Software Project Management — Waterfall vs Agile vs Scrum

Bipin Thapa
19 min read

Are you trying to decide which software project management methodology is best for the software you want to build? Check out this post for a breakdown of Waterfall, Agile, and Scrum — three of the most common software development methodologies.

Introduction To Software Project Management 👨‍💼

Software projects are complex and technical. They require skill, expertise, and experience to pull off successfully. Managing them requires discipline, focus, and a repeatable process with a proven track record for delivering projects on time and per the expected quality and performance standards. This is where software project management comes into the picture.

Software project management methodologies or ideologies, whatever you want to call them, give you the structure, focus, and framework needed to successfully see a software project from inception to execution to maintenance. This includes all the steps involved from idea generation till the software goes live. These methodologies guide processes and principles to plan, manage, control and execute software projects effectively and efficiently.

Put simply, without following a software project management methodology, you will find it incredibly difficult to be able to complete the project successfully. Even if you manage to get the project completed somehow, you won’t be able to consistently repeat the same results.

How can you expect to manage and complete a project as complex as building software without a structure and framework that guides you through the entire process? The answer is you can’t!

Hopefully, we’ve convinced you of the importance of managing software projects through a proven framework. Now, let’s talk about the different software project management methodologies and see which one could be the right fit for your next software development project.

When it comes to software project management, sustainable results require a methodology that aligns with the organisation’s goals and priorities. However, with so many similar yet different methods and frameworks, choosing the one for your organisation can be difficult yet highly rewarding if chosen correctly. 

However, an important point to keep in mind is that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each methodology offers something distinct and different that makes it suitable for specific types of projects and organisations.

By reading this article, you’ll be accustomed to the most common software project management methodologies practised in the industry — and see how one method could be better or worse depending on your business needs and the scope of the software being built.

Waterfall — Still Going Strong 🌊

The first methodology we will discuss is the “Waterfall” model of software project management.

When you hear “Waterfall” alongside software development, you’re probably confused by its meaning and why it shares a name with a natural phenomenon. Well, there’s a reason for that. 

The Waterfall model focuses on a sequential approach to software project management. The software project progresses linearly, moving from one stage to another. This is comparable to an actual waterfall, where water flows in a single direction from top to bottom, and hence that’s why it’s named as such.

The Waterfall methodology has been around for a while and is considered the most traditional form of software project management. With that said, despite the rise of plenty of contemporary software project management technologies, the waterfall model is still prevalent in the software industry as it has been tried and tested.

We at WEBO Digital have used the concepts of Waterfall software project management to manage several software projects in the past successfully.

The most significant characteristic of the Waterfall methodology comes in the form of the chronological phases that you go through as you proceed through the project life cycle. The different ascending stages are executed sequentially, and a step has to conclude, which indicates a milestone before the subsequent one can begin. Furthermore, the results of one milestone completion carry over to the next one and are required for the new phase to proceed ahead.

To provide a real-life example of this methodology, we’ll show you the different phases that a typical software project goes through in our software project management process.

software project management

Proposal > Project Acceptance > Software Planning & strategising > Design and prototyping > Frontend slicing > Backend Development > Content creation and addition > QA Testing > Software goes live > Promotion and Marketing 

Essentially, the different steps shown above are the sequential phases or stages of the Waterfall model, and as you can see, they occur linearly, and the results of one carry over to the next. For example, without getting formal project acceptance from the client, we don’t start planning and strategising the design and development of the software. 

In our company, the outcome of the planning phase is the website or software blueprints which provide our clients and us with a fully inclusive documented plan outlining everything needed to create the best website or software for their business.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of using the Waterfall model for software project management.

The Waterfall methodology allows for a formal planning process offering a chance to ensure all project requirements are captured before formal project activities commence. This is akin to the software blueprints that we do as a compulsory kickstarter for our software projects. This proper planning phase allows you to gather all the relevant project information, such as requirements, scope, goals, objectives, deliverables, budget, assumptions, success criteria, risks, etc. Essentially, it provides a solid platform for the project to build from, with all stakeholders on the same wavelength. 

