Agile vs. Waterfall: Which is Best for Your Project?

Most developers and project managers have heard the terms “Waterfall” and “Agile” and many are quite familiar with these development methodologies. Though they are both popular planning methods, the features of each make them suitable for different project types. 

Read on to learn more about the Agile and Waterfall development methods to determine which of the two presents your team with the features you need in order to successfully complete the project at hand.

What is the Agile Method?

The Agile Method is a development approach that focuses on using teamwork to quickly produce functional project results that meet the satisfactory requirements the client has requested. This methodology relies on clearly timed phases, also known as sprints, in which the team creates a list of deliverable results based on the client’s specifications. At the end of each sprint, the team’s developers and the client review the progress and offer feedback for future phases of the project. 

Examples of programs that use the Agile model of development include scrum, extreme programming, crystal clear, adaptive software development, feature driven development, and dynamic systems development.

Agile Pros

  • Agile’s short-term turnaround structure fosters productivity.
  • Agile is customer-focused, which helps developers cater the project to meet the customer’s needs.
  • This method is highly flexible and allows planning teams to work on several phases simultaneously.
  • Agile enables planning teams to share progress and take feedback into account during development.
    (Source #4)

Agile Cons

  • The broad flexibility can make it difficult to ensure all team members are on the same page.
  • It becomes easier to overlap or spend unnecessary time and attention on later stages if a change is needed in past phases.
  • Timelines with Agile are versatile and this can make timeline planning difficult.

(Source #4)

What is the Waterfall Method?

The Waterfall planning method is a developmental approach that defines clear phases that can only be attempted once the previous phase is complete. These distinct phases may include defining project requirements, analysis, project design, coding, testing, user acceptance, and deployment. At the end of each phase, deliverable results are expected, and the next phase depends on the approval of the last.

Each phase is developed and completed once, so all the requirements need to be addressed at the very beginning of the project in order to create accurate plans, budgets, resource requirements, and development schedules. Any changes to any of the phases would delay the progression of the project as a whole. 

Examples of project subtypes that benefit from the use of the Waterfall model include human resource management, supply chain management, inventory management, and points of sale in retail businesses.

Waterfall Pros

  • Waterfall encourages the development of a concrete plan before moving to the next step.
  • Each phase requires deliverables before the next phase can be approached.
  • Waterfall clearly outlines project requirements from the start.
  • The Waterfall methodology creates more accurate cost estimates.

Waterfall Cons

  • Because of the step-by-step structure, the Waterfall method could lengthen the timeline of the project.
  • A mistake found in later phases would require combing back through earlier phases.
  • The Waterfall method is relatively rigid and does not allow for much flexibility.
    (Source #5)

Which Method Suits Your Project?

Several factors need to be considered when deciding which development method best suits the project at hand. A few components to look at include:

  • Regulatory requirements
  • Budgetary limits
  • Customer involvement
  • Timeline flexibility

If the project has strict requirements, regulations, or timelines, the Waterfall approach is likely going to be a more ideal developmental method to use. 

If the customer is willing to be involved with every phase of the project, the budget is relatively loose, and/or the customer is open to embracing new ideas throughout each phase, the Agile method might be a better choice. 

Each method has its set of strengths and weaknesses and each method can be incredibly helpful when applied to the right project. A strict, by-the-book customer with very precise requirements gives the Waterfall planning method the opportunity to shine as the team works with fixed protocols. 

A creative project with openness to explore new directions, on the other hand, will benefit from the use of the Agile planning method. Agile methodology is structured in a way that enhances the development team’s brainstorming efforts through fast bursts of creativity.

In short, the key difference between Waterfall and Agile is simple. The Waterfall approach is a rigid, linear system that requires the completion of each phase before moving to the next developmental step, while the more flexible Agile approach allows and encourages team members to simultaneously work on different phases of the project and explore different directions along the way.