Agile vs. Waterfall: Consultants Weigh In

Right this moment, you’ll be arduous pressed to seek out product managers extolling the virtues of waterfall — a top-down software program growth framework organized round necessities paperwork and carried out by largely siloed groups of designers, software program engineers, advertising groups and salespeople in gated, sequential phases. 

Within the late Nineteen Nineties, nevertheless, attitudes have been fairly totally different.

“I bear in mind it actually clearly,” stated Laura Ford, vp of product and UX on the Seattle software program firm Navigating Cancer, who was on the College of Colorado on the time. “We realized waterfall as the software program growth lifecycle methodology. And then you definately get into the actual world. And, you’re like, ‘That was a horrible concept.’”

Agile Vs. Waterfall

  • Agile is a versatile software program growth strategy targeted on brief cycles of product iteration knowledgeable by buyer suggestions.
  • Waterfall is a top-down, structured software program growth methodology that proceeds by means of sequential phases: planning, design, growth, testing, assessment, launch and upkeep.

But when it have been a horrible concept, it was additionally a trendy one with an extended historical past in manufacturing. And it was utilized by corporations like Amazon the place Ford labored as a technical product and program supervisor for Amazon Net Companies after graduating. It wasn’t till 2004, shortly after Allan Atlas, the primary growth supervisor for Amazon’s internet-connected storage service S3, got here aboard, that practices started to shift.

Atlas educated staff in scrum: a preferred agile framework by which a product proprietor defines outcomes the crew is answerable for attaining — say, rising a buyer enterprise by 25 p.c — and a scrum facilitator retains the crew targeted and on observe. Whereas the method begins with a aim in thoughts, it’s designed to accommodate change and encourage innovation. Groups are given extensive latitude in how they arrange themselves and obtain consensus-based outcomes, releasing software program in one- or two-week cycles that enable them to make incremental modifications to releases primarily based on buyer suggestions.

The framework took maintain rapidly at Amazon, which has a deal with effectivity that aligns properly with agile’s core ideas. 

“Amazon’s not going to say, ‘Your specs have to be written this fashion; it’s essential to use this specific course of,’” Ford stated. “They’re going to say, ‘Construct the most effective factor for the shopper and do it as effectively as doable.’”

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Agile and Waterfall, Outlined

What Is Agile Software program Growth? 

Agile is a versatile software program growth strategy targeted on brief cycles of product iteration knowledgeable by buyer suggestions. At every stage of growth, stakeholder involvement helps information choices key to prioritizing, constructing and refining working software program. Agile groups are likely to operate by means of rituals — day by day stand-ups, retrospectives, demos — inside brief growth cycles, or “sprints,” that sometimes final one or two weeks. Whereas the method begins with a aim in thoughts, it’s designed to accommodate change and encourage innovation. Groups throughout enterprise departments work in shut collaboration and are given extensive latitude in how they arrange themselves and obtain agreed-upon outcomes. Usually, the aim is to provide shippable code by the top of a dash.  


What Is Waterfall Software program Growth?

Waterfall is a software program growth methodology that proceeds by means of sequential phases: planning, design, growth, testing, assessment, launch and upkeep. It’s sometimes “gated,” which means every section must be totally full and authorised earlier than the subsequent one can start. Product necessities paperwork created early within the growth cycle stipulate pointers for deliverables and assist outline a venture timeline and estimated value. Since every section is accomplished in sequence, groups are typically compartmentalized and accountable for assembly their discrete outcomes. Buyer suggestions happens solely intermittently and is much less central to growth. 


What’s Higher: Agile or Waterfall? It’s Difficult.

The agile motion, the founding manifesto of which was written by a crew of 17 software leaders in Snowbird, Utah in 2001, emphasizes “people and interactions above processes and instruments; working software program over complete documentation; buyer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to alter over following a plan.”

Many corporations have embraced agile as a result of it’s extremely adaptive, stated Megan Cook, who’s head of product for Jira software program groups at Atlassian and an agile coach. It focuses not simply on fixing issues, however on discovering the best issues to unravel — for example, step one in an agile course of to create an internet site would ask whether or not an internet site is one of the simplest ways to interact your prospects, or whether or not they could be higher served by a cell app or one thing else completely. 

For proponents like Roni Ben Aharon, who’s co-founder and chief product officer at — a Tel Aviv-based product administration software program supplier — the framework’s velocity and responsiveness to shifting buyer preferences and market situations makes it unequivocally preferable to waterfall.