Furthermore, as each project participant is aware of what needs to be done from the beginning, this makes it easier to create the timeline for the project and set a due date for the software to go live.

Another key advantage of using this model is that the loss of critical information and details is drastically minimised in the initial phases of the project as most things are accounted for in the planning stage. This results in very few “unpleasant surprises” down the road, which means less headache and stress for developers. 

Moreover, it is essential to note that if everything is not mapped out in the initial stages, the project’s success in the later phases will be compromised. No one wants to swim back up a waterfall; because it’s impossible!

Due to the innate ideology of the Waterfall model, as the focus is on specific phases, controlling and monitoring each step becomes easier to manage. Furthermore, progress tracking and measuring are much easier with the Waterfall method due to the milestones and success criteria defined beforehand.

Moreover, adding a new developer or a team member midway through the project wouldn’t matter. The transition should be pretty straightforward as they can easily understand everything about the project and what they need to do from the documentation created in the early stages.

And finally, due to the sequential approach, the dreaded scope creep is also minimised as once you complete the planning phase, adding more requirements and features to the project is very difficult without starting the process all over again. Hence, the project is completed on time.

While the advantages of the Waterfall methodology are noteworthy, there are some disadvantages to adopting this framework. 

First of all, while the formal planning phases clearly define requirements and a plan to work from, it can also be a reason for inflexibility as there is wiggle room for modifications once the project is underway. But if changes have to be made, later on, they will be detrimental to the triple constraint of the project (Time, Budget, and Scope) and cause more harm than good. 

The other notable disadvantage includes clients being uncertain about what they want initially, leaving the door open for new requests and changes later in the project as it progresses. This has happened to us plenty of times, and it’s no fun going back several steps in a project that was starting to gain serious momentum.

And last but not least, the sequential nature of the Waterfall model means that schedule delays are likely to occur if one phase stumbles; all the others will also be affected.

Agile — The New Kid on The Block! 🧒

On the other end of the software project management spectrum, we have the Agile framework. This model is a complete directional shift from the traditional waterfall approach as it offers adaptability and flexibility that the sequential method of Waterfall fails to provide.

The Agile methodology focuses on iterations instead of phases, where the project team has the chance to review the progress during each iteration rather than having to wait until the end before assessing. This means that instead of working for an extended period to get the finalised software in the hands of the end-user, Agile methods attempt to continuously deliver value to customers by providing a product in a much shorter timeframe and then working constantly to consolidate feedback and making improvements to deliver a new version of the software.

Let’s use an example to illustrate the Agile methodology further and get a better understanding.

Consider the following; you are working on a new eCommerce app to provide a better shopping experience for your customers on mobile. Applying the Agile methodology, you wouldn’t start with an in-depth planning and strategising phase like in Waterfall; you would create an elementary version of the app with rudimentary eCommerce functionalities, which is called a minimum viable product (MVP).

This first iteration of the product would be your software version 1.0. You would then publish the app on the App Store and await customer feedback and reviews. Based on the feedback, suggestions, and improvement ideas received, your team would work on the second iteration of the software, i.e. version 1.1 or 2.0, depending on the scale and level of improvements.

Fast forward a few years, and you’ve just launched version 20.1, and your software is capable of doing so many cool things that you would’ve never thought possible when first starting. Agile’s level of flexibility and adaptability is unlike any other software project management model, which is where this framework truly shines.

The Agile project management methodology follows these fundamental principles — collaborative approach, open communication, efficiency, continuous improvement, trust, and independence. This ideology was initially generated for the software industry but now is being commonly used by marketers, universities, and even automotive companies.

Delving into the advantages of adopting the Agile methodology, we can make a solid argument that it makes identifying issues quicker and easier which paves the way to make modifications early in the development process rather than waiting until the testing phase. 

Furthermore, Agile provides repeatable processes, reduces risk, provides immediate feedback, offers more room for collaboration, and enhances project delivery rate.

While, for the most part, the Agile framework for software project management is a fantastic option, there are possible downsides that you should be aware of. First off, as the end goal is not in sight, resource planning becomes challenging as the requirements and overall project scope are ever-changing.

