Agile vs. Traditional Project Management

in Management by Tam Pham

Agile vs. Traditional Project Management

Agile vs. Traditional Project Management

Time is money! This good old mantra still holds true today. So, every business needs efficient ways to bring direction, speed, and leadership to projects. Fortunately, project management is the answer to that.

Two of the most popular approaches to project management are agile and traditional project management. Over the years, there's been a transition from traditional to agile project management. And rightly so. 

Project managers deem the agile methodology more flexible and best suited for executing various tasks effortlessly. 

Are you wondering how both styles differ? Or perhaps you’re looking for the right fit for your next project? Join in as we pit agile vs traditional project management, exploring their differences comprehensively.

Let’s kick things off.

What is traditional project management?

Traditional or waterfall project management is a system where every process or phase runs in a linear top-down sequence. This sequence starts from the project initiation to its terminal, as shown below.

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Using the work breakdown structure, you can also represent the stages, listing everything involved under each phase, as shown below.

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In essence, this system uses upfront planning, where you can define your project phases from A to Z at the outset. Each stage only starts when the preceding one ends. So, your entire project may stop if you encounter problems in any of the phases.

You can manage a project effectively using this system if:

  • You have a well-defined project goal and solution with fixed requirements
  • You have a clear picture of what the deliverable looks like
  • You’re dealing with a very familiar project
  • The technology involved is familiar
  • There is a lesser tendency for a change in scope.

In traditional project management, the project manager is entirely responsible for the project life cycle. And accordingly, the accountability for the result relies on them. Customers do not influence the implementation. And suppose any bottleneck arises, team members must escalate it to the manager, who has the final decision.

Benefits of traditional project management

The traditional project management approach works with clearly defined goals. Alongside these goals, you have a picture of the detailed plans necessary to attain the goal. As such, this rids your project management life cycle of guesswork, keeping your team focused on the tasks.

After completing the planning stage, every team member fully understands their role in the project. Thus, the traditional approach helps minimize confusion and unnecessary overlaps throughout the project lifecycle. Essentially, it helps set a clear division of labor and expectations from the team.

The system also leaves little to no room for changes once you kickstart the initiation phase. You have to work with laid down and pre-agreed plans. Thus, you can avoid unnecessary surprises or scope creeps.

Plus, the traditional method is sequential. Every sequence or phase requires proper documentation. This documentation leaves trails for stakeholders to gain insights into particular phases in the life cycle. This documentation further ensures that the project team is ready for any form of scrutiny or compliance audits.  

What is agile project management?

Agile project management involves a series of tasks you can initiate, execute and adapt according to the current situation instead of pre-planning them. This system makes it easy for your team to respond to changes during the project lifecycle with iterative approaches and incremental processes. Here's what that means. 

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For example, a hypothetical company, Passionfruit, wants to make the best social media platform. However, Passionfruit understands that the only way to get the exact picture of what the platform should be is by getting insights from potential users. As such, the project manager wants to use short feedback loops and create the best platform in iterations. 

Now version 1 is ready. In the first iteration, the manager sends the initial version of the platform out to seek feedback. And based on these suggestions, they create version 2. Then the second iteration follows. And subsequently, the development of several versions till they get the final version. 

Here’s the visual representation of the agile project management workflow process.

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Essentially, there is a plan in place. But the steps rely on constant feedback loops or iterations. These are also called sprints, as shown below. 

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Sprints are time-boxed and can vary in duration depending on the project. But the most common duration ranges from one to four weeks. But adequate sprint planning, task prioritization, and workflow management can help you complete these sprints quicker. This is where the best sprint planning tools come to play.  

Agile project management is the more flexible alternative to the rigid traditional method. That’s why we use this method at Tara, alongside many other software development teams around the world.

While the traditional method prioritizes constraints such as time, scope, and costs, the agile system accentuates customer collaboration, teamwork, and flexible operations. 

There are several agile frameworks today, such as Scrum, kanban, etc. These are the perfect fit for anyone looking to eliminate time wastage from their business workflows and make informed decisions across the development lifecycle.

Benefits of agile project management

The agile method features a series of testing and customer feedback. As such, you can always expect a superior quality outcome. Plus, the feedback makes it easy for the team to learn, grow and elevate their skills.

In agile project management, clients and customers are an integral part of the decision-making. Keeping them in the loop makes it easy to hammer out products that align with their interests. Naturally, they will be satisfied with such products, and companies using the system will enjoy over 60% profit growth

This method leaves more than enough room for continuous improvements as well. It embodies a culture of collaboration and exchange of ideas. Besides, each sprint is tailored to surpass the version, making it easy to improve continuously.

With agile project management, the team can work with increased autonomy. Per a University of Birmingham study, high workplace autonomy levels can increase your team’s well-being and job satisfaction, leading to elevated productivity.

Agile teams work with fixed-duration time-boxed sprints. Therefore, it also makes it easier for the manager to predict the project lifespan and allocate resources accordingly. Plus, you can also forecast the costs associated with the sprints since they run for short and fixed periods. This simplifies your estimation and cost control processes.

