Agile vs Waterfall Software Development: Why You Need to Know the Difference

If you’ve ever worked at a big corporation, it’s possible that you’re used to a linear way of working: you start by outlining an idea, you define next steps, get your team working through the plan, and review it all at the end. 

Sharing is caring!

by Matias Emiliano Alvarez Duran


Sound familiar? Then you’re no stranger to working with Waterfall.

But in the fast-paced world of software development, you need to shorten the time to market in every possible way. And sticking to the linear Waterfall method often conflicts with timely solutions.

So, should you follow tradition or switch it up? And in the Agile software development vs Waterfall duel, which are you going to bet on?

To help you make an informed decision, we’ve compiled the key differences between Agile vs Waterfall software development. Find out everything you need to know, including the key frameworks and how you can augment your team with Agile experts from NaNLABS.

Table of contents 

Ready to build your own custom software with a team that cares about you and your processes? We’re not code monkeys, we care about you

Agile vs. Waterfall: The key differences

Agile and Waterfall are two common methodologies used by software development teams to outline their process and deliver a project.

Both Agile and Waterfall methodologies aim to deliver working software, but they do it quite differently and have different pros and cons. It’s crucial for you to understand the differences and choose the one that adjusts best to your needs. Some key differences:

The Waterfall model is linear because you have to fully complete one step before moving up to the next one. Agile, allows you to shorten the steps and testing in-between to guarantee you’re delivering the best possible outcome.

Agile Software Development 

The highly structured and bureaucratic approach of Waterfall is often too limiting for modern software development. The Agile methodology was created to address the gaps.

Let’s deep dive into Agile so you can understand how it works. 

What is Agile Software Development?  

Agile is now one of the most popular methodologies to follow when it comes to product development. It invites users to do frequent retrospectives and take an iterative approach to achieve the best possible end result. 

In teams that follow an Agile project management methodology, iteration is a big part of their culture. This means that no one is afraid to point out a mistake or suggest ways to improve features, unlike traditional methodologies that only have one review stage at the end. 

At NaNLABS, we have a definition phase in each sprint and focus on the value delivered in that sprint. It allows our project team to learn from what they built and get a better idea of the project requirements. We also have refinement sessions for team members to add more details to future tasks as the project progresses.

Agile software development frameworks to consider 

The Agile methodology is flexible at its core. Agile software development frameworks help provide teams with a roadmap for working flexibly with plenty of room for iteration.

The four agile frameworks are 

  1. Scrum. This is one of the most common frameworks. It divides work into small planning periods called sprints, which usually last around 2-4 weeks. By the end of each sprint, the Agile team has a retrospective to stay efficient and flexible.

  2. Kanban. This is a Japanese methodology that uses visual cards to organize pending work by status: backlog/to-do, in progress, in review, completed. It can also be mixed with Scrum as a way of visualizing work in the sprints. There are some Agile software development tools that mix the two frameworks like ClickUp or Jira.

  3. Lean. This framework is more of a guiding principle than a work methodology. It invites everyone to maximize efficiency and reduce waste.

  4. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). SAFe is aimed at big corporations and focuses on three pillars: Team, Program, and Portfolio. It makes Agile scalable by documenting processes and best practices to be rolled out on bigger projects.

Advantages of Agile 

Here are some of the most important benefits of Agile software development:

  • Team involvement. Agile invites everyone that’s part of the project to actively participate every step of the way. That leads to stakeholder engagement and trust by making the process transparent to everyone, and it improves morale because everyone’s opinion is valued.

  • Faster problem-solving. Since Agile fosters changes at any stage, it allows teams to test and identify issues in a shorter period. This is especially helpful when clients have a big project. Breaking projects down into manageable chunks and making sure the software is functional before moving on to the next phase is a huge time saver. 

  • Predictable schedule and costs. In Agile, project managers should keep track of the work and be able to predict future sprints or stories accurately. The more experienced the team, the more precise the cost and timeline predictions will be. 

Disadvantages of Agile 

Even if we would like it to be perfect, Agile does come with challenges. They include 

  • Steep learning curve. While the methodology is pretty straightforward and easy to understand, it takes time for everyone to get used to an Agile flow. It also takes time for teams to evaluate their velocity, cycle times, and other Agile software development metrics, to make accurate estimations. 

  • Never-ending projects. Iteration is what makes Agile great, but if product owners don’t set boundaries, iteration can end up putting the project into a never-ending feedback loop.

  • Meeting overload. Teams that use an Agile approach might easily fall into the pit of infinite meetings. This is something to watch out for, because meetings may seem necessary to implement a culture of iteration, but they can also end up becoming too much. 

When to use Agile

If you need to act fast, you should always use Agile. Especially when doing the work is more important than documenting processes and spending too much time delimiting it. 

Use the Agile method whenever you need to make an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and become the MVP (Most Valuable Player).

Waterfall Software Development 

In some ways, Waterfall is almost the opposite of Agile. The Agile model works in a continuous cycle, but Waterfall is sequential, and won’t allow team members to move to the next stage until the previous one is fully closed. 

What is Waterfall Software Development?

The Waterfall methodology allows software development teams to work in sequence. Team members must define, design, build, test, deploy, and maintain the totality of the project before even thinking of the development stage.

The Waterfall approach usually has some approval steps in between phases. Nothing new can happen until each step is completed and approved. Usually, this helps teams know exactly what’s expected from them, but it can also cause organizational bottlenecks.

