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Waterfall vs. Agile Project Management: Pros & Cons

Waterfall vs. Agile Project Management: Pros & Cons

UPDATEDMay 15, 2023

Most project managers naturally lean toward either waterfall or agile project management philosophies. Which you choose is probably dependent on how you experienced project management when you were first starting in the field, what types of projects you first worked on, and your natural comfort zone and approach to tasks.

However, in the changing professional and consumer environments — especially with increasing markets, greater complexity in client needs, and industries such as SaaS providing greater flexibility for changing and updating projects — it’s becoming more important to be proficient in both waterfall and agile project management philosophies, as well as understanding which to use and when.

Waterfall vs. Agile Project Management

Waterfall project management is most successful in predictable environments with repeatable projects or services and little client feedback needed. Agile project management is a more successful choice when requirements are vague, undetermined, or dependent on other aspects of the project and in projects where clients are more participative.

Determining which of the two different philosophies is right for you requires understanding their pros and cons and which projects best lend themselves to which strategy.

Waterfall Project Management

Waterfall project management is considered a tiered project management approach in which the project is divided into distinct phases. Each of these phases must be completed before the next stage begins. It is also classified as having a distinct planning phase in which project requirements are defined at the beginning of the project. These requirements are rarely revisited afterward.

Pros of Waterfall Project Management:

  • Planning and project design are easier since details are determined and agreed upon at the inception of the project.
  • Budgeting, planning, and job costing are easier since the full scope of work is determined in advance.
  • Reporting and tracking are much simpler and often more accurate.
  • It is easier to replace team members on this project since the tasks and outcomes are known quantities.
  • More tasks can often take place simultaneously since they are predefined (instead of requiring the outcome of a previous task to determine how to proceed).
  • The outcome is predictable.

Cons of Waterfall Project Management:

  • This approach only works when the requirements of a project are known.
  • The rigid structure means any change to the project often causes the cycle to have to restart to accommodate the changes, making it significantly more difficult to be flexible.
  • There are fewer points at which the client will review the project while it’s in progress, decreasing their opportunity to monitor the outcomes. If the customer is somehow dissatisfied with the final project, changes can be difficult and costly to implement.

Ideal Waterfall Project Management Projects

Waterfall project management lends itself best to projects that:

  • Are predictable and repeated with little variation within the company.
  • Have well-defined resource demands.
  • Do not depend on client feedback once the projects as started.
  • Have very specifically-defined requirements at the beginning of the project.
  • Must be completed within a very specific timeline and budget.

Agile Project Management

In contrast, agile project management does not use a linear production method. Instead, it completes the project in a series of small sections or iterations. Each section or iteration is reviewed and critiqued by the team and/or client before the next section or iteration is completed. In many cases, each subsequent iteration is determined by the previous iterations.

Pros of Agile Project Management

  • Greater ability to respond to issues as they arise.
  • Solutions and deliverables are deployed more rapidly.
  • Increased testing and critiques mean the products often better meet user needs.
  • This strategy is significantly more flexible, lending well to projects that do not have defined requirements.
  • Reduces the chance of large-scale failures.
  • Opens the company to be able to take on a greater variety of clients (not only those who have specific, predetermined project requirements).

Cons of Agile Project Management

  • Greater risk of scope creep.
  • It is more difficult to budget, time-manage, and determine certain deliverables.
  • It is more difficult to replace or change a team member as the project often has less documentation and reporting to get the new team member up to speed.
  • The project can sometimes end up being “piecemeal,” in which not all the elements come together as seamlessly as with the waterfall method.

Ideal Agile Project Management Projects

Waterfall project management lends itself best to projects in which:

  • Team members are able to collaborate with each other.
  • Team is empowered to take appropriate action when needed (this form of project management does not lend well to micro-managing).
  • Project is an ongoing retainer or a project which does not have well-defined deliverables (deliverables depend on discovery and progress).

How Can We Help?

Kantata is a flexible project management platform that supports hybrid, agile, and waterfall project management methods — as well as incremental or iterative hybrid models. Learn more about how Kantata can support your project management needs.

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