Project managers can use a variety of project management methodologies throughout their careers

If you’re new to the world of project management and are exploring your career options, or have just started studying for your project management certification, you likely would have come across terms such as agile, scrum, or waterfall. These are all terms used for various project management methodologies, which might have you confused at first, wondering, Which methodology is the best? Which should you choose when you start your new role as a project manager?

Let’s decode the differences between agile and waterfall project management methodologies alongside project management experts, who share their thoughts and experiences.

The word itself agile means to be flexible, to move quickly and easily. Within the context of project management, the agile methodology entails a focus on flexibility and adaptability for continuous delivery of the project. For this reason, many have noted that this particular framework works well for projects such as software development, which undergoes various phases in which there are continuous refinements and adaptations along the way.

In agile, you will be working with short production deadlines, which forces you and your team to be innovative and responsive to feedback fairly quickly.

“In fast-paced environments where the client needs change rapidly, agile is more effective than waterfall,” says Philippa Spencer, project manager at Aaron Kennedy Marketing. “Practically, agile project management in my experience involves regular stand-up meetings, sprints, and retrospectives. It breaks down the project into manageable parts and continuously evaluates progress. This approach has allowed my teams to remain flexible and responsive to changes.”

Mike Sadowski, founder and CEO at Brand24, notes that from his experience, agile is about adaptability and responsiveness, where the project evolves through collaborative efforts. “This methodology is particularly effective in the tech industry, where user feedback and changing market trends can significantly impact product development. I am also a bigger fan of this methodology when compared to other methodologies,” he says. “Agile allows for rapid iterations, making it easier to incorporate changes and improvements quickly.”

While you might think of agile project management as a project that runs in various overlapping phases, waterfall is more linear, systemic, and sequential, in which one task must be completed before the other commences. It is likely to be much more structured from the beginning, with budgets, complete and clear outline of requirements and scope, and deadlines already set in place. There is full expectation from the beginning and this requires less input from stakeholders throughout the process.

A good example of this would be government projects and initiatives which typically tend to be waterfall. Construction is another environment in which waterfall can be applied, as for example, you can’t start working on the roof until the foundation, walls, and internal structure are built. And once building commences, it’s difficult to adapt to new requirements as you go along, especially if the structures are already in place.

Jordan Jackson, senior service delivery strategist at OTM, provides an example of how waterfall works with her content creation project:

“1. Audit strategy and adjust if needed. At the first of the month, our lead strategist reviews analytics and KPIs to audit the source-of-truth strategy document.

“2. Create content. A Copywriter references the strategy document and creates content based on the brief.

“3. Internal review. A peer reviews the content for grammar, readability, and alignment with the brief.

“4. Client review. If deemed necessary, the content is sent to the client to review for accuracy of the information.

“5. Publish and test. The content is published, usually to a blog, and tested on both desktop and mobile.”

Agile and waterfall have distinctive benefits and downsides depending on the project

The approach you take depends on the composition of your team and the structure of your organization it will vary from project to project. According to Zippia’s research, at least 71% of U.S. companies were using agile as of 2022, with a 64% success rate, compared to waterfall projects that had a 49% success rate. It seems that not only software companies, but other organizations in other industries are finding this methodology useful.

While many experts say that neither waterfall nor agile is better, with each having their unique pros and cons relative to the project, Jackson believes an approach that is a combination of the two is best.

“I prefer a mixture of the two methodologies—we call it “Agifall” at OTM. This approach allows us to understand the full scope of a project with clear outcomes to work towards while remaining agile enough to iterate through strategy shifts, client needs, and scope changes.

“You ‘protect’ your external stakeholders from the busier/more complex parts of agile project management, while still keeping them informed and involved when needed. Your team can work collaboratively and they aren’t forced to wait on other teammates before beginning their next task. When done right, it will feel like Agile to your team and Waterfall to your clients.

“An Agifall method can be very successful when working with clients and industries who don’t have the time to communicate and collaborate daily or weekly. They are working full time jobs after all,” Jackson says. “And they hired you to accomplish something that either takes work off their plate or makes their business better.”

“Alignment and expectation management are two really important things to prioritize when managing any project,” she explains. “If your stakeholders aren’t involved in the direction when they should be, your project could fail. Keep dialogue open, and set expectations about their involvement up front.”

Here’s Jackson’s example of what Agifall looks like in practice for her work:

“5. Delegate and schedule production sprints (this is where we move into a more agile approach because the actions in step 4 were not defined at the start of the project).

Agile and waterfall have distinctive benefits and downsides depending on the project

So while ultimately, both agile and waterfall methodologies have their place, the success of your project and career as a project manager is down to you and how well you adapt to the needs of your stakeholders and clients, using the best approach that works for all. There is no right or wrong answer for which to choose, although agile appears to have distinct advantages over waterfall. Perhaps, you could mix it up like Jackson and find a way to combine elements of both!

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