Agile vs Waterfall project management: What's the best approach?

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
 and 
  —  
July 3, 2024
An image showing two colleagues sitting next to one another on the floor of an office space having a discussing while looking at a laptop computer
Agile vs Waterfall project management: What's the best approach?
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
 and 
  —  
July 3, 2024

Agile vs Waterfall project management: Which one is better? These two approaches take divergent paths to achieving the same goal. And while each process is different, they do have something in common: Both can lead to panic/"this-is-fine.gif" if they don’t match your project’s initial requirements.

Bad jokes aside, there isn’t a single “best” methodology, but there are differences between Agile and Waterfall. Before deciding which will win a place on your next project, let’s explore each approach’s definitions, pros, and cons.

What are Agile and Waterfall methodologies?

Agile methodology

Agile and Waterfall are two methodologies for project management and software development. Here’s a breakdown of their characteristics and principles:

An image representing the stages of the Agile development lifecycle in the Mural platform

Agile is an iterative approach that emphasizes customer feedback, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Its principles became official in 2001 when 17 software professionals released "The Agile Manifesto" as a response to slow and rigid development cycles. Key characteristics include:

  • Adaptability to changes: The project’s requirements and solutions evolve and incorporate new information as the project progresses.
  • Collaboration with customers: End-users participate in the development process, ensuring the product meets their needs and expectations.
  • Small development cycles: Agile breaks the project into units called iterations or sprints, which focus on delivering a functional piece of the project.
  • Cross-functional teams: Project members vary according to industry (e.g., product development, marketing, engineering) but typically work together.
  • Focus on individuals and interactions: Agile values human interaction and teamwork over strict adherence to processes and tools.
  • Various models: This methodology offers multiple frameworks — such as Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), and Crystal — that adapt to diverse project requirements.
Related: A guide to the Agile development lifecycle

Waterfall methodology

An illustration representing the phases of Waterfall development

Waterfall methodology is a more structured approach, popular for its clear steps and well-defined goals. Unlike Agile’s iterative cycles, this project management method progresses in distinct phases, resembling a waterfall’s downward cascade. 

Its core characteristics involve:

  • Clear project scope: Waterfall works best when project deliverables, functionalities, and limitations are unlikely to change.
  • Detailed planning: Strategy is upfront, including setting requirements, deadlines, and meticulously detailing each phase of the project from start to finish.
  • Sequential process: The methodology follows a strict, sequential order — requirements gathering, design, development, testing, and deployment. Think of Waterfall as a checklist where you must complete each step before moving on.
  • Extensive documentation: Each phase produces comprehensive plans and specifications that serve as a roadmap that guides the next step.

What if you need the best of both Waterfall and Agile project management? Embracing a hybrid approach lets you combine, for example, Waterfall’s clear structure and documentation while incorporating Scrum or Kanban boards for a more Agile and collaborative planning process. 

Related: The 13 best Agile project management tools

Waterfall vs Agile project management: Pros and cons

Before deciding which method fits best, explore their strengths and weaknesses — perhaps Water-Agile-Fall will be your jam.

What are the pros and cons of the Waterfall model?

Pros:

  • Structured approach: By providing a well-defined plan with established phases, it minimizes confusion and ensures everyone understands project expectations. It's a good choice if your project has well-understood requirements and a predictable workflow.
  • Predictable timelines and financial control: Losing sleep over deadlines or budget nightmares? Waterfall’s detailed upfront planning lets you keep your project on track and costs under control.
  • Efficient documentation: This methodology allows you to create a knowledge base with requirements, designs, and progress. It’s helpful for projects like launching a complex software program or a new financial product.
  • Reduced overlap and confusion: Waterfall’s linear approach makes tracking progress and managing the project straightforward. It works well when project goals and deliverables are clear from the outset, such as manufacturing established products, planning a series of events, or redesigning a website with a similar layout.

Cons:

  • Inflexible to change: Once you complete a phase, it’s difficult to go back and make changes without impacting timelines and budgets. Projects with a high degree of uncertainty or frequent requirement changes might struggle within this methodology.
  • Late testing and feedback: Errors identified late in the development cycle can cause delays and rework, putting the whole team into panic mode. Plus, Waterfall doesn’t prioritize continuous customer feedback, potentially leading to a product that doesn’t fully meet user needs.
  • Low collaboration: Pre-defined roles can limit team members’ interaction, a key factor in employee satisfaction. According to Mural’s 2024 Teamwork Research Report, 45% of workers left their jobs last year due to poor teamwork.
  • Limited innovation: The lack of flexibility can make it hard to try out new ideas during development. For example, if you’re running a marketing campaign and need ideas based on customer feedback, this approach would require collecting all the inputs upfront instead of allowing co-creation with your audience.
  • Migration to other project management methodologies: The need for change may lead you to adopt a hybrid approach in the middle of the project, which can be confusing. For a seamless Water-Agile-Fall work, consider integrating practices like Kanban boards to visually share the plan with your team or daily stand-up meetings for better alignment.

What are the pros and cons of Agile methodology?

Pros:

  • Flexible approach: Agile methods are great in dynamic environments where requirements might evolve, such as software development and customer service solutions. Your team can adjust their course based on new information or shifting priorities, ensuring the project stays relevant and delivers the most value possible.
  • Early and continuous delivery: With Agile, you’re not waiting until the end of a long project to see results. It’s effective for projects that aim to quickly deliver value to users or stakeholders, such as software prototyping, feature enhancements, and iterative product development.
  • Empowers teamwork: Employee engagement is one of the best outcomes of Agile, according to McKinsey. Members across departments can be actively involved in planning, development, and decision-making through sprint planning meetings and collaborative project boards.
  • Focus on customer satisfaction: Agile prioritizes delivering working features often. It’s like keeping your finger on the pulse of what your audience really wants. By incorporating insights from your clients, you make sure your product or service hits the target.

Cons:

  • Unpredictable timelines: Are we on a roller coaster? No, it’s just Agile. When priorities change and new ideas pop up, this approach can make teams and managers feel dizzy. Its iterative nature means deadlines might shift as the project progresses.
  • Complexity in large projects: Managing big deliveries with Agile requires careful coordination and communication to keep everyone on the same page. By adopting tools for project collaboration, work better together from everywhere, even in large remote groups.
  • Potential for scope creep: Agile encourages flexibility, but it’s crucial to have a clear plan for managing change. This step may involve implementing prioritization frameworks and techniques like time-boxing to understand the impact of new features on project timelines.
  • Meeting overload: Agile involves daily check-ins, planning sessions, sprint reviews, and more. To optimize productivity, keep gatherings focused and brief, involving only essential team members. Make your standup meetings engaging — don’t let attendees start a yawn fest.
Related: How to run efficient Agile meetings [+ templates]

Waterfall, Agile, or something in between? Mural can handle it all

Mural is the easiest way to manage your projects successfully, no matter what approach you choose.

Our project collaboration software enables you to embrace Agile or Waterfall (or both) to start planning, creating, tracking, and executing tasks in one place. The best part? Everyone comes up with their best ideas, so no more sleepy meetings!

Here’s how we support your favorite approach:

  • Agile project management software empowers your team with tools and features to customize the workspace, so you collaborate from any location, using any device.
  • Mural’s integrations allow you to work with the platforms and tools you already use to manage Waterfall and Agile projects, like Jira, Azure DevOps, and Asana.
  • Agile’s library of templates frees up your time to focus on priorities while offering murals for every sprint activity (go Water-Agile-Fall smoothly!).

Whether Agile or Waterfall project management, we can help you start your next plan. ‍Join Mural for free.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.