“If you do it proper, you rapidly see the advantages. Your deliverables might be each one or two weeks — at larger corporations, they will even be day by day, or each couple of minutes and even seconds,”  Ben Aharon stated. 

Nonetheless, agile might be tough to use in extremely regulated industries similar to healthcare, monetary companies and aerospace, the place fastened budgets, strict security protocols and rigorous guidelines for documentation and governance might demand a extra inflexible framework with stage-by-stage gates to make sure regulatory compliance and high quality management.

“If you do it proper, you rapidly see the advantages.”

As Adam Dahlgren, senior vp of product at Allstacks, put it: You may have little room for error when constructing a pacemaker or a airplane engine. In these circumstances, and even for training and gaming corporations sure by strict launch deadlines, a front-loaded waterfall strategy, shifting sequentially by means of standardized steps — product necessities, design, coding, verification and upkeep — is usually one of the simplest ways ahead.

Whereas debate flares over which strategy is healthier, the fact could also be that the reply is determined by the extent of uncertainty related to an initiative or product. Morten Korsaa, a associate at Denmark-based administration consultancy Whitebox, who has performed efficiency interviews with leaders of greater than 700 growth initiatives, wrote in an electronic mail that the “non secular warfare” between agile and waterfall is essentially misplaced. 

In line with Korsaa, each frameworks are utopian: Agile is premised on the quixotic concept that groups are fully competent, have steady entry to stakeholders and don’t function on fastened budgets or deadlines. Waterfall is rooted within the equally fanciful notion that prospects know precisely what they need and might specify their preferences clearly from the beginning.

In observe, neither of those situations actually maintain water. Most software program corporations, he contends, function someplace within the center, leaning towards agile if a venture has extra unknown variables and waterfall if there’s extra visibility surrounding the top outcome. 

Right here’s what it’s good to think about to seek out the best path on your crew.

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A flowchart of the agile development process depicted by an arrow with multiple loops.
Agile is a extremely iterative growth methodology that’s finest suited to speedy modifications primarily based on product suggestions. | Picture: Shutterstock

Advantages of Agile 

Agile Is Efficient at Eradicating Inefficiencies

Do you have got a excessive diploma of confidence your design might be developed as deliberate? If that’s the case, waterfall can work properly. 

“Lots of people say, ‘Waterfall is gradual, agile is quick,’” Dahlgreen stated. “Truly, that’s actually not true. When you’re actually optimistic that you’ve got [the right plan] and that it’s most unlikely to alter, then you can use waterfall and create it fairly quick, really.”

Nonetheless, if in case you have much less assurance within the consequence, waterfall might be dangerous. Because the framework requires sign-off at every stage of a venture, Cook dinner advised me, it may possibly result in bottlenecks when issues go incorrect — for instance, if a developer discovers in the course of the coding section {that a} proposed design can’t be feasibly engineered. When that occurs, necessities should be retooled. Then you definately’re primarily again to sq. one, having to repeat the event cycle, stage by stage. 

“Agile makes it lots simpler to reevaluate that [feedback] and say, ‘We have to rethink what we had deliberate and shift course extra rapidly.’”

Additional, the time lag between when the code was initially written and verification testing, typically weeks or months later, means builders have to return and refresh themselves on dated code — a significant time suck in the case of flushing out bugs.

Agile’s brief dash cycles theoretically decrease these dangers. Contemplate a well being tracker app developed by the software program firm Navigating Most cancers to assist clinicians monitor sufferers’ medicine adherence. In an early iteration of the app, sufferers have been despatched surveys inquiring as to their well being and any unwanted effects of prescribed medicine. Outcomes have been despatched to suppliers to information diagnostic interventions. However the system supplied extra particulars than anybody would ever need. Care groups have been getting bombarded with suggestions, together with complaints of fatigue which can be widespread amongst most cancers sufferers and customarily not trigger for intervention. Clinicians needed extra related information, not simply extra information on the whole.

“Agile makes it lots simpler to reevaluate that [feedback] and say, ‘We have to rethink what we had deliberate and shift course extra rapidly,’” Ford stated.

That’s what the design crew at Navigating Most cancers did, working in shut collaboration with healthcare suppliers to enhance the app’s performance. In a later iteration, a verify field let sufferers decide out from receiving medical calls in response to survey information. In line with Ford, the replace improved the relevancy of affected person information and decreased medical name quantity by 30 p.c. 