Waterfall leaves no room for changes, so if you find something was mistakenly left out during the scoping phase, you’ll have to move all the way back to definition and start all over again.

The Waterfall model is represented in a linear way. You can use a Gantt chart instead of a Kanban board

Advantages of Waterfall

  • Transparent expectations. Waterfall is great to get all stakeholders aligned from the beginning with clear expectations on what’s going to be delivered and when. Also, it clarifies the role of everyone at each stage. 

  • Good use of resources. Having a clear plan that states who needs to be involved, and for how long, allows teams to allocate their time to work on different projects at different stages, or free clients from being bothered at every stage. 

  • Structured workflow. Waterfall makes sure each stage is closed before moving to the next one. This allows the workflow to be structured, to know exactly what’s happening at every phase of the project, and to anticipate possible blockers. 

Disadvantages of Waterfall

  • Bureaucracy. Developers can’t start coding if the project isn’t fully defined, but the definition stage can take forever because you need to map the end-to-end process and make sure it’s accurate. 

  • Blockers. Since every stage needs to be completed before the next one, it generates dependencies. Some workflows will encounter bottlenecks, which prevents your team from working on other stuff. Blockers can be anticipated but not always prevented.

  • Inflexible. If you realize at the end of the project that something needs to change, you need to go back to the definition stage and redefine the whole process before continuing or making the changes. That can mess up the timeframe really badly. 

When to use Waterfall

Waterfall is great when you have a fixed timeline and you need a predefined final product. It’s also good for junior developers to have a strong definition and documentation of the project before they start coding.

Can Agile and Waterfall be used together? 

Agile and Waterfall can be used together. Some companies have adopted the two and created their own mixed methodology to cover up any gaps. Here’s when this is a good idea:

  • The client has extensive product knowledge. They know exactly what they want, they just need to deliver it quickly.

  • They want to rebuild an existing product. They already have a defined product but they need to make significant changes fast.

  • They want to upgrade their product. They already have a defined product but they want to speed up velocity or add new features.

  • They want to simplify maintenance. The product exists but they need more Agile ways of keeping it up to date and bug-free.

At NaNLABS we love Agile methodologies, but some clients want to have everything defined before we start working on the code. Here’s how we do it:

  1. Scope it out. If we estimate that definition stage will take longer than three months, then it’s unlikely we’ll agree to take the project. We just don’t believe long definition stages are an effective way to work. 

  2. Offer sprints. Before we get going, we propose managing the project in three-month sprints, which allow the team to review and iterate at the end of each period. That way, we can be somewhat Agile while meeting the client’s needs.

  3. Start with Waterfall. We use Waterfall definition stage steps to nail down project requirements and carry out viability analysis before starting to code.

  4. Get Agile. As the project gathers speed, we focus on iterating and improving in an Agile way. This helps keep work moving and lets us fix issues as we go.

When working with Agile frameworks, unexpected things happen, but using elements of the Waterfall method helps prepare. Likewise, Waterfall isn’t very flexible, but you can use the Agile software development lifecycle to make it stronger.

When is one more appropriate than the other? 

Agile and Waterfall are both useful project management methodologies. But they won’t both work on all projects.

Agile is the best choice when clients don’t have too much time to spend during the definition stage, and you need to give fast results and act in a fast-changing environment. The best time to use Agile is when prototyping. 

The Waterfall method is great for projects that have a lot of requirements that aren’t likely to change. It’s most useful when customers can’t or won’t intervene in the development process after the development stage. 

How we do things at NaNLABS 

At NaNLABS we live by Agile principles, which means we’re flexible enough to adjust to our clients’ needs. When we work as an extension of your team, we’ll always make sure our squads merge seamlessly with your processes to build solutions to set you up for success. 

Agile is what we do best. As Julian Alessandro, the co-founder of NaNLABS says “with Agile you can see results really early in the development process. What we all have in mind is the problem. Working software is the goal.” 

No matter how big your project, we always work with the software in mind and prioritize building a high-quality system from the first moment. 

Ready to build your own custom software with a team that cares about you and your processes? We’re not code monkeys, we care about youGet in touch. We don’t byte

Agile vs Waterfall: Which to choose

Agile and Waterfall can both be the right choice depending on the project. But if you ask us, we’ll always say Agile. 

When outsourcing software services and creating a custom software development process, it’s important for clients to feel involved and are able to make changes. That ensures the best possible end product without worrying about unexpected budget changes or extreme setbacks in the delivery date.

To sum up, here are some of the differences between Agile and Waterfall for you to make your decision:

Frequently asked questions regarding software development methodologies

Which is better: Agile or Waterfall? 

Both Agile and Waterfall can be good solutions depending on your project requirements. 

For example, Waterfall can be a great model for well-delimited projects that value quality over project timeline, and that won’t require changes.

But Agile is great for projects that need fast working solutions and that can be iterated and improved over time. 

What is the difference between Agile and Waterfall? 

Agile works in small increments and tests and updates after each phase, while Waterfall makes work sequential and doesn’t allow changes. Also, Agile has constant definition stages before sprints, but Waterfall projects can’t begin without having the end-to-end process mapped out.

More articles to read

Previous blog post



Creating an Agile Software Development Project Plan Built for Success: A Step-by-Step Guide

Read the complete article

Next blog post



Your Guide to Understanding the Agile Software Development Lifecycle

Read the complete article