Waterfall or Agile methodology? What works better?

At BMC, we've had the privilege of working in organisations that use different methodologies to implement a project or initiative. Some organisations use the Waterfall methodology, others use the Agile methodology and other organisations utilise the "controlled chaos" methodology (something we don't recommend).

Upon reflection, we wanted to enter the debate - Waterfall or Agile methodology?

What is the difference between Waterfall and Agile methodologies?

Waterfall Methodology - A project management approach where all parties act in a linear, sequential fashion. There generally is no cross-collaboration between different teams and a final product is only delivered once all programs of work have been finalised.

Source: Atlassian Agile Coach

Agile Methodology - A project management approach where regular feedback intervals are encouraged. Different parties / teams will co-collaborate, generally working in 2 week "sprints" to incrementally deliver the project.

Source: Atlassian Agile Coach

Pros and Cons: Waterfall VS Agile

According to a 2019 poll, 81% of project teams now use the Agile methodology.

Upon making the list below, it became quite evident that there are Pros and Cons to both approaches. Whilst the Waterfall methodology is often seen as being archaic, there is definitely principles from this methodology that should still be applied when implementing projects utilising the Agile methodology.

Benefits of Waterfall Methodology

  • Once and done - Specific teams are engaged for a certain amount of time and will move onto the next piece of work once their component of the project has finished.

  • Sequential - There are clear milestones and delivery dates, making it easy for a project manager to hold certain teams and individuals accountable.

  • Clear objective - The project scope is generally specified upfront in a document which allows alignment by all on deliverables.

  • Documentation - Each project team will be required to submit documentation for the next team to refer back to. There is generally little to no communication between different streams of work, making documentation extremely useful and important.

Disadvantages of Waterfall Methodology

  • Siloed - Each stream of work will work independently of each other. This approach does not allow cross-collaboration between different project teams, or skillsets.

  • Re-work - Excessive effort could be required if the final product is not deemed fit for purpose. This is time-consuming and can be extremely costly.

  • No Feedback loop - There is no dedicated time to showcase elements of the project to users, or SMEs. This limits the capability for a Waterfall team to iterate in accordance with changing requirements.

Benefits of Agile Methodology

  • Flexible & Iterative - Operating in 2 week sprints, which include refinement, estimation and sprint planning sessions, allows for Agile teams to constantly adapt to changing customer or business needs. Sprints can be modified prior to go-live, ensuring the most important items are being delivered in each sprint.

  • Cross-collaboration - Agile methodology allows cross-functional teams to be set-up, ensuring different elements of a project can be worked on in parallel.

  • Clear accountabilities - The creation of Epics, Stories and Tasks in a planning board (i.e. Jira) allows all team members to have clearly defined accountabilities. This is further governed by a Scrum Master, Product Owner and Daily Scrums.

  • Feedback loop - Fortnightly Retrospective ("Retros") allow the project team to reflect on what worked, what didn't and what could be improved for future sprints. In addition to this, Agile project teams often deliver "Showcases" to business stakeholders throughout the project. These showcases provide a great opportunity for stakeholders to review & provide feedback on the progress of the project, instead of being delivered a final product which is not fit for purpose.

Disadvantages of Agile Methodology

  • Backlogs - As humans, we have a tendency to "do things later". The Agile methodology somewhat encourages this mindset by making it easy to de-scope particular work items, putting them into a backlog to complete later. More often than not, these items are never completed. Whilst this might seem like a good prioritisation tool, many organisations have backlogs of 100s to 1000s of tasks which become extremely hard to manage. Effective practices must be put in place to ensure that items do not get lost in the backlog, or that the backlog is not used as a "too hard" basket.

  • Transactional mindset - In an Agile project, individuals are generally assigned a number of tasks that they need to complete across that Sprint. Whilst this is convenient, it can often lead to individuals just focusing on their component of work, and not the bigger picture at hand. Subsequently, it could stifle innovation in a workplace if individuals become used to completing the tasks allocated to them, and not thinking about the bigger picture. It is important to instil practices that also allow innovative thinking!

  • Work ethic - Imagine that you are allocated 6 tasks to complete in a fortnight, but you complete them in 1 week. Or imagine that you've initiated the work for your 6 tasks but you're now waiting to hear back from other stakeholders to continue progressing. In both of these situations, you've done what you're supposed to. At this point, there's two choices - proactively ask for more work, or just cruise through the next week until something else pops up. Whilst we're not suggesting that all employees do the latter, the Agile methodology does have a tendency to encourage poor work ethics, particularly if tasks are not sized correctly. It can also have a tendency to reward teams, but not certain individuals who are working harder than others. Be mindful of this when implementing, or managing an Agile team!

Should I use Waterfall or Agile methodology?

In summary, we suggest using a combination of both (yes we sat on the fence).

From the Waterfall methodology, we strongly recommend that any organisation builds a project plan that identifies the multiple streams of work and identifies key milestone activities to track towards. Additionally, it is SO important that you work with all teams to ensure they document what has been done. Trust us, you'll get burnt down the track if you don't.

From the Agile methodology, the 3 components that we find work best are - 2 week sprints, feedback loops (Retros, Showcases) and the flexibility of refining certain sprints. It's important to not treat your people like robots though. Ensure you give them time to be innovative and that you're always encouraging the team to ask for more work if needed.

Shameless plug

If you would like to get in touch to discuss this further, or to chat about how BMC can assist your workplace, please get in touch with our details below.

Additionally, we'd LOVE to hear from you if you disagree with anything above. We're always open for a debate, and would love to have you on our Bearded Man Podcast to chat through things further.


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