Agile Adapts to Market Shifts and Buyer Calls for

Being attentive to the incorrect market alerts might be the loss of life knell of a software program firm. By delivering a minimal viable product — or “the smallest chunk of worth that may be improved over time,” Dahlgreen stated — you may rapidly perceive whether or not your product appeals to customers and is performing properly in opposition to enterprise metrics like activation and acquisition charges. 

“Failed software program supply doesn’t simply imply the factor didn’t work,” he stated. “It would imply the market shifted, or there was one thing misplaced in translation concerning the buyer’s want, and [the product] wasn’t validated the best way it wanted to be. We simply delivered X and so they needed Y.”

Speedy iteration has apparent advantages for a client app or B2B SaaS product. When a product is falling flat, agile practices like dash planning and person story mapping can assist a crew rapidly reset expectations and align round new options. Change the shape issue or streamline the onboarding circulate and see how prospects reply. 

However even in legacy industries, corporations are more and more known as on to reply to speedy shifts in client expertise preferences and shorter manufacturing cycles, each of which profit from an agile approach of working, Cook dinner stated.

Take, for instance, the current rise of cell banking apps. A monetary agency invested in a waterfall strategy would possibly spend years refining the knowledge structure of their web site, she stated, solely to seek out, upon the location’s launch, that prospects in 2022 want to do their on-line banking inside an app. An agile framework, by which the eyes of enterprise analysts are embedded at every stage of the event course of and outcomes usually are not pre-ordained however malleable, would seemingly stop such misalignments.

“The massive benefit behind agile is you could launch and check concepts very, in a short time with real-world prospects,” Cook dinner stated. “And that means that you can be tremendous nimble and pivot if it’s good to.”


Agile Is Efficient When Prospects Are invited Into the Course of

Inside an agile framework, the software program that first seems earlier than prospects doesn’t must be flawless. In actual fact, modest imperfections, as long as they’re not stymying or offensive, can invite prospects into the design course of and assist them really feel invested in a product.

A just lately launched Jira function, which helps programmers defend the integrity of an organization’s codebase, is telling. Leveraging an integration with Git model management software program, which tracks historic modifications to a codebase, the Jira function lets people work independently in task-based “branches.” Isolating these branches from the supply code ensures bugs created by people don’t corrupt the principle department, disrupt frameworks or libraries, or in any other case decelerate the crew’s progress. 

“If we used a waterfall strategy and constructed the function solely on the necessities, I believe individuals would have simply turned it off.”

The function’s first iteration, nevertheless, suffered from extreme automation. At any time when a flagged concern was deemed “in progress,” the Jira function robotically generated a brand new department. This improved transparency, straight tying points to their department names within the supply code. Nonetheless, in some circumstances, it led to branches sprouting like weeds: a developer who would possibly ordinarily knock out a number of tickets inside a single department all of a sudden had separate branches for the tiniest bugs and typos.

“By speaking to prospects and demoing this, we realized that was actually annoying,” Cook dinner stated. “It wasn’t appreciated by the builders.” 

In a later launch, Jira’s product crew created a hyperlink builders might click on as soon as they have been able to create an unbiased department. On the time, branching was nonetheless a comparatively younger concept, and the looks of the hyperlink provoked curiosity within the branch-per-task workflow, as a substitute to feature or release branching. It additionally nudged groups to conduct code critiques earlier than code created in a department might be merged into the mainline. Because of this, code high quality “skyrocketed,” she stated.

“If we used a waterfall strategy and constructed the function solely on the necessities, I believe individuals would have simply turned it off, or they might have complained till we turned it off,” Cook dinner stated. “We might have missed that likelihood to assist individuals write higher high quality code, which might have been an enormous disgrace.”


A flowchart of the Waterfall development methodology depicted as a series of descending steps.
Waterfall is a tightly monitored growth methodology that’s finest suited to low belief environments. Picture: Shutterstock

The Advantages of Waterfall 

Waterfall Is Efficient When Prospects and Stakeholders Have Restricted Availability 

Agile presumes that person and stakeholder suggestions is available. In software program, that is typically a good assumption, however not at all times — and in these circumstances, waterfall could be a greater possibility. The sequential phases of a waterfall venture, together with employees assignments and schedules, are tightly scripted in product necessities paperwork. Because of this, waterfall permits for intermittent participation in a venture by stakeholders, versus an all-hands-on-deck strategy.  

“With waterfall, you may have a extra predictable engagement mannequin and say, ‘OK, that is going to be our section for definition. And we’re going to have an indication off and assessment, and that is what your involvement will appear like,’” Ford stated.

