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Waterfall Methodology vs. Agile: What’s Best for Your Project?

Learn the difference between Waterfall and Agile and choose the methodology best suited for your next project.

Motion Blog
at Motion
Oct 16, 2023
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Imagine running a relay race where every runner waits their turn, passing the baton in perfect order.

Now, picture a team where every member runs together, adjusting pace as they go, ensuring they all cross the finish line at once.

In the project management world, these two race styles mirror the waterfall and Agile methodologies.

For every business owner and project manager tearing their hair out, trying to juggle deadlines and priorities, understanding when and how to use these methodologies can be a productivity game-changer.

What is waterfall?

Let’s say you’re making a ham sandwich. With the waterfall methodology, you follow steps to make your sandwich in a linear process, one after the other. First, you lay out your bread. Only after that's done, you add the mayo. Then, once you've spread the mayo, you put on the lettuce, ham, and Swiss cheese. Each step is done one at a time, in a clear order.

That's how the waterfall method works in project management. First, you start with figuring out what you need. This is called the "requirements" stage. In our sandwich analogy, this would be like listing your sandwich’s ingredients.

Then, you design or plan how everything should look, called the "design" stage. Next, you actually make or build it ("implementation"), test to make sure everything's good ("testing"), and then share or use it ("deployment"). Lastly, you take care of any issues or updates in the "maintenance" phase.

Waterfall is like following a recipe step-by-step.

First, you do one thing, then the next, and so on. Let’s think back to our sandwich and imagine that after adding everything, you decide you want turkey instead of ham.

Well, making this switch would be pretty catastrophic for your sandwich. With waterfall, going back to change things can be tricky. It's like having to start your sandwich all over again. So, with this method, it's important to know what you want from the start.

What is Agile?

Picture a group of friends planning a road trip. Instead of setting the entire route from start to finish, they decide on the next stop as they go, adjusting their journey based on what they discover and how they feel. Those are the principles of Agile project management.

Rather than sticking to a strict plan from the start, like in waterfall, the Agile approach is more like taking short trips (or "sprints") that last about two to four weeks. After each sprint, the team sees what they've learned, listens to new ideas or feedback, and then plans their next move.

‎It’s like our road trip friends deciding to visit a cool new place they just heard about or staying an extra day somewhere they love.

It means the project can easily adapt to new information or changes, even if they weren't part of the original plan. The focus is on working together, learning as you go, and being ready to change directions when needed.

Advantages and disadvantages of waterfall

Waterfall, with its step-by-step approach, can seem like the logical choice for many projects. And while it’s certainly a solid fit for some developments, it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” methodology.

Below, we’ll break down waterfall's strengths and where it might come up short.


Well-defined project phases: With waterfall, each stage is clearly marked — just like a detailed recipe when cooking. By knowing each ingredient and step ahead of time, there's less room for guesswork.

Clear documentation: Everything is documented in waterfall. Imagine keeping a diary for a project to capture every decision, every action, and why it was taken. This can be a lifesaver if someone new joins the team or if you need to look back to understand a past decision.

Easier to estimate timelines and costs: Since everything is laid out from the start, estimating how long things will take and how much they'll cost is straightforward. It's like planning a trip when you know the exact distance and stops you'll make.

Reduced scope creep: In waterfall, you set what you want to achieve at the beginning and stick to it. Think of it as shopping with a strict list — you’re less likely to end up with unexpected items in your cart.

A table showing the pros and cons of waterfall


Difficult to make changes: Here lies a primary challenge with waterfall. Once you've completed a stage, going back can be tough. If you've ever tried to fix a cake after it's baked because you forgot an ingredient, you’ll understand this dilemma.

Might not suit projects with uncertain requirements: Some projects evolve as they go. It's like setting out to paint a picture but not knowing what the final image should be. Waterfall prefers clarity from the start, and without that clarity, it struggles.

Risk of mismatch between initial design and user needs: With the entire plan laid out at the beginning, there’s a chance that by the time the project ends, user needs might have changed. It's a bit like ordering clothes online, only to realize they don’t fit quite right when they arrive.

While waterfall offers a structured and well-planned approach, it demands foresight and doesn’t take kindly to mid-course corrections.

For projects with complex deliverables where major changes in design or requirements are unlikely — like building a bridge — waterfall is a perfect fit. But for development projects where change is a constant — like software — a more flexible methodology is better.

Advantages and disadvantages of Agile

Agile offers flexibility in project management, like a nimble freestyle dancer adjusting to the rhythm of a song. But like any methodology, Agile development has both strengths and challenges.


Flexibility in accommodating changes: Agile is adaptable. It's almost like crafting a clay pot — if you notice an imperfection or want to change the design, you can easily mold and adjust it while it's still wet.

Iterative approach for continuous improvement: With Agile, improvements aren’t saved for the end, they're made constantly. Imagine writing a book where you get feedback on every chapter and can make it better before moving to the next.

Enhanced team collaboration: Agile encourages project teams to work closely and communicate. When surveyed, 69% of Agile practitioners say that increased collaboration within their organizations is a satisfying result of Agile.

Dynamic resource allocation: Agile allows for a flexible use of resources. If one part of the project needs more hands, it’s possible to adjust on the fly.

A table showing the pros and cons of Agile


Potential for chaos: Without proper management, keeping Agile teams focused on priorities is a bit like herding cats. If everyone’s running in different directions, it can get chaotic.

Might lack comprehensive documentation: An Agile model emphasizes working solutions, but sometimes, the documentation (the 'paper trail' of a project) might get left behind. Think of it as cooking without writing down the recipe. The dish might be delicious, but replicating it can be a challenge.

