The 2015 Standish report shows that, between 2014 and 2015, 39% of projects undertaken following an Agile methology were successful, compared to just 11% of those undertaken following a waterfall methodology. A clear win for Agile – but is this the whole story?
Agile and Waterfall, encompassing each's many variations, are the two most popular methods of project management. Agile began as a method of managing development but its popularity has exploded and more and more companies of all kinds are now working within Agile frameworks.
Waterfall may be considered the “default” approach to project management, so we’ll look at that first.
The Waterfall approach is structured and sequential, with a project divided into constituent parts, dealt with in phases. A phase is undertaken and executed to full completion before the next is begun, and the team is not able to “jump back” to a previous stage of the project once it is completed.
The specific Waterfall methodology you use and the project in hand will dictate how many phases your project includes.
Key advantages of Waterfall:
- Linear progression means simple forwards and backwards planning and execution.
- Visibility – with a tangible outcome at the end of each phase, stakeholders can maintain a view of the project and progress.
- More easily facilitates sequential funding.
- Once the scope is agreed, you should be able to estimate a realistic delivery date to give your stakeholders and manage their expectations.
Key disadvantages of Waterfall:
- Inflexible and vulnerable to change– changing the scope of the project can cause serious delays, rack up cost and severely damage quality.
- Dependencies, whether external or internal, can create or worsen delays. Waterfall tends to assume that dependencies are neatly sequential, when many are actually reciprocal and need to be made together – i.e. decisions on one element depend on those made on another, which depends on the decision made in the first instance.
- Precision is crucial. If one phase is poorly executed, and issues are identified later on in the project, it can have a severe impact on the whole project.
- You’ll always have to wait until late in the project for any functional product.
The key characteristic of Agile is that it is iterative, with phases of a project running parallel rather than sequentially. Though there are a number of different Agile frameworks, they all require tasks to be broken down into constituent planning cycles, usually referred to as sprints. Requirements and solutions are flexible and in a state of continuous evolution, dictated by priority.
For Agile to be successful, the team needs to really buy into it and embrace an open, communicative working style and mindset. For those that can manage it, the rewards can be great – it might not work for every team or project, but there’s a reason that those who succeed can become almost evangelical about Agile’s superiority.
Key advantages of Agile:
- According to latest Standish report, Agile is >3 times more effective than Waterfall.
- Change ready – The short(er) planning cycles of Agile mean that change can be dealt with easily and with minimal disruption.
- Encourages structured stakeholder involvement, keeping understanding aligned and development accurate and following the most current priorities.
- Can help keep the team motivated and interested throughout an entire project.
- Creates a culture of continual improvement – lessons are learnt in each phase and used to refine the next iteration.
Key disadvantages of Agile:
- Planning and setting specific delivery dates can be tricky.
- Business representation - Time and efforts will be continually required from product resources. This is crucial to cycle planning and success.
- Stakeholder push-back – the potential reduction in visibility and lack of concrete deadlines can make it harder to obtain buy-in from your external stakeholders.
- Agile success depends on a highly skilled (and cross-skilled) workforce due to the size of core teams. Furthermore, employees not already familiar with Agile, or the specific framework chosen, may need extra time and training to get up to speed.
Beware Agile in Name Only
Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of SCRUM, is always keen to point out how crucial it is to properly implement an Agile method. Otherwise you are performing “Agile in name only” (AINO) and may be experiencing fewer of the benefits of “true” Agile – but may still come up against all its disadvantages. Agile advocates often suggest that the majority of failed Agile projects were, in fact, AINO, which accounts for their failure.
“Any Scrum without working product at the end of a sprint is a failed Scrum. 80% of the scaled Scrum in Silicon Valley is in this category. They are "Agile in Name Only.”
- Jeff Sutherland
Is Agile Better Than Waterfall?
Though Sutherland might disagree, in the grand scheme of things, neither methodology can be said to be inherently and absolutely better than the other.
The problem with putting Waterfall and Agile head-to-head is that it’s like asking “what’s better, a chainsaw or a scalpel?” – well, what do you need it to do?
Your approach should always be dictated by the nature of the task at hand. When you can be fairly confident that not many changes will be made during project execution, you may find that Waterfall is a more comfortable fit for you – likewise when you cannot afford any real mistakes in your project. On the other hand, if changes are likely, and particularly when they will come rapidly, or your project is easily split into modules, then the Agile style that most suits your team is probably the most efficient option for you.
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