Agile vs. Waterfall project management methodologies

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems

Project management is a high-priority skill for employees of all backgrounds and assignments today. Breaking work down into discrete units and getting it done in a clear, regimented way are critical parts of operational efficiency. There is more than one way to go about project management, and appropriately for today’s technology-driven corporate landscape, the leading methodologies come from the world of software development.

Higher education with a business focus reflects this need for management acumen. For instance, graduates of the online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business have learned about the principles, implementation methods, and tools associated with modern project management.

Many of the projects employees will be working on in today’s workplaces have a strong digital component, but even those that don’t can be guided by the principles of the waterfall and agile management methodologies. Waterfall, the traditional linear way of organizing an extended project, has been somewhat supplanted in the past decade-plus by agile and its various offshoot methodologies. Understanding these strategies and the high-level concepts behind their use may prove critical for employees across departments.

Employees compare graphs during a project management meeting.

What Are the Differences? Agile vs. Waterfall Project Management

While agile and waterfall development represent just two of near-unlimited ways of thinking about project management, their popularity and philosophical differences make them worth studying as counterparts. These concepts come from the world of software development, in which the end goal is to ship a product that will meet end users’ specific needs. This goal can be adjusted to suit any project, with the piece of software replaced by whatever product or service, internal or external, a team is working on.

One of the things to keep in mind about the emergence of agile and waterfall development methods is that the former exists in intentional opposition to the latter. The longstanding way to develop software was through the waterfall methodology, in which a project moves in a linear fashion from one phase to the next. Agile methods break a project up among other lines, focusing on individual units of functionality rather than gradually shepherding the whole product through stages.

Industry thinker Jonathan Rasmussen describes the linear progress of waterfall development as starting from analysis and then moving to design, coding, and finally testing. He noted some of the challenges with this approach, such as the fact that when projects are called off early, the testing phase tends to be lost, which can lead to quality issues with the finished product. Furthermore, when a problem or opportunity is detected in testing, it is then too late to effectively shift the project to incorporate new ideas.

Concerns such as those that Rasmussen highlighted led to the creation of the agile methodology, which has in turn led to several offshoots. Development teams were and remain eager to work on software projects in more flexible ways that let them incorporate the lessons they’ve learned from their users and their own findings. That approach has proven to be highly influential in software development and project management as a whole.

What Is the Origin of Agile Development?

Agile methodologies are such a recent innovation that there is extensive documentation of how they came to be. A group of 17 developers laid down The Agile Manifesto in February 2001. The goal of the software professionals was to remove the unnecessary processes associated with legacy development models. The world was changing quickly toward a digital economy, and more speed and flexibility would be required to keep up.

The codification of agile principles was an attempt to create a development style that would not do away with concepts such as modeling and documentation, but that would make them more functional. The founders were interested in delivering “timely and tangible” products to suit customer needs, whether those customers are internal users or a company’s client base.

The fact that stakeholders and audiences alike are seeking quick, well-targeted solutions for the issues they are facing has allowed agile principles to expand beyond software development projects. Companies founded in the internet era often have this approach to new product and feature development “baked in” as part of their corporate culture, and longer-tenured organizations are adopting the principles to become faster and more competitive.

When Should You Use Agile vs. Waterfall Project Management?

Project managers who are well-versed in management and oversight methods won’t always use the same approach for every job they are tasked with spearheading. While agile development is a newer concept, that doesn’t make it a pure replacement for waterfall.

Industry research firm Software Advice suggested that projects’ attributes will determine whether those jobs are more suited to agile or waterfall work. For example, companies undertaking tasks such as new product development or working on software tools are probably best off with agile development. That is because these operations tend to have a low cost associated with change, as well as a need for transparent sharing of ideas. When creating something new, the end goal is flexible, as long as it suits customer needs. This is a good fit for the adaptable agile model.

In other cases, the linear progress of the waterfall model will give companies the results they’re looking for. According to Software Advice, these situations tend to be ones with little room for midstream change. Stakeholders are locked in on one version of the deliverable, and there is a need to follow specific requirements such as those associated with regulatory compliance. Development in industries such as food production, health care and urban planning may be best accomplished by waterfall development. The “move fast, break things” approach of modern, agile development is incompatible with these highly regimented fields.

The need to weigh each project and select the correct management philosophy for the circumstances is an additional reason to formally study project management as part of a degree program. Having a deep knowledge of multiple methodologies can help employees make important, tone-setting decisions such as agile vs. waterfall when launching a new task.

How Does Waterfall Project Management Work?

After determining the best project management approach to pursue a particular objective, it’s time to assemble the project team and get to work following the principles of that method. In the case of waterfall methodology, this means starting at the beginning, with analysis and planning for the process ahead, and moving smoothly through the following steps in a linear fashion.

The phases of the project can be tied to a strict budget or timeline before work gets fully underway due to the predictable nature of waterfall development. As Software Advice noted, such a need to set parameters is a leading reason why companies might go with a waterfall approach. Furthermore, if there are many other projects relying on the completion fitting certain parameters, this is a promising methodology.