Requires a shift in mindset: For those used to a structured approach like waterfall, adapting to Agile can be a leap. It’s like switching from classical music to jazz — it’s still music, and you might even play the same instrument, but the rhythm and style are different.

Challenging to set a fixed price or timeline: Since Agile is adaptive, pinning down exact costs and finish dates can be tricky.

Risk of scope creep: With constant feedback and changes, the project's scope can expand if not kept in check. It’s like grocery shopping without a list and ending up spending way more than you bargained for.

The bottom line is that Agile offers a flexible, collaborative approach that can be perfect for projects where adaptability is king. However, it needs careful management and a clear vision to prevent your project from flying off the rails.

The basic differences between waterfall and Agile

At first glance, waterfall and Agile may just seem like two different ways to manage a project. But dive a bit deeper, and their fundamental differences start to surface.

  1. Planning approach: Waterfall is like setting a roadmap for a long journey. You plan your route in detail before setting out. In contrast, Agile is more spontaneous. Recall our road trip analogy from earlier, where we compared Agile to hitting the open road with only the next destination in mind, deciding the next steps as you travel based on what you left from your previous stop.
  2. Flexibility and adaptability: While waterfall values sticking closely to the initial plan, Agile is more like clay, moldable, and ready to adapt.
  3. Team collaboration and client involvement: In waterfall, imagine collecting all the ingredients for a recipe at once. With Agile, it's like tasting and adjusting as you cook, getting frequent inputs from those waiting to enjoy the dish.
  4. Documentation and deliverables: Waterfall prides itself on detailed documentation at every stage, like writing an in-depth diary of a journey. Agile, on the other hand, focuses more on the journey's experiences rather than always chronicling them in detail.
  5. Project phases: In waterfall, each phase is a distinct step, similar to reading chapters of a book in order. With Agile, it's like writing several chapters simultaneously, refining each as you learn more.
  6. Feedback loops: While waterfall might present you with a fully baked cake at the end, with Agile, you're tasting and adjusting the recipe continuously, ensuring the finished product is just right.

Both methodologies have their strengths, the best fit depends on the situation.

Think of them like choosing between hiking boots and running shoes. Depending on the journey ahead, one might be a better fit than the other. Knowing their differences can help you pick the right one for your project.

When to use waterfall vs. Agile

Selecting the right approach for your project can be a royal pain. But, by understanding the nature of your project and what it requires, the choice becomes clearer.

Waterfall: best for predictable paths

When your project has a clear map from the start and you know exactly where you're headed, waterfall is your go-to guide. Here are scenarios where this method shines:

  1. Clear requirements: If your project has a clear deliverable from the start — like if you’re building a house from a set of plans — waterfall is your best choice.
  2. Deliverable usability: If the whole result needs to be there to make it useful at all, choose waterfall (like the bridge example).
  3. Strict phase dependencies: In projects where the next phase relies on the previous phases, like in manufacturing, where production can't start until the design is finished, waterfall is a natural fit.
  4. Linear projects: Waterfall is well-suited for projects where the sequence matters and doesn't change much. For example, if you’re paving a road, you can’t lay asphalt until the base layers are shaped and compacted. If you changed this sequence, you wouldn’t be paving a road, you’d be making a mess.

Agile thrives in evolving terrains

If your project’s scope might change based on new discoveries or shifting conditions, Agile is like the trusty compass that can keep you moving in the right direction. Consider these situations where Agile stands out:

  1. Evolving project requirements: Imagine your development team is designing an app. Users might want different features or changes once they try it out. With Agile, you can easily make those updates based on their feedback.
  2. Quick adaptation: In fast-changing industries, like tech, where new gadgets pop up constantly, like the stock market, Agile helps you stay on your toes. It lets you react quickly to whatever comes next.
  3. Continuous feedback for customer satisfaction: Just like a chef tastes food while cooking to make it perfect, the Agile method is well-suited for projects where stakeholder and customer feedback is critical to refining and delivering the best end product.

Whichever project management methodology you choose boils down to the nature of your project and what you hope to achieve.

But remember, it's not about which method is "better" but rather which is the best fit for your specific project. Equip yourself with the right approach, and your path to success becomes that much clearer.

Leveraging Motion for superior project management in waterfall or Agile

Every team needs a dynamic tool that can adjust and adapt to their chosen project management method, whether that's the structured steps of waterfall or the flexible iterations of Agile.

That's where Motion comes in, paving the way with AI-driven features that elevate your project management:

Intelligent calendar

Wave goodbye to scheduling nightmares. Motion’s AI calendar ensures optimal task timing, detects potential scheduling clashes, and assists in resource allocation.


‎Motion seamlessly connects with Google or Microsoft calendars and smartly organizes your day, considering factors like deadlines, work hours, linked tasks, and scheduled meetings.

The net result? A smoother project timeline and fewer delays.

Smart Task Manager

Let AI prioritize your schedule for you. Motion's task manager evaluates task urgency based on set deadlines, dependencies, and resource availability.


This means your team always knows what to tackle, maximizing efficiency and minimizing time on tasks that can wait.

For waterfall enthusiasts

Motion is customizable to suit each phase of your project.


Define stages, establish dependencies, and visually track tasks and milestones to ensure everything progresses as planned.

For Agile aficionados

Enjoy iterative workflows backed by Motion's flexible task management system, collaboration-centric features, and Kanban boards.


With its intuitive design and intelligent AI core, Motion helps simplify backlog management and sprint planning, ensuring each iteration is as productive as possible.

Do more with Motion

It’s clear: Motion is the missing piece for teams looking to supercharge their project management, regardless of their preferred methodology.

So why not take it for a spin?

Sign up for a free trial and experience firsthand how Motion can accelerate your project workflows and help you get more done faster.

Motion Blog
Written by Motion Blog