Waterfall vs. Agile: which methodology is right for your IT project?

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Have you recently hired a developer to create software for you but find the lack of deadlines confusing? Or maybe your IT provider is working with strict deadlines, but you feel the lack of communication is frustrating?

These different approaches are due to two main project management styles: Waterfall and Agile. Each methodology is best suited to particular project goals and types.

Understanding the differences between Waterfall and Agile methodologies can bring clarity while diminishing frustration as your project moves towards completion.

WEBIT Services has provided managed IT services, IT strategy, and cybersecurity for over 25 years. In that time, it has utilized both project management styles to help deliver products that help clients reach their goals.

By the end of this article, you will learn the definition of each methodology, what kinds of projects they fit best, and the advantages and disadvantages of the two.


What’s the difference between Waterfall and Agile project management styles?

Any technology development or IT project will fall into one of the two project management styles: Waterfall or Agile. Waterfall is best suited for projects with precise steps and processes. On the other hand, Agile is best for creating new products without defined procedures.

Waterfall methodology

The Waterfall project management style works best for projects with a clear framework, timeline, and defined deliverables.

Waterfall methodology relies heavily on structure and deadlines. When using Waterfall-style project management, your team will follow a set path with a clearly defined order. You will not move on to step B until step A is completed in full.

Often, clients will only have updates during project milestones or once the project is finished.

Agile methodology

The Agile project management style is a fluid methodology best for creating brand new products and processes.

Unlike Waterfall, Agile does not set deadlines but runs in short “sprints,” periods where your development team tackles specific goals or problems with the product. Once a client approves the sprint’s process, the team tackles a new goal.

Because of Agile’s experimental and creative process and projects, deadlines are not set. If they are, deadlines are placed in broad, quarterly ranges.

However, clients are regularly updated and asked for feedback and input to ensure the project is on the right track.


Waterfall project management

Projects that fit Waterfall methodology

The Waterfall methodology best fits projects with a set system and procedure and, as such, can later be recreated.

For example, your IT provider will set up a new email system using the Waterfall methodology.

It has a set system in place (first, you choose the email provider, then set up your domain name, then set up employee emails, etc.).

Like all Waterfall-style projects, when setting up a new email service, you cannot advance to the next stage in the project until the previous step is complete.

For instance, you can’t set up and assign employee email addresses before you’ve chosen the email provider.

How to tell if you should use the Waterfall methodology for your project

Your project will be a match for the Waterfall style if it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • It is something that has been done before or can be recreated.
  • It must be done in the proper order to be successful.
  • It has a well-documented process.
  • It uses physical objects (i.e., computers, established software, building materials, etc.).

Your project will not be a match for the Waterfall style if:

  • It is creating a process or product that has never been made before.
  • It requires client feedback throughout the process.
  • It is incompatible with deadlines.

Advantages of Waterfall methodology

Because they use established procedures, Waterfall projects can be completed quickly.

Due to its predictive and structured nature, it’s straightforward to predict completion dates and set deadlines. So, barring extreme complications, you’ll always know when a Waterfall project will be completed.

For clients, Waterfall-style projects can be very “hands-off.” Once parameters like budget and expectations are set, your IT provider will create a timeline and get to work. Clients are usually contacted during project milestones or at completion.

Disadvantages of Waterfall methodology

The Waterfall methodology will not work without clearly defined expectations and processes. There is not a great deal of creative license in Waterfall project management. All aspects of the project—budget, end goal, stages, and timeline—must be set before the project begins.

It’s challenging to backtrack when using the Waterfall methodology. Doing so can be time-consuming and expensive. This can be particularly frustrating if the client cannot give feedback until the project is complete.

For example, if a client says they need new servers for their office but doesn’t set parameters (how many employees the servers must support, how fast they must be, etc.), an IT provider may buy the servers it thinks will work best.

However, once the project is complete, the client concludes that the new servers do not meet their needs and cannot be used.

If that’s the case, the project must start over from the beginning with the correct guidelines.

This is why Waterfall projects must have clear guidelines and expectations from the start. Otherwise, the project result may create new problems rather than relieve them and take additional time and funds to complete correctly.


Agile project management

Projects that fit Agile methodology

The Agile methodology works best for projects that have never been done before.

Unlike Waterfall, Agile projects don’t have set procedures, defined stages, or deadlines because the product or process is being built from the ground up.

The Agile methodology best suits highly creative projects like:

  • Software creation
  • Design
  • Coding
  • Copywriting

For example, your IT provider or developer will use Agile project management if they are building you a brand-new mobile app. It’s unlike anything your organization has used before, so there’s no set procedure.

Because it’s hard to predict how long brand-new creations will take to perfect, Agile projects do not set deadlines.

The problems that arise in development are essentially unknown variables, and their resolution time is difficult, if not impossible, to predict. As a result, your development team is wading into uncharted waters.

However, the goal is that regular communication, feedback, and troubleshooting will create a new product that will be as close to perfect as possible.

How to tell if you should use Agile methodology for your project

Your project may be a match for the Agile style if:

  • It is something that has never been done before.
  • It is something that requires creativity and collaboration.
  • It has a flexible or nonexistent timeline.

Your project will not be a match for the Agile style if:

  • It has already been created and has a set process that must be followed.
  • It must be completed quickly and on a strict schedule.
  • The client would prefer a “hands-off” approach.

Advantages of Agile methodology

Agile methodology’s benefits are rooted in its highly creative and collaborative nature.

It is an adaptable system that allows the team and client to make changes to the product as the project progresses. Moreover, it allows for quick course correction in case of error or client dissatisfaction with the product thus far.

As mentioned before, Agile is highly collaborative as it calls for client feedback as the project progresses. This makes the process very user-focused and helps guarantee quality. It also gives clients a sense of ownership.

Disadvantages of Agile methodology

Because Agile projects are creating new products and processes, they require diligent backlogging, documentation maintenance, and debt management to keep the project on track. This attention to detail requires intense commitment from the development team.

Unlike Waterfall, Agile needs regular feedback and active involvement from the client. The Agile methodology also requires a high level of clear communication. Without communication and participation, the project will fail.

Some clients may enjoy the collaborative aspect of Agile projects, while others may see this as a burden. Clients who prefer to “set it and forget it” may find Agile projects bothersome.

Due to the time required to complete an Agile project, this methodology can cost more than Waterfall projects.

The lack of deadlines can make some clients nervous, mainly if they are unfamiliar with Agile project management.


Next steps for understanding your project management style

Now that you better understand Waterfall and Agile methodologies, you know the communication styles needed for each type and why your projects are progressing in the manner they are.

If your project is using the Waterfall project management style, you know that it:

  • Will be completed according to an established process.
  • Will have set deadlines.
  • Will be mostly “hands-off” for the client, only requiring expectations at the beginning and approval at milestones or the project’s conclusion.

If your project is using the Agile methodology, you can expect that it:

  • Will be highly creative and collaborative between the team and the client.
  • Will not follow a set process but develop a new product and process.
  • Will be very flexible but lack deadlines.

If you have more questions about your project and its methodology, speak to your project manager. They can offer further insight into which style they are using for your project and why.

WEBIT Services has managed thousands of projects for hundreds of clients as an IT provider in the Chicago area.

If you are looking for insight into new projects you are considering, schedule a free 30-minute consultation to see how WEBIT may be able to help.

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