Overhauling an internet site to point an organization’s authorized title change or to mirror the merger of two corporations consolidating their on-line portfolios are circumstances by which a waterfall strategy is properly suited, Cook dinner stated.

“There’s a very well-defined scope that’s not altering, the design isn’t altering,” Cook dinner stated. “And so you may simply outline all these necessities up entrance, after which hand it over to the [engineering team] to undergo these modifications.” 


Waterfall Is Efficient in Low-Belief Environments

Even inside an agile framework, buyer involvement doesn’t should be as in depth as a gathering or interview. Product roadmapping and prioritization instruments like Aha!, Trello, Jira, ProductPlan, Airfocus and assist product managers and house owners make dependable predictions about person preferences and conduct. These instruments typically have information portals that mixture survey and engagement information coming in externally from prospects, and inner stories from gross sales, buyer success and assist groups. 

In some circumstances, although, the important thing stakeholders for a product are the members of an organization’s government crew or board, who should be satisfied of agile’s validity. Whereas the mannequin’s flexibility helps groups adapt to unexpected shifts in buyer or market preferences, it may possibly additionally end in squishy deadlines and a cultural and operational resistance to being “performed, performed,” Cook dinner stated.

“Loads of people on the market, enterprise leaders, CEOs who signed up for an agile transformation, will admit to you, ‘These first few years, I simply couldn’t get my group to decide to a date as a result of they have been advised to by no means decide to a date,’” Dahlgren added. “For the sake of the enterprise, you have got to have the ability to accommodate some commitments. There’s kind of a supply repeatability issue that’s a calling card of extremely efficient organizations and permits them to name their pictures a bit bit, and never be actually off.”

“One thing about agile is individuals have to simply accept that we’re going to start out constructing and we don’t know precisely the place we’re going to finish up … And if in case you have a low-trust atmosphere, it’s actually, actually arduous.” 

Normally, it’s OK to overlook deadlines now and again. However groups ought to get higher at making estimates over time.

“What’s the unfold from if you decide to one thing to when it really ships?” he continued. “After which, on common, what’s the delta, in days, between when one thing landed and if you’d promised it?”

For groups transitioning to an agile framework, evaluation of delivery tendencies utilizing clever information software program can assist earn the belief of cautious executives. Allstacks, for example, predicts the manufacturing cycles of key options — a enterprise goal executives sometimes discover helpful.

In the end, although, if there’s a lack of institutional belief in an agile strategy, it’s not more likely to take maintain. 

“One thing about agile is individuals have to simply accept that we’re going to start out constructing and we don’t know precisely the place we’re going to finish up,” Ford stated. “And if in case you have a low-trust atmosphere, it’s actually, actually arduous.” 


Waterfall Is Efficient in Extremely Regulated Industries, and for Initiatives With Rigid Budgets and Deadlines

Belief is usually a operate of the products or companies an organization is buying and selling. Contemplate, for example, a publicly traded monetary companies agency that maintains on-line portals for enterprise and client transactions. A clearly outlined launch timetable, forecast maybe six months to a number of years into the longer term, could be essential to keep away from upsetting prospects whose cash is at stake.   

“When you’re simply streaming out updates which can be altering the best way persons are shifting cash round or reconciling transactions, that’s not nice,” Dahlgreen stated. “You’ll be able to’t deploy to manufacturing and truly roll out X function performance on an intraday foundation. Take into consideration the overhead for the shopper and partnership groups simply to maintain these groups apprised of what’s altering. These finish customers want actual stability as to how issues work.”

Medical gadgets, training software program: identical story. Even video video games are sometimes created in a waterfall framework.

“You might be making an attempt to construct in an agile approach, however you have got a date on the market,” Dahlgreen stated. “And also you’re most likely going to principally waterfall towards that factor — in actuality, in the best way individuals actually work.”


‘Agilefall’ Is Virtually By no means Efficient 

Mixing methodologies can get messy. Shane Drumm, a digital guide primarily based in Perth, Australia, stated leaders at many corporations wish to be agile however aren’t keen to take the dangers to get there. The result’s a “fragile waterfall” strategy by which enterprise analysts stand in as product house owners. 

“The product house owners are anticipated to create detailed person tales and sub-task to a level the place all the pieces might be estimated by the engineering crew,” he wrote. “That is only a rehashed model of a requirement specification in disguise as a person story.”

