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Agile & Waterfall in software development - how to choose the perfect fit

Agile and waterfall here, there, and everywhere...
If you are involved in software development or have ever worked with a tech company, there is a high chance that you came across the terms agile and waterfall. But what are they, and what is the difference between them? Agile and waterfall are widely used project management approaches in software development. The two are very different in how they approach projects and manage deadlines, but both have their strengths and weaknesses. In this blog post, we will cover some of the main differences between agile & waterfall so you can determine which solution is best for your project needs.

What are Agile & Waterfall?

Waterfall is a sequential delivery approach that follows a defined set of phases to complete a project

The waterfall model is a top-down process that does not encourage changes; it sticks to a fixed timeline, and has no flexibility in terms of scope or cost.

In the early days of software development, tech companies used this method for large systems that required extensive planning, design, engineering, and testing before their production deployment. The Waterfall methodology follows a chronological process that evolves around fixed dates, requirements, and outcomes. Individual execution teams are not required to be in constant communication. Unless the project requires specific integrations, teams will remain self-contained.

Waterfall usually follows these five stages: requirements, design, implementation, testing, and deployment. Some tech companies remain loyal to the waterfall methodology because it brings several benefits. It is a straightforward, well-defined project management methodology with a proven track record. If a team follows this methodology, they get the requirements laid out from the beginning so each contributor knows what must be done and when. This results in effective planning. 

Because of the Waterfall methodology's emphasis on upfront project planning and commitment to specifically defined progress, it is less flexible, or agile, later in the game. Changes made later in the process can be time-consuming, painful, and expensive.

Agile is an iterative delivery approach that adapts to business needs over the course of a project

Agile is a software development methodology that anticipates the need for flexibility and applies pragmatism to the final product's delivery. Because it focuses on the clean delivery of individual pieces or parts of software rather than the entire application, agile software development requires a cultural shift in many organizations.

Agile's advantages include its ability to assist teams in an ever-changing environment while remaining focused on efficiently delivering business value. Agile fosters a collaborative culture that increases efficiency throughout the organization as teams collaborate and understand their specific roles in the process. Finally,  testing throughout the development process ensures that companies that use this methodology deliver high-quality products. This allows for changes to be made as needed and alerts teams to any potential problems.

Agile and Waterfall Project Constraints

Find your perfect match

What methodology you will use depends on a number of factors. We will share some general recommendations, and our logic behind the selection process.

One of the key factors you need to consider is the size of your team. Agile works best when there are fewer people involved in a project. It's easier for everyone to collaborate and communicate when there aren't too many cooks in the kitchen. If you have large teams (10+ people), waterfall might work better because it allows managers to oversee multiple projects without getting lost in the details.

Another determining factor is the complexity of the application. If you are creating an app that is simple and won't require a lot of development - the agile approach might be unnecessary. In this scenario, the waterfall will suffice because it allows building systems quickly without sacrificing quality & functionality. However, if there is a flexibility requirement, using an iterative framework like Scrum would help ensure delivery deadlines aren't missed due to unforeseen challenges. To be sure of your decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the project?
  2. What are the key risks and uncertainties?
  3. What are the essential components?
  4. What is the project timeline?
  5. Is the budget fixed?

To agile or to waterfall, that is the question now!

Scrum is a framework that relies on iterative, incremental value. Scrum has three pillars: transparency (towards the client), inspection, and adaptation. This framework allows us to produce high-quality software. It doesn't limit us to where the waterfall does. Agile generates critical metrics such as lead time, cycle time, and throughput that help in measuring team performance, identifying bottlenecks, and making data-driven decisions to correct them.

We are aware it might seem like we don't use the waterfall at all, but we do. When? We use the waterfall methodology in some scenarios - if the client approaches us with a fixed budget and desired scope. But it wouldn't be us if we didn't add a twist. 

Upon receiving such a request, we break the complex scope into manageable pieces to estimate time and budget accurately. This initial guidance provides the foundation for a realistic expectation of what we can deliver within the constraints of the client's budget. However, it's not uncommon for the scope to exceed the desired time and budget, in such situations, the agile methodology can come to the rescue. Agile prioritizes the most critical features and builds a minimum viable product first, which allows for quicker delivery of value to the client. 

If the client denies the agile approach because of the fixed budget, you can do only one thing - communicate clearly! You need to explain what you will be able to deliver within the constraints of the budget. This helps manage expectations and avoid resistance, leading to a successful project outcome.

Tech giants that embraced agile methodology for better project outcomes

Companies who want more control over their project lifecycle while still delivering quality products on time without sacrificing quality or budget constraints have embraced agile methodologies such as Scrum.

While talking about the transition to agile, we can't leave out some of the most well-known companies that use agile methodology. Tech giants that transitioned to this methodology are Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and Procter & Gamble. We know that agile is working with these tech giants, but what about other popular companies that also shifted their project management methodology? Here are some examples of companies and how using agile improved their business:

  • Cisco: defects were reduced by 40% when compared to the waterfall
  • Barclays: 300% increase in throughput
  • Panera Bread: 25% increase in company sales
  • PlayStation Network: Saved the company $30 million a year

Agile vs. Waterfall - who is the champion of your battle?

When it comes to project management in software development, there is no such thing as one size fits all. We talked about general recommendations, mentioned the advantages & disadvantages of both methodologies, and gave our perspective on them. Now we are interested to understand your perspective. What has your experience taught you? Why don't you share your thoughts with us?