Agile and Waterfall Methodologies: Ten Differences
28th March 2019

Ten Differences Between Agile and Waterfall Methodologies

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Ouch! This quote stings us all. And, it applies to agile and the managerial interest it continues to attract today.

Agile project management is the rediscovery of self-managing teams an the principles behind them, originally studied in the 1950s. The rediscovery emerged from a contemporary business environment that rewards rapid learning and adaptability, while punishing bureaucratic sluggishness. Even if you believe agile doesn’t apply to your business, this is an important message to recognize.

You can view agile and waterfall project planning as objects by which you can understand a more fundamental organization design principle. This is particularly relevant if you are operating in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment. This applies to most of us. The benefit is that you see a deeper logic that can help you make choices when considering the design and operation of your organization.

This article draws upon ideas of adaptive learning, managerial logics, and self-managing teams. Together, they help shape understanding of differences between agile and waterfall methodologies.

Breaking down the differences between agile and waterfall methodologies

Adaptive Learning

Today’s operating environment is complex, rapid, and chaotic. This is self-evident to anyone involved in organization leadership. The most relevant models of change in unpredictable environments are based on learning.

Deming advocated a framework of Plan-Do-Check-Act.

Donald Sull proposed Make Sense-Make Choices-Make it Happen-Make Revisions.

Bill Passmore offered Discover-Decide-Do-Discern.

Kolb outlined Experience-Reflection-Learning-Planning.

Each model describes the same premise of cycles of experience-based, iterative learning. The path to an objective is best described as continuous course correction, not a predetermined straight line.

Agile is a learning methodology and team structure. It is used to rapidly develop products and services. It is based on the values of adaptive planning, continuous improvement, and the ability to change quickly and easily. Following these values are core principles including customer satisfaction as the highest priority, frequent and frictionless collaboration, and self-organization. Agile was developed as a methodology to rapidly identify and adjust for issues using short, iterative sprints.

Scrum teams are a common operational element of agile methodology. There are two features to highlight. First, a scrum team consists of all the jobs (i.e., people) necessary to develop a complete product – product owners, developers, scrum master, testers, etc. The second feature is that the scrum master, who is tasked with keeping the project moving forward, is a member in the team itself. Responsibility for control and coordination is located at the level where work is actually performed. It is not imposed from an external source.

Managerial Logic

Managerial logic is the set of assumptions and mental models that managers maintain about organization control and coordination. One logic is called the bureaucratic model. The core principle is that responsibility for control is located one level above where work is actually performed. It is an authority structure that seeks predictability (i.e., plan the work and work the plan), creates decision-making bottlenecks, inflates administrative overhead and costs, and promotes an inward orientation toward pleasing the boss.

An alternative logic is called the democratic model. The core principle here is that responsibility for control and coordination is located at the level where work is actually performed. We’ve seen this sentence before in the description of agile scrum teams. The scrum team structure, like the democratic managerial logic itself, encourages collaboration, accelerates learning, reduces administrative overhead, places decision making closest to the people doing the work, and promotes an orientation to customers and outcomes. This logic does not lead to a relaxation of controls and standards. Rather, there is a shift from goals imposed from outside the work group to goals set by work groups in consultation with managers and in alignment with governing strategy.

There is a general relationship between an organization’s external operating environment and managerial logic. The bureaucratic paradigm can work under stable environmental conditions, where tasks are simple, or even complicated but well understood, where senior leaders can be expected to know as much or more than rank-and-file workers, and the risk of failure is catastrophic. The democratic paradigm works best in rapidly changing and complex environments, where workers in close contact with the work and customers know more than higher-level leaders, and efficient cross-functional collaboration is essential to rapid development of new products and services.

Self-Managing Teams

Teams that are collectively responsible for a whole, identifiable outcome and staffed with all necessary skills are known to have substantive benefits. They are:

  • more responsive to local conditions
  • more accountable for total outcome performance
  • more resilient in the face of stress
  • more reliable.

Eric Trist’s seminal research from the 1950’s enumerated these benefits.

In contrast are work designs that do not promote collective responsibility for whole outcomes and are based on task specialists and fragmented work. There is no team with shared objectives — there are units of work that rely on external mechanisms of control and coordination. Direction is externalized from the people doing the work. The work itself tends to be predetermined and sequential. Workers don’t identify with an end-product. There is diminished social relatedness, resulting in little concern for helping workers from other task specialties. Workers don’t tend to receive feedback about the total product or service from customers or end-users. And, if they do receive feedback, there is little they can do with it.

Self-managing teams operating in a democratic managerial logic to enable adaptive change — this is an agile team. It is an explicitly identified context from which to look at ten differences between agile and waterfall methodologies. The differences are presented as a comparative list. The intent is to use comparisons to help the reader develop an overall picture of both agile and waterfall methodologies. It’s important to understand that there are some environments which still favor waterfall project management. However, the fact that the adoption rate of agile methodology continues to grow is feedback from a general environment that is increasingly competitive and turbulent.

10 Differences Between Agile and Waterfall Methodologies
Waterfall Mindset Agile Mindset
Bureaucratic paradigm Democratic paradigm
Full-cycle planning Short-cycle learning and adaptability
Externalized control removed from the work Internal control placed close to the work
Inward orientation to hierarchy External orientation to stakeholders
Vulnerable to cascading delays Decreased risk of missed objectives
Simple or complicated tasks Complex tasks
Coordination and scheduling Fluid, real-time collaboration
Heavy documentation Lighter-weight framework
Diffuse responsibility Direct ownership
Stable environments Dynamic environments


Which List Reflects Your Organization?

Through a comparison of agile and waterfall methodologies, we can see two different managerial logics for organization. Agile is a self-managing team. The fundamental idea of the self-managing team and, by extension, the self-managing organization has been around for decades. Technology and an increasingly fast-moving environment have produced conditions for self-managing teams to become mainstreamed through the agile development model. The bureaucratic organization has also been around us for a long time. Such a long time that hierarchy and control is deeply embedded into our default thinking. We’ve learned to live with the liabilities of this thinking. Agile is showing us that another way is possible. Industry other than software development is picking up the possibility.

Compare the characteristics of agile and waterfall methodologies found in the ten differences list to your organization. Which one reflects the way you work today? Which one reflects where you need to be tomorrow? The benefit of this review is to become more aware of the dominant design logic in your organization, so you can ask more informed questions about your design choices and their implications. The growth of self-managing teams is not coincidence, market turbulence is pulling it into widespread use.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

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Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK.

OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with offices in the USA and UK. With over 450 successful redesigns and operating model modernizations completed, OTM is owner of the industry’s most integrated, comprehensive and holistic organization design solution. OTM enables its clients to realize their future ambitions.

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