When is the Waterfall methodology better than agile?

Ask two software developers what the best approach to development is and you will probably get two different answers. Development is a logical and creative pursuit, so there is plenty of room for personal opinion.

That being said, most methodologies can be classified into two competing approaches: waterfall and agile. Agile software development is arguably more popular, used by a higher percentage of individual developers and companies. It is also commonly touted as the “superior” approach, but is it? And are there situations or projects where the waterfall methodology is better?

What is waterfall development?

Let’s start by analyzing the waterfall development methodology.

Think of a waterfall in nature. The water flows in one direction, from its source, through the waterfall, and into the water that collects below. Similarly, the development of the waterfall is unidirectional. You will start with a specific and detailed plan of what you are going to develop and how you are going to develop it. Through a series of phases, including research and planning, you will develop the details and then begin to build the architecture.

Your goal is to create the product from scratch, as completely as possible, with minimal changes along the way.

There are several advantages to this approach:

  • Clear central planning. With the waterfall methodology, you will invest a lot of time and effort at the beginning of your project. You will analyze the competition, do comprehensive documentation on the type of product you want to build, brainstorm the possibilities, and make critical decisions that will affect the project for weeks or months to come. This initial process leaves you with more information and a clear direction to follow throughout the entire project.
  • A clean, phased approach. The waterfall development also has a very clean and phased approach. There is no ambiguity as to when a phase ends and you are not bogged down by competing priorities. In many settings, this leads to simple and painless development.
  • Easy coordination and work flow. Many developers also find that the waterfall makes collaboration easy, especially with people working in other roles (such as project management). It is very obvious when the project should change hands and there is no question when the project is ready for release.
  • Less back and forth. As we will see, the conversation and back-and-forth collaboration process can be valuable for software development. However, it can also be time consuming, confusing, and complicated. In cascade development, there are fewer micro-conversations that need to happen and fewer meetings that need to take place. Developers can spend less time talking and more time programming.

What is agile development?

Rather, agile development is all about flexibility and adaptation. You will continue to spend time researching and planning, but not much less than what you will need to spend if you follow the Waterfall methodology. Here, the goal is to get started as soon as possible, creating a loose sketch of a product and then filling in the details later.

During this process, you will review your work, speak with clients, collaborate with others, and refine your approach. You will continually develop, even after your product launch, polishing old features and adding new ones.

These are some of the best advantages:

  • Faster startup. Intensive planning in the early stages of waterfall development can be beneficial, but can also delay start-up. If you are interested in developing a minimal viable product as quickly as possible, or if you need to get started right away, Agile development will work best for you.
  • Easy modifications. There are many reasons why you may want to change the nature of your product, or its main features, in the middle of development. There may be new technologies, new competitors, or new market dynamics to think about. You may guess a key feature or come up with a new idea on the fly. You may even find that your original idea is not working the way you want it to. In either case, agile methodologies allow you to adapt, rather than get stuck with your original plan.
  • Continuous testing. Thanks to AI and other powerful testing tools, agile software developers have the advantage of continuous testing on their side. They can discover faults and errors as they develop, so they can eliminate them long before they affect a user.
  • Active customer participation. Agile development is also popular due to its ability to support active customer engagement. Both project managers and clients can engage in conversations with developers, analyze the product, provide new direction, and guide the product to the finish line together.
  • Constant communication and refinement. The agile methodology also provides opportunities for constant communication and refinement. You can constantly polish your product until it is as perfect as you originally envisioned it.

Why agile has become dominant

Agile software development has slowly grown to become the dominant methodology in the development field. It certainly has many advantages, but why has it become so popular?

There are some influencing factors:

  • Evolving scope. Scope creep is a problem for all kinds of projects. Customers change their minds. Stakeholders pose new requirements. People have new ideas. With Agile, scope advance isn’t that big of an issue; you can adapt to new requirements responsively and keep moving towards the finish line.
  • Changing landscapes. The landscape of your software is always changing. You will experience the introduction of new competitors, new technologies and new ideas. Waterfall can lock you in a position you don’t want, while agile gives you a chance to escape.
  • Faster progress. Tech companies are in desperate need to generate revenue as quickly as possible. Only agile development allows you to get started.
  • Customer service. In many ways, agile development also provides opportunities for better customer service. Your clients are more involved and more interested in the development process; consequently, you are likely to get better results if you create products for other people.

When is the waterfall better?

Is the waterfall ever better?

The short answer is yes. Waterfall is more efficient, more agile, and faster when it comes to specific types of projects like these:

  • Small and fast projects. Generally speaking, the smaller the project, the better it is suited to the development of the waterfall. If you are only working with a few hundred lines of code or if your project scope is limited, there is no reason to take the continuous phased approach.
  • Low priority projects. Low priority projects, those with minimal impact, don’t need a lot of outside attention or group coordination. They can be easily planned and eliminated with a waterfall methodology.
  • Internal projects. One of the best benefits of agile development is that your customers can be an active part of the development process. But if you don’t have any customers, that advantage disappears. If you work internally, there are fewer voices and opinions to worry about, which means the waterfall might be a better fit.
  • Projects with few stakeholders. Likewise, if the project has few stakeholders, waterfall can work better than agility. If you are working with a board of managers or an entire team of decision makers, agility is almost a prerequisite. But if it’s just you and another guy, the waterfall might be ideal.
  • Fixed projects not subject to change. Sometimes it is difficult to know which projects will be “fixed” and which will be subject to change in the future. But if you are sure that your project will not change or evolve in the future, you should consider cascading development.

The agile development approach is so popular and so well received that even influence organizational culture beyond the realm of software development. But despite its enduring appeal and popularity, it is not a perfect system, and there are some projects that work best with the help of cascading development. Analyze your project and its objectives completely before deciding which methodology to follow.

Nate nead

Nate nead

Nate Nead is the CEO and Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting firm that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines, including finance, marketing, and software development. For more than a decade, Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, equity acquisition, technology, and marketing solutions for some of the best-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 clients and SMBs alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.


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