Another disadvantage comes in less detailed documentation that is not as comprehensive as the ones you would see in projects following the Waterfall model. This is understandable considering the absence of a formal planning phase but still needs to be noted as in-depth documentation has its place in effective software project management.

Due to the iterative nature of Agile, active and consistent participation from all stakeholders is a must, which can start to feel repetitive and mundane after a while.

And finally, while the fragmented deliverables enable a faster launch to market, it does leave a slightly “sour taste,” knowing that the product is not truly at its peak potential.

Scrum — An Interesting Subset of Agile 😉

If you are a rugby follower, the term may not be something new to you. However, for the rest of us, Scrum in rugby is a structured group of players who perform specific roles and is used at the start or restart of a play. If you’ve ever seen players locking arms with their heads down to gain possession of the ball and move forward, you’ve seen a scrum.

But while that was an interesting tidbit, what does it have to do with software project management? Although Scrum is a sports term, it aligns well with Agile project management. Yes, Agile, not just project management, because Scrum is a form of agile project management, but more on that later. Back to the matter at hand, an Agile team is a structured group that uses Scrum at the beginning of each day to stay on the same page and progress towards achieving their cyclic goals. Terms such as “daily stand-up” and “huddle” are often associated with Scrum.

Scrum is an extension of the Agile methodology, which incorporates specific types of meetings, tools, and roles to manage iterations successfully. Teams involved in software development and engineering commonly use the Scrum methodology to improve productivity and collaboration and complete complex projects more simply. But it can be used across a wide range of industries, from HR to design to even marketing.

The framework of Scrum revolves around the concept of dividing complex projects into smaller, more manageable pieces so that the team can complete high-quality work reasonably quickly without feeling overwhelmed.

Furthermore, the Scrum approach is an extension of Agile that lends well to change and offers flexibility similar to its predecessor, allowing teams to stay on top of changing customer and product requirements.

We understand that adopting a methodology such as Agile and Scrum can feel challenging as there are plenty of unfamiliar terms and concepts that you need to understand. But it can pay dividends, especially if managing complex projects has always been a problem and a major stumbling block for your business.

The first term you need to be aware of is “Sprint.” Sprints are the foundation of Scrum and are a cycle of iterative work that your team undertakes in a particular period, which is usually two-four weeks. These sprints are cyclic, short and comprise the complete project cycle. Essentially, the team would plan a sprint, complete an iterative body of work in that planned two week period, and begin another four weeks following the same process. 

Now, let’s talk about some more Scrum terminologies. First, we have the product vision, the ultimate finished software product we aim to create. Next is the Sprint goal, a set of tasks from the product backlog. As the name suggests, the product backlog is an ongoing list of features desired in the software product. These features can be new, previously identified, changes to existing features and even bug and glitch fixes.

Once you have established a product vision and have a running list of product backlogs, you are ready to kick off your Scrum Ceremonies, which act as sprint milestones. Each sprint has four Scrum Ceremonies — Scrum Planning, Daily Stand-ups, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective.

We’ll go over each in further detail below.

Scrum Planning 📝

In this scrum ceremony, the team works together to determine the sprint goals to achieve and decides the tasks, updates, and improvements that can be made during a couple of weeks. The tasks from the product backlog will be taken out and placed in the current sprint so that the team can focus on them during the duration of the sprint.

Daily Stand-up Meetings 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

We’ve all heard of these and are probably implementing a version of this in our day-to-day operations. In the Scrum framework, daily stand-ups serve a specific purpose; they occur simultaneously and in the same place every day and last about 15 minutes. The objective of this meeting is to make sure everyone is on the same page and potential roadblocks are identified and addressed before they cause any harm to the sprint’s progress.

Sprint Review 🔍

At the end of each sprint, the team reviews their performance and accomplishments during the sprint. Activities such as bugs resolved, features updated, and innovations coded are discussed under the microscope.

Sprint Retrospective 💭

The last milestone is the Sprint retrospective when team members reflect on the previous sprint and document what went well and what could be improved moving forward. This facilitates continuous improvement in how the teams work together to complete sprints resulting in better results in future sprints.

Next, we will discuss two of the most critical roles needed to function the scrum methodology.

