Welcome to the exciting realm of project management, where scrum and waterfall methodologies each offer unique approaches to tackling projects. To truly appreciate their differences, exploring their characteristics in-depth is essential.
In this article, we'll highlight scrum—the most celebrated agile methodology—and contrast it with the classic waterfall method. Are you ready to learn more about scrum to determine if it's the right methodology for your project?
Let's dive in together!
What does scrum entail?
Scrum is a way of organizing work in agile software development. Unlike the straight-line waterfall method, it uses a step-by-step approach to complete projects. Scrum allows teams to adjust to changes in the project during development quickly.
Instead of following a strict order like waterfall, scrum uses short work periods called sprints. These sprints usually last two weeks and involve planning, designing, building, and testing the software to give users a working product.
The product owner (or product manager) is in charge of establishing the product's vision, collecting requirements, and creating and prioritizing a product backlog based on value. They decide what needs to be built and are often considered the face of the product, regularly interacting with stakeholders.
Here's one of the best videos I've come across that explains the role of a product owner in scrum:
The scrum master (or delivery manager) plays a crucial role in scrum—encouraging teams to be self-organizing and cross-functional. Although often linked to a single full-time person, any development team member can take on the scrum master role. The main goal is to ensure a scrum team runs smoothly and to coach the team to become more self-organized, ultimately aiming to make their presence unnecessary in a high-performing team.
The development team usually consists of software engineers. They are responsible for building the product.
Here's how a scrum team plans and completes sprints
In this example, we'll illustrate the step-by-step process of how a scrum team effectively prepares and completes sprints to achieve project goals:
- The product owner curates a product backlog with user stories (scrum-speak for requirements). The scrum master ensures these stories are high-quality—well-written, clear, and containing all necessary information for successful delivery.
- The scrum master leads a sprint planning meeting, during which the team reviews the stories the product owner aims to complete in the upcoming sprint. The stories are then estimated using planning poker, and the approved ones are added to the sprint backlog.
- Over the next two weeks, the development team will work diligently on the stories. The product owner remains available to answer questions and make priority calls, while the scrum master facilitates daily stand-ups to monitor progress and address any obstacles.
- By the sprint's conclusion, the goal is to have a functional piece of software ready for real users.
- The software is released, user feedback is collected regarding its usability and value, and this information shapes the next sprint's objectives.
- A sprint review is conducted at the end of the sprint, during which the team presents their accomplishments and stakeholders provide feedback, further informing the upcoming sprint's work.
- Lastly, a sprint retrospective takes place, allowing for an honest assessment of the team's performance and identifying improvement actions to ensure continuous growth.
- The entire process then repeats, optimizing efficiency and effectiveness with each iteration.
What are the key differences between scrum and waterfall?
From our explanation of how scrum processes work, we can already see some critical differences with waterfall project management.
Here's a summary based on the aspects of planning, flexibility, and collaboration:
Planning and deliverables
Waterfall follows a linear and sequential planning and delivery cycle. The project phases are more formal and include requirements gathering, design, implementation, testing, launch, and maintenance. Each phase must be completed before the next one starts.
Scrum, however, focuses on an iterative and incremental approach to planning and delivery. As described in the previous section, each sprint is akin to a mini-project that aims to release working software to users on a regular cadence instead of the big bang end-of-project launch associated with waterfall.
Scrum offers greater adaptability to change compared to waterfall, which tends to be more rigid.
In waterfall projects, introducing changes often involves a lengthy change request process due to the project's linear and sequential nature. As a result, any modifications could be expensive and cause significant delays in the project timeline. For instance, if a design change is requested during the implementation phase, any work related to the design change may need to be discarded, leading to wasted time and resources.
On the other hand, scrum is designed to accommodate changes smoothly. Work is completed in short sprints, allowing new ideas to be incorporated into the next sprint with minimal wait time—typically just two weeks.
Although it is generally preferred not to make changes within sprints after they are locked in during sprint planning, adjustments can still be made if necessary. If new work is deemed more valuable and needs to be added to a sprint, the product owner will assess the priorities and potentially remove other tasks of equivalent size from the current sprint to make room for the new work.
If this change occurs early in the sprint, it can cause minimal disruption, but if it happens later, it may need to be postponed until the next sprint.
A fundamental aspect of scrum is collaboration, which starkly contrasts the waterfall approach.
