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April 29, 2024

Key differences between Waterfall, Agile, and Hybrid

Hybrid Management Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

You’ve heard of Waterfall and Agile. You might have even heard of Hybrid in the context of project management. But what do they actually mean? Better yet, which one is right for your project?

It’s time to break down the three terms: what they are, why they work (or don’t), and whether they’re worth your time.

Waterfall

Waterfall, or Classic, is a linear and sequential approach to project development. It’s predictive, which means the constraints (time, scope, and cost) are agreed upon in advance. The same applies to objectives and deliverables. Usually, Classic initiatives follow the project plan to a tee.

Waterfall projects have fixed phases that happen in a sequence. Once a phase ends, another one can start. Each stage includes a detailed plan, including the scope and the schedule.

Additionally, most Classic projects feature extensive documentation. It’s beneficial, especially if there’s a change in the project team. When a new member replaces an existing one, there’s an exhaustive source of information they can use to get up to speed.

Most popular phases in Waterfall: Project planning, Requirements, Analysis, Design, Coding, Testing, and Deploying.
An example of stages in Classic project management.

 

Various industries have used the Classic method since the 1970s, including manufacturing, construction, and engineering, to name a few.

Most Waterfall project managers use a Gantt chart to visualize, plan, and manage their projects. Modern Gantt charts include a Work Breakdown Structure of the scope and a timeline with task bars. Some project management software also shows dependencies on the timeline to visualize the connections between tasks.

An example of a Gantt chart in a Waterfall project in BigPicture.

Benefits of Waterfall

One of the main advantages of Classic is that teams have a complete set of information regarding their initiative from the start. Project teams know the expectations, goals, and deadlines, and the plan covers the whole project. Documentation ensures that people have a reliable source of knowledge to consult during execution.

Managers plan the entire project, along with dependencies and risks. As a result, they have a complete view of the project before it starts.

The same goes for project constraints. Stakeholders and project managers agree on the timeline, scope, and budget before the project begins, so project managers and teams operate with a high degree of certainty.

Drawbacks of Waterfall

Of course, Waterfall has disadvantages, too. Given its sequential nature, the delivery of large-scale projects takes a long time. In some cases, the finished product is outdated on arrival. This is especially evident in fast-paced industries like software development and research and development.

Implementing changes mid-project is challenging. So, stakeholders who develop new ideas while the project is ongoing may not thrive in the Waterfall environment.

Testing happens late in the development life cycle, so if issues arise during testing, there’s not much time to make improvements. Instead, fixes happen in subsequent releases. But for that to happen, a lot of the process occurs again, impacting delivery time.

Waterfall is also prone to delays. When one phase finishes later than expected, all subsequent phases tend to start later, impacting the end result’s delivery time.

Last but not least, Waterfall projects usually deliver business value at the very end of the project. Factor in a long lead time, and it’s clear that this approach requires patience on the part of stakeholders.

If you’re looking for a more flexible approach to project management, there are better options than Waterfall.

Agile

The next approach is a direct result of software developers working in Waterfall. Frustrated with its rigidity, lack of customer involvement, and limitations in providing value quickly, a group of software developers devised a better way of working.

In 2001, they wrote it down to create the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The resulting document outlines the values and principles Agile developers should follow. It became a blueprint for a new way of managing projects. Even though Agile originates in software development, other teams spanning many industries have used it successfully.

Manifesto for Agile software development

An important distinction is that Agile is not a methodology or a framework. Instead, Agile is a mindset that emphasizes frequently delivering value to customers while being able to respond quickly to change.

There are multiple Agile methodologies and frameworks, like Scrum, Kanban, and Lean, to name a few. These provide specific practices and processes that can help teams implement the Agile mindset. Agile embraces iterative development, focusing on smaller, prioritized chunks of work one iteration at a time.

Agile is adaptive. Market trends, priorities, and customer requirements can change quickly. But, Agile teams can adapt to these changes.

Agile teams focus on the value that their functionalities or improvements deliver to the customer. That’s why there’s an emphasis on frequent collaboration between the project team and the end user. After all, when the two groups communicate, it’s easier for the project team to deliver work that aligns with customers’ needs.

Most Agile teams are cross-functional, meaning the team members are generalized specialists — highly proficient in one area and with a breadth of experience across multiple skills. As a result, they can solve complex problems by working together.

Agile values working software over extensive documentation. The team members collaborate and use their shared knowledge and skills to fill gaps.

Benefits of Agile

Most tech companies follow Agile principles to develop products for several reasons.

First, the flexibility and adaptability of Agile. Teams have the competencies to deliver great work despite challenges and changes.

Second, the short increments and frequent testing enable Agile teams to deliver value quickly without sacrificing quality.

