Agile vs. Waterfall: Which Method Should You Use?

Both agile and waterfall methodologies are popular among software developers for different reasons. While it’s true that the more traditional waterfall methodology is declining in popularity as agile’s usage increases, both can be effective project management tools for tech teams. Because alignment with an organization’s strategic goals is the most important consideration involved in deciding between the two methodologies, a complete understanding of each is the best way to determine the right approach.

About Waterfall

In the waterfall method of software development, each phase of a product’s life cycle takes place in a sequence. All of the requirements associated with gathering and designing work are completed before coding takes place. Waterfall is a linear model of software design that flows sequentially from start to finish. There are five different phases involved: requirements, design, implementation, verification and maintenance. In a true waterfall development project, each of these stages represents a distinct project, with each finishing before the next one can begin. Usually, requirements have to be reviewed and approved by stakeholders before design starts.

Waterfall Pros

There are several benefits to using the waterfall project management approach. Issues that would have been found during the development stage can be researched and corrected during the design phase.  Alternative solutions should be identified before any code is written.

In addition, the development process tends to be better documented due to an emphasis on requirements – like design documents. This is reassuring to many organizations because a clear plan is in place. Since the waterfall process is linear, it can be more easily understood by non-developers and those new to the process.

Waterfall also makes sense when requirements will be the same throughout the project and very little uncertainty exists. Due to the comprehensive planning required up front, waterfall projects tend to launch quickly. Timetables and budgets can be estimated more accurately, which is good for client relations.

Waterfall Cons

Waterfall can be an unrealistic approach for many projects. Requirements are often unknown when a project is initiated. In addition, solution designers can’t always foresee problems that may arise out of the implementation process. It is also difficult for waterfall to respond to rapidly changing business environments, making it less useful than agile for many organizations.

When requirements do change during a waterfall project, they can’t be as easily incorporated into the approach.  As a result, time and resources are required to change procedures.

Waterfall has a reputation for being rigid and inflexible, because altering project design during the process can be highly difficult. Once a stage is completed, making changes is sometimes impossible. That’s why all requirements must be gathered up front. Finally, feedback and testing don’t come until very late in the process, so it can be difficult (and costly) to respond to problems.

About Agile

Agile development methodologies like Scrum use an incremental, iterative approach instead of extensive planning and design at the start of a project. This allows for changing requirements over time and enables cross-functional teams incorporating planners, designers, developers and testers to work on successive iterations of the product over fixed time periods, according to Manifesto. Work is organized in a prioritized backlog based on business value. Teams include a stakeholder. The process emphasizes constant communication and short feedback loops.

The goal of each agile project iteration, or sprint, is to produce a working product that can be shown to leadership as proof of progress. Any feedback is applied to future sprints. agile was developed in response to waterfall’s limitations to give designers more freedom. It is important to note that there is not a comprehensive plan in place for most agile projects. Instead, the process adapts to changes as they occur. Quick delivery of functional components is the goal of the Agile approach.

Agile Pros

There are several reasons to choose the agile method of development. Working software can be delivered quickly and at a consistent pace. Developers and business leaders collaborate more closely as key use is embedded in the project team. In addition, changes can be incorporated at any point in the process.

Agile offers opportunity for continuous improvement and is highly transparent. In today’s fast-paced market, where software development needs to be adaptable, agile makes sense. Some refer to agile methodologies as “freeform software design” for this reason. When development must respond to changes in requirements quickly and efficiently and end-goals aren’t clearly defined, agile is the way to go. This is why many choose it for experimental design projects.

Agile Cons

Challenges can arise with agile when there is a lack of planning. This methodology can also be more difficult to understand than sequential ones, at least initially.

Since agile project management emphasizes adaptability, rather than documentation, that aspect of the process can be neglected if team members aren’t careful. In addition, agile projects can be difficult to predict in terms of timeline and budget. With active user involvement and constant collaboration required, these two aspects can be time-consuming. It’s important for stakeholders and team members to be highly committed to help ensure success.

Which Is Right for Your Enterprise?

When it comes to choosing between agile and waterfall, neither is inherently better than the other. Instead, each method is useful in certain situations. For example, waterfall is ideal for static, large-scale projects that aren’t likely to change. agile, on the other hand, is a better option for smaller, more flexible projects. Other aspects to consider include:

  • Customer availability
  • Level of integration with external systems
  • Customer tolerance for scope and cost changes
  • Time to market
  • Customer methodology requirements


Once you’ve determined which basic methodology to utilize, you can further refine the process to meet your team’s needs. The way a project is carried out is important, but the end product is what really counts.

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