Waterfall vs Agile

Waterfall vs. Agile: Which Methodology is Right for Your Project

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Interested in the Waterfall vs Agile battle and which methodology is right for your software development project? 

This is a great question that we will answer in this article.

The world of business has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet. Traditionally, giant-sized businesses tried to corner most of the market while smaller ones tried to retain their often local customers. Technology has leveled the field considerably.

Big businesses with their deep pockets still levy significant strength in the marketplace. However, technology now allows small businesses or start-ups to reach out to entirely new segments of customers. Websites, mobile apps, and cloud computing have been at the heart of this change seeking customer involvement.

Technology has driven this change but has also created a more dynamic and fast-moving business environment.

If, for example, one company can innovate faster then this company will be able to gain a lion’s share of the market. This new dynamic has meant that all companies need to try to compete in the online marketplace in some form or another.

Part of this break-neck pace of change is centered around the ‘Systems of Engagement’ (SoEs), i.e. systems that face customers. A Statista report shows that 25% of mid-market businesses in Europe updated their mobile apps every month, whereas 23% updated their apps every week! This is an amazing statistic.

On the other hand, traditional software systems, such as those used in accounting, don’t have this frequency of change. These are ‘Systems of Record’ (SoRs), i.e., businesses rely on these to run their core operations. It is often not financially viable or indeed necessary to update these systems regularly.

What is clear is that companies need to remain at the cutting edge of technology if they are to thrive. This is why this article will examine the difference between Waterfall vs. Agile development. This comparison should help you decide which methodology is right for your project


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Agile vs. waterfall project management

Let’s now compare the Waterfall methodology vs. the Agile methodology.

When to use agile vs. waterfall:

This is the most fundamental difference. When you are developing a high-priority core enterprise ‘system of records’ (SoR), you know such a system will not need frequent changes.

In fact, if the CRM or accounting systems in an enterprise require frequent changes, then there’s something fundamentally unstable with the business!

Note that I am talking about core requirements here when I say ‘change’, and not just adding new parameters. Waterfall, with its’ stringent quality processes, is appropriate for this.

A mobile app, on the other hand, must remain up-to-date with the latest industry trends. It requires frequent changes. The iterative development process is the name of the game here, hence, go for Agile!

Read “Agile vs. Waterfall Methodology” for more information.

An iterative vs. a linear approach

Everything in an Agile project is iterative. This includes requirements gathering, design, development, testing, and review.

An iteration, which can be a ‘Sprint’ in the case of the ‘Scrum’ technique, i.e., an Agile technique, consists of all tasks like design and development. New iterations are executed time and again, with incremental changes to the application software.

This is markedly different from the Waterfall, where requirements are baselined, and only then the design can follow, and so on.

Unlike Agile where a functional product is delivered after each iteration, the Waterfall approach delivers the complete product at the very end of the project.

Read “The pros and cons of Agile and Waterfall” for more insights on the comparison between the agile methodology vs. waterfall.

Degree of flexibility

The difference in candidate systems, for example, SoE vs. SoR, also drives the flexibility required in a project. An SoE like a mobile app will see frequent changes to requirements, consequently, Agile allows flexibility to change requirements.

Read about an example in “Agile project management, from agile to the waterfall”.

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On the other hand, an SoR requires extensive discussion with stakeholders before baselining the requirements. It’s natural that in Waterfall projects, the IT project manager requires commitment from the business that requirements will not be changed afterward or will follow a change control process.

The up-front heavy-duty work of gathering requirements will be futile if the requirements can be easily changed later.

Functional teams vs. cross-functional teams

In a Waterfall project, people with different functional skills certainly work together. E.g., business analysts have a hand-off process to follow before they can hand over requirements to the technical design team or IT architect.

Developers certainly coordinate with testers. This can take several forms. For example, testers might have a question on the test data for one test case, or a defect might need close collaboration between developers and testers.

However, the functionalities are decidedly different. There is a ‘separation of duties’, and a developer doesn’t deploy code or test. A waterfall project also has a distinct pattern of resource loading because of this. Typically, the development and testing phases need more man-hours.

This is fundamentally different in the case of Agile, where typically a cross-functional team is built. There is the interchangeability of duties, and the entire development team works together fully. There isn’t a spike or a trough in resource-loading.

In fact, key Agile principles actively promote self-organizing teams where business and IT work together. Read “12 Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto” for more details.

Risk mitigation approach

The agile methodology relies on getting direct face-to-face feedback from customers during every iteration. This immediately highlights any bugs or misinterpretations of requirements. Risk mitigation is instant.

On the other hand, the Waterfall methodology employs elaborate reviews, audits, and sign-offs to gauge risks.

This is due to the inherent difference between the project types. Agile allows and even anticipates changes in requirements. That’s strikingly different from the emphasis on baselining requirements in Waterfall.

This difference in risk mitigation also has an interesting manifestation! Agile works well with time-and-material contracts where scope change is a norm. Waterfall works well with fixed-price contracts where the IT team needs contractual protection against scope creep.

Read about this in “Waterfall Vs. Agile: must know differences”.

The transition from Waterfall to Agile for project development

Waterfall to agile transition is more than just onboarding a cross-functional team or using the ‘Daily stand-up meeting’ prescribed in the scrum technique. Here’s what you need to do for a smooth transition from Waterfall to Agile:

Recognize when to use Agile for development projects

The Agile methodology isn’t suitable for every project. Certain projects require requirements to be frozen up front. In some other cases, clients insist on a fixed-price contract.

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Agile, with its’ emphasis on iterative development and openness to the fluid requirement is not a good option for such projects. Read a case study in “When Agile can’t be used on projects”.

Adapt to the Agile culture

Agile requires a distinct culture. Organizations that have operated in functional silos may find it strange. Developers and testers who have had hardly any contact so far will need to work in one team, furthermore, their roles and responsibilities will be interchangeable.

Where only business analysts interacted with customers for the requirement, suddenly the customer is part of the team. This is a new way of working and requires a cultural shift. Complete commitment from management is necessary.

Read “Three steps to transition from Waterfall to Agile and keep pace with digital transformation” for more insights.

Training, enablement, and tooling for agile teams

Agile projects use different metrics. Storyboard, ‘Sprint retrospective meeting’, etc. are news concepts for teams that aren’t familiar with Agile. The software development team needs sufficient training and coaching on the methodology and the related project management software.

Frequent release management as part of iterative development requires a good understanding of DevOps and related tools. The team also needs effective project management tools. Read here in “The 10 best Agile project management tools” a comparison of Agile PM tools.

Planning your next software development project?

An experienced team of software developers and project managers can help you choose the right project management methodology for your software product. If you do not find such talent in your project team, then we would advise you to partner with a reputed software development agency.

DevTeam.Space can help you here with its field-expert software development community experienced in the agile development process for multiple market-competitive software solutions. 

You can easily partner with these software developers and project managers by sending us your initial product specifications via this form. One of our account managers will get in touch with you to provide further assistance on project planning, execution, management, etc.

Frequently Asked Questions on Agile vs. Waterfall

When to use Agile vs. Waterfall?

Use Waterfall when the project timeline cannot be changed. Agile development benefits projects that need to be built quickly. Read this article for more information.

What is Agile methodology vs. Waterfall?

Agile is a methodology based on the continuous delivery of development and testing iterations. Waterfall, on the other hand, is a Liner Sequential Life Cycle Model.

Agile vs. Waterfall which is better?

The answer to this question really depends on the type of development lifecycle that you are undertaking. Read this article for a more in-depth analysis of agile and waterfall.


Alexey Semeney

Founder of DevTeam.Space

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