order?

Also, take into account how familiar your current team is with the methodologies. Even if one approach might seem better on paper, it might not be the right fit if your co-workers don’t have the experience to execute it properly.

Agile might be a fitting choice for projects anticipating frequent changes and requiring a high degree of flexibility (especially with a development team that thrives in adaptive environments). However, Waterfall could be the go-to for projects with well-defined requirements and a team that excels in a structured, linear workflow.

Consider time, budget, and scope

The project management triangle of time, budget, and scope significantly influences the choice between Agile and Waterfall.

Agile allows for a more flexible approach towards these constraints, often enabling a quicker time-to-market with a minimum viable product (MVP). Waterfall might be more suitable for projects with a fixed scope and budget, where each phase is meticulously planned and budgeted for from the get-go.

Align with business goals and customer needs

Your chosen methodology needs to be in harmony with your business objectives and customer expectations. If you plan to rely on customer research and feedback for iterative improvements, you’ll want to opt for Agile. Waterfall will likely be the better choice if the project demands a robust, phase-dependent approach.

Streamline your product development

Whether you choose Agile or Waterfall, DigitalOcean provides the flexible (yet predictable) cloud solutions and pricing you need.

Our products help you stay on time and budget, building high-performing SaaS apps, websites, e-commerce stores, and more. Check out our transparent pricing to find the perfect mix of cloud solutions to meet the unique needs of your business.

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