Agile vs. waterfall: Which project management methodology is right for your agency?

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What exactly is project management?

That seems like a simple enough question — but it's not really, is it?

Good project management can transform processes and workflows at any agency, infusing direction and organization while reducing the chaos factor.

At the same time, “project management” doesn’t mean the exact same thing to everyone — and it certainly doesn't look the same at every business.

The overarching goals and principles may be the same, but the numerous styles of project management can look very different from each other.

Two of the most significant project management methodologies among agencies and their clients are agile and waterfall. And these two styles are about as different from one another as possible, to the degree that someone who's exclusively used waterfall or Gantt charts might find a Kanban board wildly disorienting, and vice versa.

So, what are the key differences? And most importantly, which one should you use in your creative agency?

We’ve already covered the 7 main styles of project management at an overview level, and in this piece we’re diving deeper into waterfall and agile, exploring what they are, where they excel or falter, and how to determine which is right for your agency.

What is waterfall project management?

Waterfall project management organizes tasks and phases into a linear progression, where every step in the process cascades downward in a prescribed order. If you map these sequential steps onto a graph running top to bottom (and maybe squint a little bit), you’ll see something resembling a waterfall — hence the name.

It’s a more traditional approach that relies on meticulous planning and clear order or hierarchy. It runs top to bottom or end to end, and doing it well requires knowing where you’re going before you start planning.

Waterfall isn’t very flexible, but it can be incredibly powerful in the right contexts.

One area where many agencies use something like a waterfall method is bringing on a new client. You probably have distinct steps or phases you’ve already defined (things like RFP, proposal, initiation, strategy, analysis, and onboarding). It doesn’t work to rearrange these very much, and you can’t move on to another phase without completing the previous one.

This process is quite linear and rarely needs to change drastically, but it can have all sorts of subtasks and dependencies. And that’s why waterfall works well here.

Core principles of waterfall

The waterfall approach to project management follows several core principles, described and explained below.

  • Fixed timeline: The entire project is mapped from start to finish, with clear dates for start and end.

  • Linear completion of tasks and phases: Tasks and phases are sequential; one phase must finish (in order) before the next begins.

  • Low flexibility: With such a high up-front investment, there is little room for changes to scope and deliverables without significant rework.

  • Low client involvement after launch: Ideally, clients do not expect to be able to change scope once the project launches.

  • Fixed scope and budget: With the scope and timeline firmly set from the start, projects have a fixed budget.

These core principles lead to certain advantages and limitations built into the waterfall model.

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Advantages of waterfall

  • Knowing the project requirements, budget, and timeline up front are helpful for budgeting and planning purposes.

  • A clear and detailed roadmap keeps people on track (rarely should team members be unsure of the next steps because they are all spelled out in the waterfall).

  • Clearly delineated, tangible deliverables at phase completion can help teams see and measure progress (and gives you something to show your client).

Limitations of waterfall

  • Waterfall is inflexible. You’ll invest quite a bit on the front end, and the whole thing falls apart if your client upends the scope halfway through.

  • Not all work is linear. If your agency uses many concurrent processes or ones that iterate within a phase, waterfall has a hard time tracking.

  • Waterfall requires knowing just about everything about a project before you begin. (And you don’t need us to tell you that just isn’t always the case when working with clients!)

  • The waterfall methodology doesn’t accommodate much client involvement other than in the planning or development phase of the project.

What is agile project management?

Agile project management is a newer, more fluid approach to project management that was born out of the software development world.

Professionals in any number of fields can relate to the problems that spawned agile teams and agile software development: 

How do you manage a project when you don’t know exactly where you’re going or what it will take to get there?

You certainly can’t waterfall it when you don’t know where the waterfall will end (duration) or even what shape the waterfall will take (scope).

In agile project management, teams break down work into shorter segments or cycles, called sprints. There’s no expectation to have a concrete deliverable at the end of a sprint. And there often is an expectation that some of the work in your next sprint will follow an iterative approach, reworking or building off whatever you built in the previous one.

Where traditional methods like waterfall tend to build out months- or even years-long projects, agile sprints last anywhere from one to four weeks.

The agile method answers several other questions perhaps more relative to creative agencies, including:

  • How do you manage a project where you know from the outset you’ll be reworking stuff in cyclical or iterative patterns?

  • What about projects where various teams need to work concurrently on different elements of a project?

An agency might adopt an agile project management approach on a project that incorporates current events or involves a product still in development (such as a creative campaign for a yet-unfinished software tool). The broad strokes may firm up quickly, but the risk of significant change along the way is high.

Core principles of agile

The core principles of agile take a different approach:

  • Certain or uncertain timeline: Work is broken into smaller chunks, so a firm, known deadline is not required.

  • Concurrent tasks and phases: Teams and team members may work simultaneously on various stages, parts, or pieces.

