Can Agile and Waterfall Coexist? (Robert Kent, Consultant)

The word “agile” has caught on as a buzzword in the world of product development. The great thing about buzzwords is that they attract a lot of attention. Agile has been touted as the next best thing in the mystical world of project management with many believing that it is the logical rep...



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Can Agile and Waterfall Coexist? (Robert Kent, Consultant)

| Thursday, 4 April 2013

The word “agile” has caught on as a buzzword in the world of product development. The great thing about buzzwords is that they attract a lot of attention. Agile has been touted as the next best thing in the mystical world of project management with many believing that it is the logical replacement for the “older” waterfall method. There is a “ however”, in there, as waterfall methods do hold value for certain projects.

Even though agile methodologies have been around for nearly two decades now, interest in agile approaches has only recently increased as companies seek better ways to compete with their competitors through driving efficiency and becoming more effective. The recent downturn in the global economy has provided companies with a catalyst for increasing its adoption of agile as everyone is trying to do things faster, whilst at the same time showing economies of scale through doing more with less.

As a result, agile methodologies like; Scrum, Extreme Programming, Lean Software Development, Crystal, Dynamic Systems Development, Adaptive Software Development, and others, have attracted the attention many executives who are looking for approaches to make product development faster, more reliable, and more satisfying to the end user.

Waterfall on the other hand is a more sequential and logical approach to development. It requires intensive upfront planning to ensure that intricate details are accounted for so that they are not discovered half-way through the project. When executed well, this approach can lead to a faster product launch, a customer that understands what is being launched before development begins, and project budgets that can be estimated more accurately.

The waterfall method also comes with its own set of problems though. When dealing with a business that continually evolves and requires adaption, it can lead to scope-creep, budget overruns, or a product launch that does not fulfil the customers evolving needs. Re-entering the waterfall process again and again can cause a project to overrun its time and cost budget. So let’s explore the characteristics of these two approaches so that we can understand the differences and similarities.


  • Is a well-known method that has been used and proven effective for simple development projects.
  • It involves a series of gates or phases that must be completed in sequence.
  • It requires all requirements gathering to take place up-front.
  • Requirement changes become more difficult and more expensive as a team proceeds deeper into the life cycle.
  • It is recommended for shorter duration projects where clear vision and stakeholder commitment exists.
  • The agile method emphasises values and principles rather than processes.
  • Project priorities are re-evaluated on a continual basis in cycles.
  • It is especially beneficial for small teams with rapidly changing requirements.
  • Allows for incremental testing and release of the product.
While agile has the benefit that it can potentially deliver critical business value faster, there are many issues that most organisations face when it comes to agile projects. The biggest issues faced include; project governance, control over the project and business processes, maturity and skill of the project team as well as the culture of the customer and the performing organisation. Agile may not be for everyone and waterfall may not be for everyone either. That begs the question, what is the right project management methodology.

As with most things, the middle ground is usually the safest place to go to. The market trend shows that more and more companies are adopting a hybrid version of agile combined with waterfall. This requires much more discipline on the project manager’s part due to the fluid nature of the process, but usually the end result is a much more palatable outcome, satisfying both the business and the performing organisation.

This hybrid model can take on many guises as it will be dependent on the customer and the performing organisation as to how agile a project should be structured. Many companies thus adopt a waterfall type approach until the initial planning has taken place, upon which a more agile approach is then adopted for executing the plan. Other companies may adopt a waterfall approach within each iteration, thus ensuring that each iteration is planned, executed and closed in a sequential manner.

There is no right or wrong answer to this as there are many ways of bringing the two approaches together. The success of this “merger” will depend on the skill of the team leader as well as the ability for the team members and the project stakeholders to adjust to the culture of the customer and the performing organisation.

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