A waterfall project is broken down into very self-contained steps. Business coach Dave Keenan notes that these have been codified since the 1970s, and that the official definition of waterfall adopted by the Department of Defense in 1985 as a software development framework is broken down into six stages.

First, the team gathers requirements and sets out the vision for the project. Then, the group performs analysis work that will determine the steps taken to turn that vision into a finished deliverable. The creation of the product is broken into separate design and development stages, with the latter being the time when the actual coding occurs. Then, once everything is in a working state, the project team tests that completed version and determines if any changes are needed. The final step is operations, in which the finished product is released and receives ongoing support.

Though waterfall rose as an approach to software development, it is better applied to other concepts today, because technology requirements have changed. Now, fast iterations targeting individual features and reflecting immediate user feedback and demand have risen in importance as software has become more complex and been accepted into all areas of everyday life. Although this shift toward agile as a tech development method is still ongoing, projects tied to physical deliverables may benefit from the linearity and certainty of waterfall management, the Wrike Project Management Guide specifies.

How Does Agile Project Management Work?

One of the things to remember about agile project management is that there are many methodologies that fit under the agile umbrella. Companies and individuals have their pick of multiple systems designed to accomplish delivery goals. While many of these were first posited and explored as software development methodologies, they apply to a wide variety of projects. The need for fast-moving delivery has become universal, and the lines between technology and general products and services are blurring.

The Wrike Project Management Guide points out that applying an agile approach could mean using a popular set of principles and practices such as Scrum or Kanban. These philosophies are widely practiced both in agile software development and in project management as a whole. And while they differ on the practicalities of how agile teams are organized and directed, they are in alignment on general goals. These objectives include delivering incremental units of the overall product which are usable in themselves.

A helpful way to think about how to undertake an agile product is to consider the difference between a modern application and a legacy piece of software. An app today may be rolled out as a “minimum viable product” with a few working features, with customer feedback on these barebones capabilities informing the next stage of development. This is a good example of agile development in action, and quite a contrast to the old-fashioned piece of software contained on discs and unable to be shipped to end users until all of its features have been developed and tested internally.

Taking a closer look at Scrum is another way to think about what agile project management will entail for a team. Scrum has existed since the 1990s, before the creation of the Agile Manifesto, yet it appears today within the continuum of agile project management approaches. Under this framework, small teams consist of business-focused product owners, process-facilitating scrum masters and three-to-nine developers. They work in focused blocks of time called sprints to deliver single, fully functional features of their overall products.

The Scrum Guide specifies that scrum teams meet often but for very short, focused periods. Members check in each morning and then spend the day on very specific tasks, regrouping at the end of each sprint to review their lessons and plan for the next increment. These sprints are practical ways to enable the agile end goal of cutting a development project into slices based on functionality instead of following the waterfall model from analysis to delivery.

What Types of Higher Education Courses Prepare You for Project Management?

Different project management methodologies taken from software development are important parts of the modern team leadership tool kit. If you aspire to a leadership position, especially in technology, hiring managers may ask about your background with these concepts. Fortunately, you can seek out a degree program that features project management as a core part of the curriculum.

The Collat School of Business’s online Bachelor of Science in Information Systems is a 100% online program designed to equip graduates with the knowledge and experience they’ll need to excel in competitive information systems roles. These positions include the creation and oversight of programs in database administration, web development, information security, and more. The ability to lead a team of developers and other IT professionals, as well as business employees, is critical to success in information systems leadership.

The online BSIS program includes Project Management as part of the core information systems curriculum. The course is designed to familiarize students with a variety of techniques, tools, and philosophies that will guide them through the planning and execution of projects. Today’s companies need team leaders who know how to keep an eye on spending, deadlines, and delivery of high-quality products. These are the principles participants in the Project Management course internalize, making it an essential part of the overall degree program, no matter which specific area of information systems graduates specialize in.

If you are interested in shifting your career path toward a promising position in information systems or its related disciplines, the online BSIS may suit your needs. Since the program is hosted online, you can enroll without leaving your full-time job and add new skills to your resume in as few as four years. The faculty of well-connected full-time educators delivers the same type of insightful, up-to-date information students receive in on-campus classes.

Project management is just one element of the online BSIS, but a critical one. Whether you’re interested in directly developing new software products or managing teams that will deliver other types of products to customers or internal end-users, project management skills are a framework to build around. Knowing how to apply both agile and waterfall methods — and when to go with each — can help you lead these teams effectively.

To find out more about the online BSIS program and whether it is right for you, visit the program page.

Recommended Readings:

4 Reasons to Get a Degree in Management Information Systems Instead of Computer Science

Web developer vs. software developer: What’s the difference?


Agile In a Nutshell, Agile vs Waterfall

The Agile Manifesto, History: The Agile Manifesto

Software Advice, Agile vs. Waterfall: Matching Method To Project Requirements

Wrike Project Management Guide, Project Management Methodologies

Dave Keenan, A brief look at waterfall project management

Scrum Guides, The Scrum Guide