  • High flexibility: The agile approach is designed to accommodate new developments along the way and is easily adaptable, whether based on client feedback, changing tastes, or industry developments.

  • High client or stakeholder involvement: Agile is built around regular feedback that builds cyclical improvement.

  • Variable scope and budget: Because parameters are not always known, both scope and budget remain flexible.

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Advantages of agile

  • This highly flexible methodology allows faster pivots with less friction.

  • Agile allows teams to begin meaningful work on a project without having every detail in place.

  • It’s easier to involve clients in an agile process, as they can digest shorter work segments better than massive, intricate schedules. (It’s also easier to act on the feedback they provide.)

  • Agile can increase productivity and output as team members are not forced to wait for a long line of dependencies to finish before they can do the next task.

Limitations of agile

  • Estimating project budgets and completion dates is more difficult, which often frustrates clients.

  • The concurrent, fluid nature of work can lead to duplicated work, overlap, or mismatched work.

  • Agile’s focus on smaller segments of work can sometimes obscure the big picture.

  • Less structure and big-picture clarity can lead to miscommunication and misunderstood objectives and can make it difficult to onboard new team members in the middle of a project.

Agile vs. waterfall: Comparing key elements of each project management method

As we’ve seen so far, these two project management methodologies are different. Really different. See just how different they are by comparing how they handle four key elements.


Waterfall: Timeline is rigid, firm, and predetermined based on significant amounts of project planning data. Delays anywhere tend to cascade down the waterfall and often threaten on-time completion.

Agile: Agile methodology doesn’t pin down a firm timeline for large-scale projects, but it promises visible incremental progress in each sprint.

Customer/client involvement

Waterfall: Clients are heavily involved in the planning phase, as waterfall requires nailing down all those details before the work begins. But after the project launches, clients aren’t very involved. (Or we should probably say they aren’t supposed to be very involved…) Clients receive deliverables and are notified at set check-ins, but they aren’t consulted at every decision point along the way.

Agile: In agile, clients remain involved all along the way. The ongoing direction of the project relies on client feedback. This approach requires greater and clearer client communication skills, and an unresponsive or slow-to-respond client becomes a risk.


Waterfall: Nope. At most, very little, and any change becomes costly, requiring significant retooling to the schedule and wasting previous planning work. Often the only solution to bottlenecks is adding more resources, which isn’t always possible.

Agile: Yep. Flexibility is the name of the game with agile. Sprint planning adjusts product development plans and prioritization every two weeks, rebalancing what’s in the backlog each time.


Waterfall: Because everything is defined ahead of time, waterfall projects generally have a fixed and very detailed budget.

Agile: With an increased openness to change and experimentation comes a much more flexible approach to budget. This can be freeing — but can also make clients nervous.

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Which methodology should your agency use?

All of this is helpful information, but we still haven’t answered the most important question: Which methodology is right for your agency?

We can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer because every agency has its own ways of operating, as does every client. That said, most projects lean more heavily in one direction or the other.

Waterfall: For strict project regulations and requirements

Waterfall project management works best when the scope and specifics of the work are known. When your project has clearly defined requirements and a clear scope that’s unlikely to change, waterfall usually works well.

The same is true for complex projects that must proceed in a specific order to succeed. Many creative projects can be this way: For example, to publish a blog post, you need a topic, then a brief, then the written content, and graphics support — and you need them in that order.

Waterfall is also a great fit for projects that must adhere to specific regulations. When elements of the process are dictated by law or regulation, you want your methodology to force projects into that process.

Agile: For ongoing engagement between the team and stakeholders

There are times when you must start a project without a clear vision of the end product, and it’s nearly impossible to build a waterfall under those conditions. For such projects, agile is a better fit.

The same is true for projects where your agency truly cannot succeed without ongoing client feedback. Agile gives you a framework for getting and incorporating that feedback without burning countless hours building a detailed (and now irrelevant) schedule first.

Last, agile makes great sense for projects with a high likelihood of change. You may have a clear vision of the end product from the start, but if there’s a good chance that the specifics will change along the way or the end product will evolve as you go, agile is ideal.

Whichever method you settle on for your agency, is an ideal project management software solution. It’s built for creative firms like yours, and it works well with several project management methodologies, including waterfall and agile (and Kanban, scrum, scrumban, and so forth). also includes support for workload planning, resource scheduling, task budgeting, profitability reports, and much more.

See more in the product tour.

Execute your team projects efficiently (no matter your method) with

Finding the right project management and development methodology is a crucial step, but even more important is finding the project management tools that best support your creative agency — no matter which method you use. is a flexible, powerful project management platform built for creatives and agencies. With powerful tools to build detailed schedules (with dependencies, Gantt charts, and more), performs well in waterfall development. And with flexible features like Kanban boards and other scrum tools, is just as powerful for agile teams.

Ready to take your project management to the next level? Sign up for today!

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