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Waterfall vs. Agile Methodologies: What are the differences?

Waterfall vs. Agile Methodologies: What are the differences?

In a previous post (What are the differences between Agile v Waterfall Project Management and how do they apply to the I’m a Celebrity Show) we looked at the differences between these two methodologies.  It was a rather light-hearted view and so we have decided to revisit the topic in this post.

An easy answer to the question of what the differences are between Waterfall and Agile methodologies is that there is only one: process.  The process of approach, planning, creation and delivery of the product is quite different, depending on which methodology you apply.  When you compare the process of each, however, 4 main differences become evident, and these can again be broken down into 8 differences as you will see in the table at the end of this post. So, we will start by looking at process.


The main difference between Agile and Waterfall methodologies lie with the process of production itself.  Rather than trying to account for everything at the beginning, Agile allows the scope of delivery to be decided in a series of regular sprints, reviews and adaptations.  Tests are carried out concurrently during the development process and customer collaboration is vital.  Only when the customer is satisfied is the product/project considered successful.

Waterfall, on the other hand, is a sequential methodology that tries to capture all the requirements for the product before work begins.  It follows phases, each one of which must be completed before the next phase can begin.  Unlike Agile, Waterfall is not people-centric.  The customer is only involved when the final product is ready for testing. 

4 Main Differences Between Waterfall and Agile Methodologies

1) Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

In an agile environment, the team works with the end users.  The focus is on iteration and a core deliverable product.  The end users drive the design and changes are made along the way.  This means that the project outcome may be very different to what might have first been envisioned.  Agile thrives on innovation through collaboration and focuses on customer satisfaction, quality of product, teamwork and effective management.

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2) People and interaction over process and tools

The focus of an Agile team is on openness and people working together.  Each team member is engaged and accountable.  Data and communication is shared between all and the team benefits from feedback from the customer.  The team is not so much controlled by a manager (as in traditional project management teams), but rather is served and lead by them.  This creates commitment and accountability to the desired outcome of the project.

Agile Market Research Project Team Structure

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3) Adapting to change over adhering to sequence

Waterfall methodology uses a specific scope for the desired product and from this scope time management and resources are planned. Agile in contrast, establishes a minimum viable product (MVP) at the beginning of the project.  The product is likely to change as the project progresses and the team discover new opportunities or benefits that can be added through each sprint. 


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4) Developing/testing solutions over comprehensive documentation

An Agile team owns the MVP (the driver of the project now).  They work together to develop the product and how it will be delivered.  The team will constantly adjust the scope of the product as is necessary.  In a waterfall team, it is rather the scope of the product that is the driver and from the scope the team is able to calculate time, resources and cost of the project.  Agile, on the other hand, sets the resources over certain periods as opposed to Waterfall defining them only at the beginning of the project.

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Agile vs. Waterfall Summarised



Collaborate with customer through project.  Project complete when customer is satisfied

Know what the customer wants beforehand

No beginning or end. Planned at beginning but allows/adapts to change

Beginning and end.  Follows a sequence.  Little room for change

Success depends on customer collaborating – measured on customer satisfaction

Success depends on meticulous detailed planning and documentation

Finished product could be different to original product envisioned

End product is known from the start & planned accordingly

Offers structured and scalable corporate framework

A defined and structured methodology

Encourages/enhances collaboration and teamwork

Not such a people-centric methodology

Focuses on rapid development and delivery of the product. 

Follows a sequence of phases.  No overlapping. Outcome of one phase acts as input for the next

Practical and repeatable methodology – easily adaptable to change

Little room for change – revisions may mean going back to the beginning

Relies on customer collaboration

Little customer collaboration until final product testing

So, as we have seen process is the one real difference between Waterfall and Agile methodologies.  When you compare both processes, however, 4 differences begin to surface and these again can be broken down still further. If you want more information on Waterfall approaches to project management, take a look at our PRINCE2 courses. If you want more information on Agile approaches to project management, take a look at our AgilePM courses. 


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