Learn the Truth About “Agile” versus “Waterfall”

Background

How many times have you heard people compare “Agile versus Waterfall”? It happens a lot, I do it myself, and I keep hearing presentations that talk about how Agile has displaced “Waterfall”. But, if you really think about it, I don’t think that’s a very meaningful comparison and it’s out-of-date. Learn the Truth About “Agile” versus “Waterfall” – True “Waterfall”, as a methodology, died a long time ago for most projects outside of some specialized areas like construction; yet people continue to make that comparison.

The problem is that the word “Waterfall” is used very loosely and indiscriminately. In many cases, when people use the word “Waterfall”, they’re not using it to refer to the specific “Waterfall” methodology that was originally defined by Winston Royce in the 1970’s, they’re using it loosely to refer to a general style of project management that emphasizes some level of planning, predictability, and control over agility. Here’s an example – iterative methodologies such as the Rational Unified Process (RUP) became very popular in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and many people would consider that to be “Waterfall” just because they are somewhat plan-driven, but they don’t really fit the full definition of “Waterfall” at all.

An Example of Sloppy Terminology

Don’t get me wrong – I think Agile has huge benefits. I just want people to objectively understand the benefits of Agile versus Waterfall and the sloppy use of terminology to compare the two is often misleading and confusing. Here is an example I’ve taken from a real world source that is considered fairly credible to illustrate what I mean by sloppy use of technology when people talk about “Waterfall”:

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From the 2011 Chaos Report: “Agile Succeeds three times more often than Waterfall”
The report goes so far as to say, “The agile process is the universal remedy for software development project failure.”

What do they mean by “Waterfall”? (Are they talking about a specific methodology – like the Waterfall that was defined by Winston Royce in the 1970’s or are they talking about a broader range of plan-driven methodologies?

How did they define how “success” was measured?

How can anyone possibly say that “The agile process is the universal remedy for software development project failure”?)

Blue Line

Saying that “Agile is better than Waterfall” is like saying “A car is better than a boat”. They both have advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment that you’re in. When people use the word “Waterfall” like this, I’m tempted to ask, “Which aspect of ‘Waterfall’ are you referring to?”

  • Are you referring to the phase gate approach where a project is broken up into phases and there is a phase gate for approval to transition between phases? I don’t think that approach has been widely practiced for years for software development projects and even Winston Royce himself had reservations about it
  • Are you referring to an over-reliance on documentation? That is a more legitimate comparison because Winston Royce did come out very strongly in support of a lot of documentation, but that shouldn’t imply that an Agile project has no documentation whatsoever.
  • Are you referring to the tendency to plan an entire project upfront before starting the project and then manage changes to the project requirements through change control? That also might be a legitimate comparison, but it also shouldn’t be meant to imply that an Agile project shouldn’t do any planning upfront.
  • Are you referring to the practice of attempting to complete all of the project requirements all at once? Long before Agile became well-known, iterative approaches like the Rational Unified Process (RUP) provided a way to solve that problem and break up a project into iterations.

A More Meaningful Comparison

A more meaningful and more objective comparison is between an “adaptive” approach to project management and a “plan-driven” approach to project management. “Plan-driven project management” is a style of project management that is applied to projects where the requirements and plan for completing the project can be defined to some extent prior to implementing the project. In contrast, an “adaptive” style of project management starts the implementation of a project with a less well-defined plan of how the project will be implemented and the requirements and plan for the project are expected to evolve as the project progresses.

No project is ever totally plan-driven or totally adaptive; you won’t find many projects that start out with an absolutely rigid plan that is not expected to change at all, and you won’t find many projects that have no plan whatsoever of how the project will be done. There is a broad range of alternative approaches between those two extremes as shown in the diagram below:

Increasing Agility and Adaptivity

It is a matter of choosing the right level of upfront planning to be applied to a project based on the level of uncertainty and other factors in the project and it takes some skill to do that.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these approaches (adaptive or plan-driven). They both have advantages and disadvantages for a given project and they should be seen more as complementary approaches rather than competitive. Instead, many people see “Agile” and “Waterfall” as binary and mutually-exclusive choices and that causes people to try to force-fit a project to one of those extremes rather than selecting and tailoring the approach to fit the project. For example,

  • If I were to set out to try to find a cure for cancer and I attempted to apply a highly plan-driven approach to that project, the results would probably be very dismal
  • Similarly, if I tried to use an agile approach for building a bridge across a river, the results would be equally dismal

Why does that happen? It takes much more skill to fit a methodology (or combination of methodologies) to a project – you have to know a broader range of methodologies and you have to understand the principles behind the methodologies at a deeper level to know how to tailor the methodology and blend different methodologies together to fit a given situation. Some people are primarily skilled in one particular methodology and tend to implement that methodology mechanically “by the book”. It’s like being a carpenter and the only tool in your tool bag is a hammer.

Overall Summary

The impact of misusing the word “Waterfall” is significant:

  • It causes people to “throw out the baby with the bath water”. By misusing the word “Waterfall” and categorizing all plan-driven approaches as “Waterfall”, people tend to dismiss any form of plan-driven approach and to regard any kind of upfront planning as inconsistent with an Agile project.
  • It has caused a lot of polarization between the traditional project management community and the agile community. The perception is that project managers are associated with the Waterfall approach and, as a result, project management skills are not needed because the Waterfall approach is an out-of-date approach for many projects.

The true Waterfall approach has been obsolete for many projects for a long time (the exception being some selected industries like construction where it is still very useful and relevant). So, I don’t think comparing Agile to Waterfall is very meaningful any more, but its very difficult to get people to stop thinking in those terms because it has been so prevalent for such a long time.

The difference between a highly adaptive project and a highly plan-driven project is how much of that planning is done upfront in the project rather than being deferred till later. It’s not a black-and-white decision to have a totally plan-driven approach or a totally adaptive approach and it requires some skill and judgment to determine what level of upfront planning makes sense in a given project. When people present this decision as “Agile versus Waterfall” it distorts what the real decision is and makes it look like a binary, all-or-nothing choice and that’s not the case.

Additional Resources

I’ve created a free online training course that provides more information on this topic:

Learn the Truth About Agile versus Waterfall

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