In waterfall projects, different phases and team members often operate in isolation from one another, with a strong emphasis on individual deliverables and responsibility. Unfortunately, this approach can foster an unhealthy, high-pressure environment where stress is common.
Conversely, scrum encourages extensive collaboration among all team members and stakeholders. The goal of having cross-functional teams and involving everyone in regular discussions is a complete departure from the waterfall method.
So, which methodology should you choose? Let's find out.
Scrum vs. waterfall: Which one wins?
As is often the case, the answer to which methodology you should use is it depends—because it does!
If you spend enough time in project management, you will come across staunch supporters on both sides of waterfall and scrum. They will passionately argue why their methodology is the best and the other is terrible, but I believe they're both wrong.
Instead, you should objectively assess each methodology's strengths and weaknesses and determine which aligns best with your specific project.
When to use the waterfall methodology
While waterfall's more rigid structure is becoming less popular than agile methodologies, it still holds value in specific situations.
Waterfall may be an ideal choice for small projects with well-defined requirements and minimal chances of change. It also works well for repeatable processes, such as an assembly line where the outcomes are virtually identical each time.
In heavily regulated industries like government or banking, waterfall's step-by-step approach can be advantageous, emphasizing sign-offs for each phase and subphase. This structure supports projects that demand extensive compliance and governance.
However, even in these contexts, agile methodologies are making inroads, and organizations are discovering ways to incorporate agile practices like scrum into their project delivery.
When to use the scrum methodology
Scrum's popularity can be attributed to its ease of adoption compared to other agile methodologies. While transitioning from waterfall to scrum presents challenges, scrum is often an excellent first step in making the switch.
The precise definition of roles and responsibilities and focus on process control set scrum apart from other agile methodologies like kanban or extreme programming (XP).
In today's world, scrum is better suited than waterfall as teams can deliver value in short sprints rather than waiting months or years for software to reach customers. Teams can pivot on ideas and plans without disrupting the project, making scrum attractive.
Having self-organizing teams focused on continuous improvement is strategically advantageous as it requires less oversight, fosters accountability, and leads to high-performing teams.
It's no wonder scrum is becoming increasingly popular in various industries!
The more prepared organizations are, the more popular scrum will be
As more agencies have adopted scrum, they have educated their clients about the benefits of an agile approach compared to the traditional waterfall method. In the early days, digital agencies struggled to implement scrum in client projects, and only in-house software development teams used it.
Adopting scrum presents challenges, and agencies face even more than in-house teams. Overcoming financial alignment issues is a significant hurdle, with organizations needing to ensure their financial processes and governance are aligned with agile methodologies. This often requires new finance leaders or educating existing ones about scrum.
While it took some time for the finance world to catch up, it has now, resulting in fewer barriers to implementing scrum than a decade ago. With more organizations well-prepared for an agile transition, the popularity of scrum is set to rise even further.
A potential hybrid approach
Some organizations, especially digital agencies, may find a hybrid approach between waterfall and scrum to be a viable solution. While it may cause some disagreement among agile purists, the reality is that organizations need to be practical and adopt what works best for them.
In a hybrid approach, requirements gathering and design are done in a waterfall manner, while the implementation phase is completed using scrum iterations. This allows organizations to maintain some of the benefits of waterfall while still taking advantage of the flexibility and responsiveness of scrum.
Organizations may consider a hybrid approach because it can:
- Be a significant first step for a waterfall-based organization to dip its toe in agile waters.
- Bring comfort to finance professionals or clients who require clarification on the feasibility or advantages of a new approach.
- Be helpful when working with larger organizations, where different teams or departments have varying preferences for project management methodologies.
- Provide a flexible approach that allows organizations to adapt to changes and unexpected challenges during the project lifecycle.
When it comes to digital agencies, they need to be extra adaptable because they have to work with their clients' preferred methodologies. This means being flexible enough to work with waterfall, agile, and hybrid approaches. It's like having a toolbox filled with different tools, and you have to choose the right one for the job.
It's crucial to analyze all the project variables, such as technology, finance, risk, scope, timeline, people, and politics. This will help you select the right tools to deliver the project successfully.
Instead of being stuck on one particular methodology, focus on achieving the best possible outcome for the project. Remember, it's not about being right or wrong—it's about being effective!