Agile vs. Waterfall — from software development to project management

managers consider agile vs waterfall

Agile and Waterfall are two common practices for project management that are easily confused. They each have different qualities, but it’s easy to decide between them once you know the basic features each system offers. Here, we break down what these strategies bring to the table and compare Agile versus Waterfall.

What’s the difference between Agile and Waterfall?

Agile and Waterfall are both popular collaborative project management methodologies, but the main difference is that Agile is incremental and iterative, while Waterfall is linear and sequential. Agile and Waterfall have different management structures to help you organize your team’s progress.

agile vs waterfall table

What is Agile?

Agile is an adaptable project management system that reflects a quick-moving project lifecycle. Managing a project with Agile means dividing a large project into smaller tasks to thoroughly track progress and match changing specifications.

Working with an Agile philosophy also puts individuals before processes by emphasizing the team members instead of the tools. Highlighting smaller tasks allows for faster workflow and clearer expectations so teams can avoid overbearing workloads. Agile management’s structure naturally allows for customers to voice their thoughts as tasks are complete and make changes when necessary.

Advantages of Agile

Agile can be an efficient project management tool for those with self-motivated teams. Here are some of the benefits that might make using Agile an ideal choice:

Agile project management works best with teams of independent workers that reliably contribute to the project.

Disadvantages of Agile

While Agile is effective for fast-changing products and consistent feedback, it’s not ideal for every team. The greatest disadvantages of Agile are the unique needs the methodology places on teams.

Requirements for Agile success include:

What is Waterfall?

The Waterfall model is a sequential project management framework that emphasizes detailed planning and documentation in the early stages of product development. Waterfall relies on consecutively completing each phase of a project before continuing to the next one.

The Waterfall model requires completion of an initial task, so the team can build off of this to begin working on the next task. With Waterfall, you’ll follow this process until the entire project is completed. This linear structure mirrors the flow of a Waterfall by starting at the top and working your way down the flow of the river.

waterfall management model

Waterfall emphasizes adequate preparation for each phase. The more preparation there is, the easier it is for team members to complete their tasks. This detailed research at the beginning of the process leads to more effective time management and release dates.

To further prepare for future steps, planning and research are carefully documented. Documenting the details of each step provides clear insight when encountering an error later in development. With the Waterfall model, the workload balance requires heavy lifting in the research stage to approach outcomes effectively.

Advantages of Waterfall

Waterfall’s thorough planning and documentation come with a set of advantages that make it effective to use with your team. This initial planning stage is responsible for many of the advantages teams enjoy with Waterfall, including:

Disadvantages of Waterfall

Alongside Waterfall’s benefits come some disadvantages for teams that aren’t well suited to this methodology.

Agile vs. Waterfall — how to choose

Now that we’ve covered the basic features of both Agile and Waterfall, let’s break down how to know which one is the best fit for your team or project. Alongside the pros and cons of both management styles, there are a few questions that can help you decide which is best for you.

Are there strict requirements for your project?

Knowing the requirements of your project will determine your team’s creative liberties for the product. If there is a strict set of requirements, the Waterfall methodology will suit the structure well. If there isn’t a set of structured requirements, and your team will be making more decisions as the project is developed, the Agile system that favors changes and development may be better suited.

How involved is the client?

The client’s involvement in the production process can help you structure the project. If a client tells you they don’t want to be very involved, then the Waterfall approach would be fine. A more involved client would work better with the Agile approach that favors continual feedback and the ability to make small, iterative changes.

agile waterfall management dashboard

Is funding fixed or flexible?

Funding makes a drastic difference in how you should plan your project. A strict parameter like fixed funding pairs well with the Waterfall approach that emphasizes research up front based on the requirements of the project. Meanwhile, Agile can be most effective for flexible funding and a project that can change depending on client needs.

Agile and Waterfall — mixing methodologies

Both Agile and Waterfall offer unique benefits that can suit your team’s projects. It’s also possible to use a blended project management approach in order to enjoy some of the benefits of both systems — without some of the disadvantages. Mixing Agile and Waterfall emphasizes communication and expectations.

To combine the two frameworks, project management can adopt different techniques at different levels. For example, a project manager might find the Waterfall methodology more suitable for their overall structure, while an individual team prefers the Agile system for better outcomes at their specific stage of the project. With the right communication and consistency, allowing team members to decide what system aligns best with their specific work can be a great way to combine the benefits of both Agile and Waterfall.

There are a lot of ways to mix Agile and Waterfall. For more guidance about the specifics of mixing methodologies, take a look at Mixing Agile and Waterfall.

Get started with Agile or Waterfall

When you’re ready to get started, Adobe Workfront can support all of your projects, whether you’re using Agile, Waterfall, or a mix of both. Streamlining project management is easy with Workfront because the platform adapts to each project management system and every team.

When you’re ready to get started, take a product tourto see how Workfront can help streamline your project management processes.