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Understanding the Differences Between Agile and Waterfall Project Management
By Michelle Symonds

Whether you’re into product design, software engineering, construction or any other industry, there is usually more than one way to get things done. In terms of project management, the two most prolific methods for getting things done are the classic waterfall style of project management and the new kid on the block, agile project management.

To decide which is best for your needs, you need to develop a solid understanding of the advantages and limitations of each type of project management technique. Here we investigate what is different about the two schools of thought, and compare side by side the advantages and limitations of each.

Waterfall methodology

Waterfall project management mimics the normal workflow process in any manufacturing or construction project as it is a sequential process. Each of the stages happens in isolation, and once complete, the team move on to the next stage in the sequence.

  • Advantages

    Waterfall project management relies upon meticulous record keeping. This means there is a clear paper trail to follow, allowing the process to be refined and improved upon in the future. From the outset, the client will have a clear idea of what is going to happen during project delivery. They will know roughly what the cost, timescales and size of the project will be, and will have a good idea of what to expect in the end.

  • Limitations

    Once a stage in the process has been completed, there is no way to go back and change things without scrapping the whole project and starting again. The whole process relies on robust initial requirements; if these are flawed then the project is doomed to failure from the outset. The product is developed in stages and only tested fully at the end, meaning bugs may be so ingrained in the end product that they are impossible to remove. Finally, this type of project management doesn’t allow for changes to the brief, so if the client realizes they need to change the brief half way through, sacrifices will need to be made in terms of budget and timescales.

Agile methodology

Agile was once touted as the solution to many of the problems in waterfall project management. Rather than following a sequence of steps in isolation, this method relies upon an incremental approach to the project delivery. Project teams start off with a very simple concept of where they are going, and then work on discreet modules in short ‘sprints’. At the end of each sprint the modules are tested to discover any bugs or flaws and customer feedback is gathered before the next sprint takes place.

  • Advantages

    Plenty of changes can be made after initial plans are developed, in fact rewrites and major changes are almost expected. This makes it easier to add features and keep abreast of changes in the industry, even whilst the project is being delivered. Regular testing ensures flaws are identified early on, meaning that the product can be ready for launch more quickly and is more likely to be a quality product.

  • Limitations

    This method requires a strong project manager to keep things on track and balance out creativity with project delivery requirements. Because of the haziness of the original project plan, the final product can often end up being wildly different to what was originally intended.

Choosing a methodology

The two methods of project management both have their time and place, and the one which is best for your needs will depend entirely on your specific brief. When you know what a final product should be and are confident your client won’t need to change the scope half way through, waterfall project management is your friend. However if speed of production is more important than the quality of the finished product and the client wishes to be able to change scope part way through, agile allows for more flexibility and is one of the things every project manager should know about.

Michelle Symonds is a qualified PRINCE2 Project Manager and believes that the right project management training can transform a good project manager into a great project manager and is essential for a successful outcome to any project.

There is a wide range of formal and informal training courses now available that include online learning and podcasts as well as more traditional classroom courses from organizations such as Parallel Project Training.

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