Agile or Waterfall Project Management – Which is best?

For quite some time now, organizations have been trying to figure out what they need regarding a project management framework that works for them. Some organizations, which had been using the more traditional “waterfall” approach, transferred over to an “agile” approach because they felt that the flexibility and client engagement it possesses is something they need. Later, however, some of those organizations switched back to “waterfall” because they missed the strictness of a set budget and schedule, though this is often just theoretical. So what is the best option for your organization? The short is answer is “it depends.” It depends on the project first, and the organization second.

Agile or Waterfall Project Management - Which is best?


Let’s start with the waterfall approach. If you work in architecture, to a large extent, or engineering (such as civil); or construction, then “waterfall” is typically the best option for almost all your projects. Why? Because if you take a sample project from these industries, which are collectively known as AEC (architecture-engineering-construction,) you can surmise that the scope, which then determines the budget and schedule, has to be set early on. For example, if you are designing and building, such as a 25-story high-rise, the scope has to be well-defined because half-way into the project you cannot decide to change to 30-story high-rise. The building’s foundation work would not support such a change, nor would the design of the utilities. Therefore, for this industry, and this type of project, a waterfall approach would be crucial.


On the other hand, if you have a project where the scope is either difficult to define, and the client requires flexibility throughout the project lifecycle, then agile is a better option. For example, if your project consists of developing a challenging interactive website for a large organization, then agile is the best option since it would be challenging to create a detailed scope, which “waterfall” typically requires. Additionally, an agile approach used in developing this website would allow the client to participate in the design process. It can add or modify the different parts of his/her site as the design progresses.


As we all know, not all projects are so cut and dry that you can decide early on whether to go waterfall or agile. Therefore, there is a third choice, which is a mixture of both, which is called “hybrid.” This third option has become a growing standard across most industries. This approach can allow for flexibility in scope creation, as eases the incorporation of changes to the scope as needed, which is more “agile” in style. Still, it also tries to establish some safeguards to ensure that neither the schedule nor the budget gets too far out of control.

Currently, many organizations, especially new ones, such as start-ups, try to establish and employ either the waterfall or the agile approach for its projects. However, when they find that the waterfall method is too rigid or that agile means that the project will go over budget, they often change to the other option, and then sometimes change back to their original choice. Part of the reason for going through this somewhat erratic process is because they find it challenging to hire and select staff that can transition between the various approaches, which is understandable. Most people, through their education or experience or work-style, settle into either waterfall or agile. Additionally, some organizations might panic when the approach they selected is not working as expected, so they try to make a dramatic change, which is not always the best decision. Therefore, it is the organization’s responsibility to make the most informed decision when setting the framework across the organization at the start, then hire the right people, provide training as needed, and monitor progress regarding meeting the organization’s goals, as well as a check-in with staff to ensure they are adequately supported.

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