Agile Vs. Waterfall: Which Methodology Is Right For You?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Agile and waterfall are two project development methodologies that implement different processes. Each of these methods has its advantages, and companies use one or the other based on their unique needs. Knowing the differences between Agile and waterfall methods can help you determine which approach is most suited for your team's projects. In this article, we explain the differences between Agile vs. waterfall methodologies and provide examples of each in a software development setting.

Agile Vs. Waterfall Methodologies

Agile and waterfall are two methodologies used in project management, particularly in software development. Waterfall is a traditional methodology involving a linear process that starts at conception and goes through each stage of the process sequentially until the team completes and delivers the project. Agile project development is a methodology that involves working faster to develop a project and using customer or client feedback throughout development to change the product at regular intervals until completion. Here are some other differences between the two and their distinct advantages and challenges:

Agile project management

Agile project management is a philosophy that focuses on using an iterative approach and collaborating with clients to produce an optimal project outcome. The goal of Agile is to react to client requirements and preferences effectively so teams can prevent delays and increase customer satisfaction. There are many Agile methodologies teams can choose from based on the purpose, size and goal of the project. While each methodology has its own distinct process, they all incorporate the essential aspects of the Agile process. They are:

  1. Project conception: Agile teams conceive an idea for a project through market research or by communicating with a client who wants to solve a specific problem.

  2. Development planning: After deciding on a project to pursue, Agile teams work with each other, management and clients to develop a plan for production.

  3. Plan execution: Agile teams execute the plan by starting their first of many work phases, in which they focus on developing a particular aspect of the product.

  4. Product adaptation: Teams approach the client with a working product at the end of a development phase to receive feedback and implement changes based on client specifications.

  5. Completion and release: After repeating steps three and four until they receive client approval on the finished product, Agile teams complete the project and release the product.

Benefits of Agile

Here are some benefits of Agile:

  • Less documentation: Agile involves general documentation instead of strict guidelines, which allows for changes that can improve the product in many phases.

  • Early problem identification: The iterative nature of Agile makes it easy for teams to identify issues and resolve them right away instead of waiting until the end of the project.

  • Rapid feedback cycles: Receiving feedback from clients at regular intervals enables teams to make changes that may be simpler to implement in earlier stages of the project than at the end.

  • Transparency and accountability: Agile teams maintain full transparency with managers, clients and project supporters, which encourages accountability and productivity.

  • Focus on value and quality: Agile teams work quickly to achieve their goals, but they do so without sacrificing quality by focusing on providing value to the client.

Related: What Is A Scaled Agile Framework? (Principles And Benefits)

Potential challenges of Agile

Potential challenges of Agile may include:

  • Undefined roles: Agile involves collaboration among team members and across teams, which can lead to undefined roles. Some organisations consider this a benefit, as it allows team members to contribute their knowledge and skills where they are most needed.

  • Learning curve: Agile processes involve a learning curve, as each methodology has specific steps. While having untrained teams can lead to delays and wasted labour, providing a training programme can help the team incorporate Agile practices and lead to a positive return on investment.

  • Technical resources: Agile teams require advanced technical resources to complete their projects. Many teams, such as those in software development, may already have these resources and can shift to Agile processes by using them differently.

Related: Agile Vs. Scrum: What Is The Difference? (With FAQs)

Waterfall project management

Waterfall project management is a traditional approach that involves completing a single, linear development process and delivering the product to the client at the end. The goal of the waterfall method is to gather as much information as possible from clients at the beginning of the project so they can deliver a product that meets the client's requirements and preferences at the end. This allows teams to complete projects without seeking feedback at multiple stages and implementing changes throughout the process. Here are the six phases of waterfall project management:

  1. Requirements: During this planning stage, teams outline each phase, establish roles, determine dependencies and required resources and create a project timeline.

  2. Analysis: During the analysis stage, teams use the information they have about project requirements to create models, schemas for databases and project rules and guidelines.

  3. Design: The design phase involves developing the product based on the extensive documentation they created in the requirements and analysis stages.

  4. Coding: Also called implementation, this stage involves writing all the code for the product based on the product development established during the design phase.

  5. Testing: After finishing the coding stage, teams conduct testing by allowing development teams and groups of product users to try the product and report feedback.

  6. Operations: Once testing is complete, the team releases the product to the customer or market.

Benefits of waterfall

Here are some benefits of waterfall project management:

  • Thorough documentation: Waterfall relies on comprehensive documentation, which outlines every step of the process for all team members.

  • Project control: Established stages and roles allow team members to understand the exact requirements and expectations.

  • Early cost estimation: Waterfall project management does not allow mid-project changes, so teams can accurately estimate costs during the planning stages.

  • Streamlines small projects: The structure and linear format of the waterfall approach makes it ideal for small projects with well-defined specifications and timelines.

Related: 9 Project Management Types For A Project Manager

Potential challenges of waterfall

Here are some potential challenges of waterfall project management:

  • Potential delays: If a waterfall team creates a product that does not satisfy the customer, the project may experience delays as the team addresses concerns. Experienced teams can often avoid this with proper planning, early communication with the client and adequate documentation.

  • Higher risk: There can be a higher risk involved because waterfall does not allow for changes. Teams can prevent this issue by only using the waterfall approach when it suits the project.

  • Project limitations: Waterfall may be inefficient for long, complex projects or those teams expect to change throughout development. Teams can minimise this challenge by using the waterfall approach for small, straightforward projects.

Related: How To Improve Project Management Skills (With Tips)

Examples of Agile and Waterfall Projects

While you can use Agile and waterfall methods in a variety of fields that require project management, software development is one field that uses these methods extensively. The following examples demonstrate the differences between the Agile and waterfall methods in a software development scenario:

Agile project example

Here is an example of an Agile software development project:

A software development company receives an offer from a client to create a piece of software for them.

  • Project conception: The software development team meets with the client to determine their requirements, preferences and resources.

  • Development planning: The team puts together a plan based on the needs of the client.

  • Plan execution: The team creates the software quickly utilising team members that work on various parts of the software at the same time.

  • Product adaptation: The team presents the software to the client for review. The client likes the usability but wants a different design, so the development team implements these requests and sends them back to the client for another review.

  • Completion and release: The team delivers the software after making the final changes, and the client expresses satisfaction with the finished product.

Related: 30 Interview Questions For Software Developers (With Answers)

Waterfall project example

Here is an example of a waterfall software development project:

A software development company receives an offer from a client to create a piece of software for them.

  • Requirements: The software development team gathers all the information the project requires. They ask the client many questions related to the process, their preferences and the outcome the client wants to achieve.

  • Analysis: The team created extensive documentation based on the information they gathered from the client. The team shows the client many design examples and utilisation possibilities, and the client provides the software team with the details required to complete the project.

  • Design: The team has meetings to provide a complete understanding of the processes and stages required to finish the project, and every team member confirms their understanding of the specifications and their role in meeting them. They use documentation to create the software.

  • Coding: Programmers on the team write the code for the product to ensure it functions on the required platforms.

  • Testing: The team completes alpha testing to confirm the product's functionality and then creates beta testing groups so a small group of users can try the software before its release. Developers fix bugs identified in testing.

  • Operations: They send the final software to the client. The client agrees the team followed every instruction and implemented every step of the plan to perfection, so they express satisfaction with the results they delivered.

Explore more articles