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Agile vs. Waterfall: 5 Key Differences

Agile and Waterfall are the most popular project management methods and they are very different. Many organizations make the mistake of attempting to move from Waterfall to Agile by combining the two but what they end up with is what we call “Wagile” or “Scrumfall”. Comparing Agile vs. Waterfall is an important step in understanding these popular project management methodologies and why they should not be combined.

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Approach to Project Management

The Agile project management methodology includes project phases with a short deadline that are worked on concurrently by the team. Agile is iterative and flexible which helps to manage frequently changing priorities by including all stakeholders and taking their feedback into account. Changes in priority can cause a reduction in productivity, especially if the changes come late in the project. Agile encompasses many popular frameworks including Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), and Adaptive Project Framework (APF).

The Waterfall methodology includes six phases of Project Management: Requirement Gathering, Design, Implementation, Testing (or Quality Assurance), Delivery, and Maintenance. These phases are performed in a strict order with each phase beginning after the end of the previous phase. Waterfall was originally implemented in industries such as construction and manufacturing dating all the way back to the 1950’s. It has since been applied to software development projects and you may hear the term ‘Rapid Development’ which is a modified Waterfall model specifically for development projects.

Project Timeline

If you’re using the Agile methodology, the project timeline will be very flexible. This requires frequent meetings with the project team, generally called “standups” or “scrums”. The project manager or scrum master gets updates on tasks finished, tasks being worked on, and any blockers that are preventing work being done. This allows for iterative planning and a more streamlined approach to managing the project timeline.

On the other hand, the project timeline in Waterfall is fixed and rigid. This method is only successful for projects where everything is known up front including having accurate project estimates. Each phase is worked on one after the other so there is no room for error. I think of this in terms of building a house. You have to finish building the frame before you can add doors, windows, etc. The same is true of software development projects using the Waterfall project management methodology.

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Gathering Feedback From Stakeholders

Since the Agile methodology is iterative and flexible, the project manager is required to gather feedback from stakeholders on a regular basis. They may hold frequent meetings with the internal project team, clients, and stakeholders to ask questions, discuss any issues, and adjust the project plan as necessary. Holding productive meetings helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and understands the tasks at hand.

Waterfall is different as you have to work in phases. This comes with the understanding that the project manager will gather all of the requirements from clients and stakeholders up front with little to no room for error. Communicating with stakeholders happens much less frequently than in the Agile method and this can cause a loss of productivity when there are requirements that are missed or miscommunicated early on in the project.

Project Management Budget Tracking

The budget for projects using the Agile project management methodology is flexible; however, clients and stakeholders generally do not like for the budget to change too much over the lifetime of the project so that is something to keep in mind. The project manager should be as accurate as possible in the initial budget to avoid issues during later project phases. When issues arise, it is important to be honest with the team and discuss solutions that will have the least impact to the budget.

In the Waterfall method, of course it is rigid so the budget does not have much flexibility. The project budget is set in the beginning of the project and it is not managed as frequently as it would be using the Agile method. Software development companies who use Waterfall assume a great deal of risk if they are working on projects for external clients. Some clients like that approach so they don’t have to worry about massive increases to their budget.

Managing Project Scope

The Agile method welcomes changes to project scope, but this causes additional expense as costs increase and schedules change. The project manager should refer to the original scope and communicate this to the clients and stakeholders when new changes or features are proposed. When these are out of scope, you can decide if you want to make a scope change or park that idea for later on down the line. This will help to mitigate the increase in costs and keep the project on track.

In Waterfall, scope changes can be managed by changing the contract terms limit, but this has to be managed properly to get the project back on track. The project manager must decide how and when to incorporate these changes for minimal impact to the project, budget, and timeline. This is not an easy task and should not be taken lightly. It’s better to make changes after all originally planned phases are complete.

Agile vs. Waterfall – Project Management Courses on Pluralsight

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You can learn more about comparing agile vs. waterfall in my Pluralsight course, Project Management Basics for Non-project Managers. This course includes animated scenario-based training and you will watch as an organization compares and contrasts the most popular project management methods including Agile, Waterfall, PMI/PMBOK, and more. By the end of this course, you will be able to choose the right project management methodology for your team and your types of projects. Click the button below to get started with a free trial today!