The risks associated with agile projects are minimal. Remember, you get to evaluate project progress during sprints. So, you have more visibility into the lifecycle, helping you identify obstacles effortlessly. Since you can define these obstacles, you can easily create mitigation strategies and increase your chance of success. 

To make this identification even more straightforward, the agile methodology uses various metrics such as cycle time, lead time, etc. These help to assess project team performances and pinpoint bottlenecks. Combining this with robust progress-tracking software allows you to make data-driven decisions to rectify problems when necessary easily.

Traditional vs. agile project management: the key differences.

The primary difference between traditional and agile project management is in their structures. The traditional approach to project management has a somewhat rigid and linear structure, while the agile methodology is flexible and restorative, as represented below. 

The flexibility of agile management lets you experiment with directions instead of working with a fixed plan.

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Besides this, other differences are as follows;

  • The agile system permits the involvement of customers, meaning more transparency. Besides transparency, it ensures that the product is highly tailored to customers' requirements. This is absent in the traditional system. The traditional methodology does not incorporate client feedback and doesn't welcome the input of the project owner until the deliverable is ready. 
  • When issues arise, the team resolves them as a unit in the agile system. In the traditional project management system, this responsibility lies with the manager.
  • Dedicated teams handle testing and approval in the traditional setting, while the entire team and customers oversee these processes in the agile system.
  • In the traditional model, you have to complete a phase before proceeding. For instance, you must execute before moving on to the control phase of the project lifecycle. So, if there's a roadblock in a phase, the project will take longer than expected. However, the agile methodology is more flexible and tends to progress faster.  

This agile vs traditional project management analysis should help you understand the best project management style for your next project.     

Why is agile project management preferred over traditional project management?

According to Scielo's study, traditional project management records only a 47% success rate. This is pretty low compared to the 88.2% recorded by agile projects. 

With that said, here are some reasons for the success agile systems enjoy.

  • Superior flexibility: You get to try new things and be innovative instead of being fixated on a rigid structure.
  • Feedback and adaptability:the system recognizes that human needs are ever-changing, and it offers you a great opportunity to tailor your projects accordingly. This better positions you for success.
  • Better product quality: the constant feedback implementation in agile project management helps you launch higher-quality products.
  • Predictable project delivery date:the agile system works with time-boxed sprints. This allows you to estimate when the project will come to an end. With these quick sprints, you can also complete a complex project effortlessly.
  • Less prone to error: the agile system involves a series of meetings with the clients. With this, you can keep everyone in sync and ensure there are no errors in the backlogs. 

These are enough reasons to start thinking agile. In today’s fast-paced world, you'll delay your delivery if you try to plan your projects traditionally. In fact, you might jeopardize the project in some cases. 

How to choose the correct project management methodology

Before choosing the ideal methodology for you, there are some factors you must consider:

  • Project requirement:the agile methodology works well with projects with requirements that are unclear or subject to change. It allows you to adapt to every change seamlessly, making it the best fit for IT companies. Conversely, the traditional project management methodology only works well if you have clearly defined scopes and requirements. An example is in construction projects. If there is a slight change in scope, the traditional methodology fails. 
  • Technology: the traditional system works well if you plan to stick to the same technology and skills. But if the project will feature a bit of experimentation, then consider Agile. Here’s why.

The success of the traditional system relies on experience and predictable technology. New technology comes with unpredictable results, which could take a toll on project output when managed traditionally. 

  • Organizational processes: the agile system may not work well if your organization has strict and rigid processes. So, you may want to go traditional in this case.
  • Project timeline: You should consider the waterfall methodology if you’re working with a firm and fixed timeline. However, opt for the agile methodology if you have a short and flexible timeline.
  • Risks associated: if the project is subject to many risks, the agile methodology makes it easier to identify those risks and mitigate them accordingly. So, opt for agile. 
  • Budget: The waterfall methodology may be better if you’re working with an inflexible and fixed budget. But if your budget has enough wiggle room, you should consider the agile methodology.
  • Documentation: The agile methodology values high product quality over comprehensive documentation. Unlike traditional, it doesn't measure progress via documentation but by increments in the actual product quality. So, if your application places strict demands on documentation, such as drug development, you may want to consider the traditional method.

When you factor these requirements in, it becomes easier to identify the right fit for you.

In closing

Two of the leading choices in project management are agile and traditional. This guide helped streamline your decision-making process, covering everything you need to know about both methodologies.

It turns out the tug-of-war of agile vs traditional project management wasn’t a competition to begin with. Agile is the most suitable choice for most projects.

However, in situations where you have to work with an inflexible budget, fixed timeline, and strict organizational processes, you may want to consider the traditional method.   

About the Author

Tam Pham

Tam is the Business Operations Manager at Tara AI. Tara is a product delivery platform designed to help engineering teams gain development insights, improve performance, and deliver with predictability.

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