Waterfall Methodology vs. Agile Methodology: Choosing the Right Approach for Complex Project Management

April 18, 2024

When steering a complex project, looming deadlines and multiple challenges, how do you navigate? Is opting for the structured, sequential approach of Waterfall better or embracing the flexibility and adaptability of Agile the right move?

Though stats by the Standish Group shows that Agile projects are 3X more likely to succeed or 1/3 less likely to fail than waterfall approaches, we’ll probe deeper into ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ to pick the right one.

What Is Agile Methodology?

Agile methodology is the project management technique that places emphasis on ongoing improvement and cross-functional collaboration. It breaks down large projects into smaller parts and leads groups through planning, carrying out, and assessing tasks in succession.

It emphasizes iterative work and continuous collaboration and is predicated on the idea that a project may swiftly adjust to changes and be improved upon continually across its whole life.

Agile fosters continuous development through empowering teams, increasing accountability, and stimulating creativity. 

Agile project management includes a variety of approaches, such as Extreme Programming (XP), Scrum, Kanban, and the Adaptive Project Framework (APF), and is not a single framework.

Kanban: It is an excellent tool for activities needing consistent output and for visualizing project progress.

Lean: It improves consumer value by streamlining operations and getting rid of waste.

Scrum: This short sprint approach works well for projects whose needs change frequently.


The advantages of the agile method are:

  • Through extensive and direct collaboration with the project team, the customer develops a strong sense of ownership throughout the project.
  • Agile can more quickly develop a basic version of working software that can be expanded upon in later versions.
  • Throughout the development project, the client is given frequent and early opportunities to view the work being delivered, provide input, and make adjustments.
  • Because the consumer is giving more and more direction, development can lead to being more user-focused now.


The demerits of agile are:

  • It is easiest to manage the intimate working connections in an Agile project when team members are physically located in the same location, which isn’t always the case. 
  • Agile development’s iterative process could result in frequent refactoring if the system’s whole range is not taken into account during the initial architecture and design stages. 

What Is Waterfall Methodology?

The waterfall methodology is a widely recognized project management process. Each process phase flows progressively downhill through five stages, much like a waterfall (requirements, design, implementation, verification, and maintenance). Every step in the Waterfall workflow must be finished before going on to the next. Although there are many different kinds of project management approaches, Waterfall is a good fit for projects with well-defined goals from the start.

The Waterfall technique operates according to set deadlines, specifications, and results, and it follows a chronological procedure. With this approach, the various execution teams are often self-contained and don’t need to be in regular communication unless certain integrations are needed. 


Here’s a detailed examination of the strengths of the Waterfall method.

  • Since the entire extent of the work is known ahead of time, measuring progress is easier.
  • At the beginning of the development lifecycle, developers and customers agree on what will be provided, thus simplifying the design and planning process.
  • Depending on the project’s active phase, different team members can take part in the development process or choose to work on other projects. For example, while developers are engaged in other projects, business analysts might research and record what needs to be done. While coding is going on, testers can create test scripts using requirements documents.
  • A customer’s participation is not necessarily necessary beyond the requirements phase, with the exception of reviews, approvals, status meetings, etc.
  • This methodology is advantageous for projects where it is necessary to create several software components for integration with external systems since the design is finished early in the development lifecycle.


Although the waterfall approach is well-respected, it has recently come under fire for being an antiquated concept. Depending on the scale, nature, and objectives of the project it’s directing, the Waterfall approach’s constraints become increasingly obvious.

  • There is very little room for unexpected modifications or updates to the approach in its current version. Therefore, pivoting won’t be simple if your team has faithfully followed the Waterfall process almost to the end of the project but then meets an unexpected issue that calls for a change in scope or goals. 
  • The fact that the Waterfall technique is an internal process and pays little attention to the customer or end-user participating in a project is another drawback of the Waterfall model. 

Comparing Waterfall and Agile Methodology

Approach to Handling Change

In terms of welcoming change, Agile is a strong supporter of flexibility. Being able to adapt and change course quickly is a crucial skill in the always-changing field of project management.

Although Waterfall works well on projects where consistency and predictability are critical, it can be challenging in the dynamic environment of today’s corporate world. Its inflexibility is a reminder that although structure has a role, flexibility is just as important.

Engagement With Clients

Agile is a shining example of ongoing client collaboration. It’s a symbiotic connection where clients actively participate throughout the project’s lifecycle, going beyond simple communication.

In Waterfall, client interaction is mainly focused at the start and finish. Waterfall frequently results in little client interaction. When the project is almost finished, they return to do user acceptability testing and deliver the first requirements. There’s usually minimal interaction in between, so there’s not much opportunity for course corrections in the middle.

Risk Management

Agile teams continuously identify and evaluate risks, modifying their plans of action as conditions change. This dynamic approach lowers the likelihood of project failure by enabling quick mitigation and the adoption of fresh results. It is a bold strategy that recognizes risks as dynamic, ever-evolving entities and that managing them should be as fluid as the problems they pose.

Waterfall tends to use a one-point method for risk analysis. Blind spots may result from the single-point analysis’s failure to recognize fresh threats that surface in subsequent stages. A more dynamic approach to risk management may be necessary in situations when uncertainty and changing conditions necessitate it, even though Waterfall’s single-point risk analysis works well for projects with stable and well-defined scopes. 

When to Use Waterfall vs. Agile Methods?

For large, complicated projects with extremely precise, fixed requirements, waterfall methodology is especially helpful. Since it’s expected, development teams will be less hostile to comprehensive design specifications and product requirements documents. For projects with precise deadlines and clearly defined deliverables, the waterfall methodology works best. Waterfall is the ideal method if your main project limitations are fully understood and documented. 

Since Agile is a philosophy that needs to be embraced, stakeholders in organizations need to be psychologically and emotionally ready for it. 

They might like the concept of frequent activity and quick repetitions, but they might find it uncomfortable since Agile requires so much oversight and visibility. Agile can also flourish in a setting where there is a well-defined and solid product strategy. Giving different teams the freedom to strive toward quickly reaching targets is more comfortable when everyone is on the same page regarding objectives, goals, and key performance indicators.

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FAQs About Waterfall Methodology vs. Agile Methodology

Q. Is it possible to combine Agile with Waterfall?

Epics and user stories can be used to divide enormous projects into more manageable chunks for development when Agile is blended into a waterfall setting. By employing a hybrid strategy, organizations can take advantage of both approaches. They can use the flexibility and adaptability of Agile principles throughout the execution phase while still reaping the benefits of the waterfall method’s extensive design and disciplined planning.  

According to research published in the International Journal of Systems Assurance Engineering and Management, the failure rate of waterfall initiatives is thirty percent, compared to ten percent for agile projects. 

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