Traditional vs agile project management

Traditional vs. agile project management

Reading time: about 7 min


  • Agile and project planning

Agile and traditional project management both offer distinct advantages. So making a decision between the two requires thinking carefully about which one is a better fit for your team. 

Here’s a quick guide to traditional vs agile project management to help you make the decision that’s right for your team and the projects at hand. 

What is Agile project management? 

Agile is an approach to project management that focuses on creating results through an evolutionary process. Each project goes through several iteration phases that refine and adjust the product through customer, team, and environment input. 

Rather than planning everything upfront like waterfall project management does, Agile project management uses multiple steps and customer feedback to refine a “draft” project into a final version. Agile emphasizes teamwork and brings the customer into your project team. 

Along the way, your team develops versions instead of working towards a single final version. Problems and challenges provide opportunities to shape the early product, turning a negative— encountering problems—into a positive for your product development. 

Agile works best for projects with a lot of ambiguity and potential uncertainty. If your project is routine and straightforward, however, then you may want to consider waterfall project management instead. 

Benefits of Agile

  • Flexibility: Agile product management allows teams to quickly adapt based on customer or environmental feedback. 
  • Transparency: With ongoing feedback incorporated into the project management process itself, Agile is very transparent, keeping end customers informed at every step. This helps reduce confusion and manage expectations. 
  • Better collaboration: By bringing on teams, customers, users, and other stakeholders earlier on in the project, Agile encourages stronger collaboration. 
  • Efficient problem solving: Problems are caught early, when they are often easier to solve, instead of post-launch. The product is subjected to regular testing so you can efficiently solve problems. 

Important characteristics of Agile

Agile is a strategy born out of software development. As such, this type of project management is customized to the needs and expectations of software teams. 

With Agile, your team should expect to deliver regular updates to customers and incorporate feedback regularly. Generally, project progress is undertaken in two-week cycles called sprints. Since progress is very transparent, your entire team knows the status of each project and can provide input or help with problems as they arise. 

Traditional vs agile project management
Sprint Planning Room example (Click on image to modify online)

It’s important to keep in mind that Agile can be less predictable, more demanding, and not as clear for your team. With less documentation and upfront planning than other forms of project management, Agile can sometimes lead to frustration if stakeholders are not involved enough. 

What is traditional (waterfall) project management

Traditional project management assumes that a project can be planned ahead of time with relatively little change to scope. In a waterfall project, little-to-no uncertainty is expected. Projects are defined early on and move along a streamlined, consistent process until the product is deployed and maintenance begins.  

Waterfall projects follow an identical lifecycle with similar milestones involving the planning, design, implementation, testing, delivery, and maintenance. Since there is presumably low ambiguity, a project following this project management approach can be expected to be highly linear. 

This style works best for well-defined projects and is at a disadvantage for projects with unanswered questions, missing information, or experimental concepts. 

Phases of traditional project management approach

  1. Documentation and gathering requirements: Before you can start your project, you start with thorough brainstorming and planning. Gather together stakeholders and sketch out all of the requirements for your project, set budgets, bring the right personnel on board, and distribute clear documentation to everyone on the team. 
  2. Designing the system: Start designing your system and creating clear specifications and requirements for the hardware. Determine what programming languages you’ll use and prepare for any coding you’ll need in the project. 
  3. Implementation: Build a functional product that’s nearly ready to go live. Your coding teams will probably bring together multiple smaller batches of code into a full system. 
  4. Testing: Thoroughly test your system and ask the testers for feedback, particularly any problems they’ve discovered. Refine your product design and code based on what they find. 
  5. Delivery and deployment: Prepare to release your product and deliver it. 
  6. Maintenance and updates: Create updates and provide maintenance to your product as customers identify issues. Your team regularly builds patches to keep your new system functional and performing to the original specifications. 

Benefits of traditional project management

Waterfall project management does offer benefits for teams working on clearly-defined projects. These advantages can strengthen your overall project and improve your outcomes: 

  • Clear direction: From start to finish, the structure behind waterfall projects is very clear and every step has to be finished before your team can successfully move on to the next steps. You can’t, for instance, implement before outlining requirements and designing the system. With the planning upfront and finished early on, your team can quickly determine what happens next no matter where you are right now in your project. 
  • Clear documentation: Thanks to that early clarity, your team knows what the goals are and can readily get what they need from your documentation. The focus is on the final end goal throughout the project with clearly-defined benchmarks to make sure you’re still on track. 
  • Single point of accountability: The project manager has final responsibility and is the single point of accountability keeping the team organized, focused, and accountable. If anyone has questions or if a decision needs to be made, the project manager can provide direction. 

Pain points project managers face within traditional project management

Traditional project management has unique limitations: 

  • Reliance on the project manager: Not everyone in the team knows the project’s status, since communication about big-picture project progress largely depends on efforts from the project manager. In this sense, the project manager’s status at the center of the project can be both a strength and a weakness. 
  • Low or no involvement from customers: Customers often do not have the opportunity to shape product development after the project starts. 

How to choose the correct approach

Both of these types of project management have different strengths and limitations. The right project methodology for you will likely depend on the type of product you’re developing. Although it can be difficult to choose between traditional vs agile project management, with some research and consideration you are likely to find one project management approach more appealing than the other. 

Traditional vs agile project management

Project needs

Take a close look at your project. If its deadline is firm, a waterfall approach may be better. This gives you a chance to decide all the details before you begin. You can then follow the project lifecycle from the requirements all the way to the deployment and maintenance stages. For a shorter deadline, Agile allows you to get a product built faster with regular feedback along the way. 

Team needs

If your team is already familiar with a particular type of project and project management style, that can also guide your decision. For instance, familiarity with how Agile works may mean that using Agile is a better fit for most (if not all) of the projects your team undertakes. 

Take a look at the background and preferences of the people on your team. Ask for their input, too, if possible. 

Other factors to consider:

  • Nature of the project: Some projects are better suited to one project management framework or another. For instance, a project your team has a lot of experience and familiarity with may be a good fit for the waterfall method.
  • Existing organizational processes: Teams that have established processes that fit one method in particular, such as regular sprint meetings, may favor that method in their projects. 
  • Budget: Waterfall is great for a clearly-defined, specific budget. 
  • Project timeline: With a shorter timeline, Agile can help your team deliver quickly. 

How to adjust the approach mid-project when necessary

Sometimes, you have to adjust your approach mid-project. Make sure you bring on any expertise you need, involve your stakeholders, and gain strong visibility about your project. You may need to redo some of your project planning depending on how far along you are in the project lifecycle.

Traditional vs agile project management

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