The “Scrum Master” and the “Product Owner” are these roles.

A product owner is an individual who is ultimately responsible for the results of a sprint. They work closely with the team by communicating the sprint goals clearly, and updating, prioritising and closely monitoring the product backlog as sprints progress. 

The other critical role in the Scrum framework is played by the scrum master, who schedules the daily-stand up meetings, and eliminates any stumbling blocks that the team is facing. The scrum master also functions as a scrum expert capable of coaching and guiding the team through completing sprints.

An honourable mention must be made to the development team, the true champions of any software project. The development team comprises those working on the product backlog assigned for the sprint in the Scrum framework.

Throughout sprints, the team will use and collect information called “Artefacts,” including the product backlog, sprint backlog, burn-down chart, and increment. Artefacts play an essential role to help the team either plan or complete a sprint.

As we’ve already touched upon, the product backlog is relatively simple to understand. The sprint backlog follows the same concept. The only difference is that it contains a running list of tasks to be completed during that particular sprint instead of the entire product lifecycle. 

On the other hand, the increment is slightly different, as it is the entire list of tasks to be completed and approved before the end of that sprint. A notable increment that teams must make before embarking on a new sprint is determining their own “definition of done,” a pre-planned list of requirements for a work to be fully approved. 

The burn-down chart is a graph that illustrates how much of the increment has been completed and the portion that is still left to be done. This chart provides a graphical status update to the product owner and scrum master regarding the progress. 

That was a relatively high-level overview of the scrum framework and how it operates to enable fast delivery with software development. Next, we’ll compare the different methodologies we’ve discussed and determine which one you should proceed with.

Which Is The ONE For Me?

This question, unfortunately, does not have a straightforward answer, as the choice depends entirely on the type of project and resources you are working with. But we’ll provide some recommendations below on when each methodology should be used so that you can make an informed decision when the time comes.

software project management

Use the “Waterfall” methodology if: 💧

  • You’re working on a linear, sequential project, and the phases follow a dependency, where one cannot begin before the previous ends.
  • Your timeline is concrete, and the end-deliverables are well thought out, clearly defined and unlikely to change.
  • Your clients want to take a back seat and don’t have the time to participate in the project actively.
  • You want to have firm control over the project constraints, such as having a fixed software launch date or avoiding scope creep.
  • You value meticulous, effective planning and need in-depth documentation entailing all the relevant project information.
  • You want to fully understand the entire software development cycle, from planning and design to development and testing.
  • Product function is more important to you than quick delivery.

The “Agile” approach is going to be your best bet if:

  • You want to launch the software to market as soon as possible — even if that means making further enhancements later.
  • Your clients want to be actively involved in every step of the project
  • Your team is self-sufficient, moves quickly and values adaptability over predictability.
  • The end-deliverables are not set in stone, and your clients want to go with the flow.
  • You don’t have a fixed date to launch the software to market.

And “Scrum”? 🤔

If you’re sold on the Agile methodology, your next step will likely be to consider whether or not Scrum is the right way to run your team. It’s not a question of which one to pick but more of whether or not you want to make Scrum your Agile framework of choice or use the agile framework in itself.

But why should you? If you are using the agile methodology, it’s best to go all-in with Scrum. You see, the thing is, Agile is the overarching software project management philosophy, while Scrum is a way of implementing Agile. So, why not have the best of both worlds by using Scrum, as it will inevitably mean utilising the principles of Agile also.

Closing Words 👨‍💻

Choose the methodology that you feel works best, considering your team, project requirements, and organisational priorities. A software project management methodology shift is not a straightforward process as plenty of cultural and structural sub-shifts need to happen simultaneously.

Whether you prefer the agile methods favoured in IT project management or the more traditional waterfall project management used more commonly in other industries, every team needs a practical guiding philosophy in project management to deliver projects on time, within budget continuously, and meet customer expectations.

We hope this article provided you with the necessary information to decide on the software project management philosophy to deliver your next development project.

If you need a team to deliver your next software project, look no further; we can help you do just that and more. It all starts with a discovery chat, and we’ll guide you through every step towards building the best software to take your business to the next level.

Published On

April 25, 2022