Agile vs. Waterfall Project Management

Instructor: Laury Hales

Laury has taught in professional adult education settings for over 10 years and is currently working on a PhD in Organizational Psychology.

What are the differences between the waterfall method and agile methods? When should you use one over the other? In this lesson, we'll find out the answers to these questions.

Different Project Management Approaches

Like a floor plan to a construction crew, project management methodologies are like the blueprint of a project, guiding the project team to build a successful project. Your company has the option of using agile methods or the waterfall method. Your company's CEO wants his executive team to understand how projects are managed and why one method is chosen over the other.

To help him, he's asked you to join the next staff meeting and give an overview of the agile and waterfall methods, compare them and explain the criteria the project managers use when deciding on an approach.

Defining Waterfall and Agile Methodologies

You start the presentation with a definition of the two methodologies to be sure the audience understands what each one is.

The waterfall method is a traditional project management approach that uses sequential phases to define, build, test, and release project deliverables. Each phase is completed and approved before the team moves on to the next phase. The project can't move backwards to previous phases.

Agile is an umbrella term covering several newer project management approaches that use iterative work cycles, called sprints. Each sprint uses 'mini-phases' to define, build, test, and release the project deliverables.

You show the audience a visual comparing the two methods, which shows how the waterfall method is a sequential process while agile methods are iterative cycles from the beginning to the end of the project.

Waterfall is sequential, agile is iterative

What Are the Differences?

It looks like your audience gets the different methods, but diving deeper will be helpful. The main difference between waterfall and agile methods is in the goals; the waterfall method wants to get everything right the first time, and agile methods want to get things released quickly. Differences in adaptability, documentation, testing, and collaboration support the different goals. Let's look at each a little closer.

Adaptability

Adaptability is how responsive a project approach is. Can the project method quickly react to changes throughout the project?

If we're talking about changing requirements, waterfall is not adaptable. In fact, waterfall will force the project team to start the project over if a requirement change is discovered late.

Agile methods are extremely adaptable to changing requirements because the project reviews and validates the requirements at every sprint throughout the project. So, any change in requirements is simply addressed in the next sprint.

If we're talking about changes to project team members, the waterfall method is very adaptable. Waterfall requires detailed documentation at each step, so getting a new team member up to speed is a matter of reading the documents.

Agile methods are more focused on quickly releasing the deliverables, so documentation tends to be done after. New project team members would have little information in the project's documentation, so it would be harder to get a handle on the project.

Testing

Testing, as you probably know, is verifying the deliverable you've provided actually does what it's supposed to. Testing is a key part of any project. After all, it doesn't matter how well the project goes if the deliverables don't work.

In a waterfall project, testing is done towards the end of the project. You don't know if the deliverable works until you're nearly done with the project. A failure in any part of the testing can send the project back to the start to figure out why the test failed, dramatically impacting the cost and time needed to complete the project.

Agile projects, however, test pieces of the deliverable throughout the project. So, if one functional test fails, it can be more easily resolved because you're only testing one function of the deliverable. Fixing a small piece takes less time and money, so the overall project is impacted less.

Collaboration

Collaboration, working with others, is where projects succeed or fail. Through collaboration, the project team knows the customer is happy with the deliverables and the project objectives have been met. You present a graph that shows how collaboration is front-loaded in waterfall projects and consistent in agile projects.

Collaboration is consistent in agile projects

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