Agile operates in many alternative sub-frameworks, such because the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Excessive Programming, Kanban and Form Up. In observe, a few of these are actually hybrid agile-waterfall fashions that account for the continuity of legacy programs and the calls for positioned on massive engineering groups, who should coordinate staggered rounds of integration testing, safety testing and efficiency testing. However when these fashions are tethered to launch dates, or scrum masters grow to be overly pedantic in policing necessities created by product house owners, Drumm stated, specializing in outputs or “dash factors” fairly than fixing customers’ issues, these hybrid approaches can backfire. 

“This merely creates ‘function factories’ targeted on constructing options fairly than fixing issues for purchasers,” he stated.


How you can Make Agile or Waterfall Profitable

So that you’ve decided to go together with both agile or waterfall. What do you do subsequent?


Keys to Success in Agile

Begin small. Considered one of agile’s potential pitfalls is that corporations can rush into it, attempting to rework a complete group in a single day. Employees duties change too rapidly. The administration construction turns into flatter and fewer hierarchical, however it comes as a tradition shock, with individuals uncertain of their roles.   

“I at all times suggest beginning with a small crew first,” Cook dinner stated. “Take a pilot crew on a non-critical venture and run that in an agile approach.” 

This helps reply key questions earlier than shifting ahead at an organizational scale: Does my funding mannequin want to alter? Am I proud of the crew? What kind of reporting do I would like from them to have visibility into their work and the way it suits in with the entire firm? 

Maintain off on prescribing a ‘finest’ answer. Assessing market wants and an issue to be solved is an efficient place to start out in agile growth. At that time, “it might be simple to collect quite a lot of necessities and launch an MVP,” Drumm stated, however “as a substitute, the crew ought to settle for that they may not know all the necessities” and begin experimenting. Expertise maps can assist additional outline the shopper context, and tree diagrams can determine a number of paths to a desired consequence. These potential options can then be examined.

Make certain everybody owns the end result. Ben Aharon stated a standard misstep amongst executives is presuming an agile framework applies solely to analysis and growth groups, not product managers, UX designers and content material writers. The 2021 e-book, Ask Your Developer: How you can Harness the Energy of Software program Builders and Win the twenty first Century by Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson is adamant on this level, Ford stated. When the product crew alone is answerable for defining the product necessities and the engineering crew is answerable for executing it, you’re unlikely to realize the most effective consequence. “You might want to use the complete mind energy and capabilities of your crew and, as a gaggle, take shared accountability for what you ship,” she stated.

Attempt for elevated velocity. The well being of an agile crew is usually measured by its velocity. Throughout dash planning, initially of a brand new product iteration, crew members join a sure variety of group-defined “factors,” then, as they full varied duties, burn them down. Accountability is usually measured by the burn fee. Managing this fee by means of instruments like Jira, so there’s a regular decline from the start to the top of a dash cycle, helps make sure the crew just isn’t taking over an excessive amount of work, or the incorrect kind of labor, and that key duties like QA testing usually are not getting shortchanged.

Extra on AgileHow (Not) to Agile


Keys to Success in Waterfall

Use prototyping to outline clear outcomes. Design issues encountered throughout coding are sometimes tough to reply to rapidly, or in any respect, in waterfall, as a result of roles and expectations have been so strictly outlined up entrance. “So a method to set waterfall up for fulfillment is ensuring the end result you’re working towards is as actual as doable in the course of the definition stage,” Ford stated. “Use one thing like prototyping, or proofs of idea, to do as a lot validation as you may throughout definition.” That approach, “you may have extra confidence if you get to implementation and supply that you just’re going to finish up with the specified consequence.”

Outline key milestones and supply growth “off ramps.” “The problem with waterfall is the inflexibility,” Ford stated. “So if in case you have some checkpoints in-built throughout implementation, the place you say, ‘We’re going to have a look at this factor at a specific time and resolve if we’re going to proceed on one course or take an alternate,’ and know what every of these choices appear like, you may assess the place revisions to the plan could be wanted.”

Contain the complete crew at early levels. In a waterfall strategy, individuals are sometimes assigned to pick levels. Planning would possibly contain members of the shopper success, product and design groups, whereas software program engineers could be introduced in later. “And that may create numerous challenges,” Ford stated. “You’re not getting the complete good thing about everybody’s mind being on the issue upfront.” To make sure the most effective consequence, it’s vital to incorporate crew representatives in every of the phases to various levels. 

“Engineering might need a smaller position throughout definition, however it’s actually vital that they be a part of it,” Ford continued. “In any other case, you’re simply not going to finish up with the most effective answer.” 

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