Having a customer-centric mindset and communicating with stakeholders regularly empowers project teams to deliver valuable work. Continuous improvement allows teams to optimize gradually and keep up with trends.

Drawbacks of Agile

Unfortunately, Agile is not without its faults. First, documentation takes a backseat compared to Waterfall. The team relies heavily on the knowledge and skills of its members, which means that any personnel changes can throw a wrench into the works. If a member leaves mid-project, the team must assess the impact of the change on the project’s constraints. On top of that, any skill or knowledge gaps must be identified and solved.

Secondly, establishing a fixed budget for the entire initiative is nearly impossible. Unexpected functionality requests from customers or shifts in market trends can necessitate a change in product direction.

Agile teams are well-equipped to handle short-term estimation and execution changes. But holistic planning becomes a different story altogether.

As you can see, Waterfall and Agile are complete opposites. Each offers benefits, depending on the circumstances. But what if you wanted to combine the two approaches? That brings us to Hybrid.

Hybrid

Unlike Waterfall or Agile, Hybrid is not so clearly defined. The idea behind Hybrid management is to blend elements of Classic and Agile methodologies to create a tailor-made approach that works for your business, maximizing the strengths of the two approaches while minimizing the weaknesses.

In its most popular application, organizations blend Waterfall planning and Agile execution. That mixture combines the clarity of goals and preparation with fast delivery of work and early testing to catch and fix issues earlier in the process.

Some businesses use hybrid technology as a stopgap in digital transformation. Moving from Waterfall to Agile as an organization takes a long time. Doing so gradually allows everyone to get familiar with the changes without disrupting the day-to-day work.

Benefits of Hybrid

The main selling point of Hybrid management is customizability. You can tailor the methodology to your needs. Mix and match Waterfall and Agile parts as you like. There are no rules you must follow, as in Waterfall.

The freedom of Hybrid gives businesses complete control over the implementation. What Agile elements would you like to incorporate into your workflow? Are the stakeholders and project team on board? Can the project team handle it? Great, that’s all you need.

Because the approach is so flexible, you can modify it over time. For example, if you see an area for improvement that would benefit from using a more Agile approach, nothing stops you from making a change.

Drawbacks of Hybrid

Most of the issues with Hybrid are related to implementation. Firstly, it requires managers to know both Waterfall and Agile, at least enough to blend them the way they want to. So, you can consider it a barrier of entry of sorts.

Then, there’s the team and their competences. Implementing a mixed approach might confuse the project team, especially those with little experience with Agile.

Last but not least, Agile and Waterfall tend to use different metrics. Combining the two might be challenging.

Waterfall, Agile, and Hybrid – Key differences

Based on the breakdown above, it’s clear the three approaches are quite different. 

Waterfall is rigid, Agile is adaptive, and Hybrid is customizable. Whether it’s delivery time, stakeholder involvement, or ease of implementation, they all fall in different places of the project management spectrum.

Here’s a handy summary of Classic, Agile, and Hybrid methodologies.

Key differences between Waterfall, Agile, and Hybrid approaches.

Waterfall, Agile, or Hybrid: which one is right for you?

The choice of a project management approach depends on various factors. To help you make an informed decision, let’s look at where each approach is most effective.

Use Waterfall when:

  • The scope, timeline, requirements, and budget are fixed and unlikely to change,
  • The documentation is extensive,
  • The project can be planned as a whole in advance.

Use Agile when:

  • Your products evolve quickly,
  • The industry is changing rapidly,
  • Your project team is capable of self-management,
  • Frequent customer or stakeholder involvement is possible.

Use Hybrid when:

  • Neither Waterfall nor Agile is the optimal solution,
  • You’re in the process of digital transformation,
  • You need methodological flexibility.

Now you know how Classic, Agile, and Hybrid differ and when they work best. Hopefully, it will help you choose the best approach for your projects.

Need a PPM tool that supports all three approaches? Choose BigPicture

Most businesses run Classic, Agile, and Hybrid initiatives. To manage all of them in a single command center, you need software compatible with all three types. Whether you’re in Jira or monday.com ecosystems, BigPicture is the perfect choice.

Our PPM app enables you to manage projects, programs, and portfolios in one place. It supports Classic, Agile, and Hybrid approaches. Use BigPicture to

  • Visualize, plan, and manage initiatives, 
  • Lead teams and set priorities,
  • Supervise performance and track progress,
  • Coordinate resources and distribute workloads,
  • Detect and respond to risks,
  • And more.

Thanks to seamless integration with Jira or monday.com, your teams can continue using their preferred work management software – all the data flows to and from BigPicture. That gives you better clarity without impacting the teams’ work.