Applying Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Strategies in Digital Product Development

Could Hybrid Agile-Waterfall be the secret sauce your team needs to take their development efforts to the next level? At first glance, these two methodologies can seem like polar opposites. Read on to learn more about their similarities and differences, as well as how to combine Agile and Waterfall in a surprisingly effective way.


Waterfall software development: a quick review

Waterfall is a linear approach to software development that has been popular since the 1970s. It is based on a sequential process that flows like water (hence the name) through all the steps of a project. In a traditional Waterfall project, each stage has to be completed before you can move on to the next. Stages of a Waterfall project typically include the following: requirements, design, implementation, testing, deployment, and maintenance.

The Waterfall approach is considered a good option for:

  • Projects with a quick turnaround time (since requirements are likely to change over multi-year development lifecycles)
  • When you have a strict deployment date
  • Clear requirements that are unlikely to change
  • Projects with a lot of unavoidable dependencies

Advantages and disadvantages of Waterfall software development

There’s a reason software developers have relied on the tried and tested Waterfall approach for decades. It’s simpler to manage and to measure progress because the scope of the project is defined from the beginning. That also makes it easier to stay on budget and deliver to deadlines, since customers are not adding in new requirements throughout the process, and there are fewer production issues overall. 

On the downside, Waterfall’s rigid planning and defined process mean that you have much less flexibility down the line. Because of those dependencies, if one stage is delayed, all the others get pushed back, too. 

Over development lifecycles spanning a few years, the inflexible nature of Waterfall development means that the end product is less likely to meet evolving customer requirements. In certain industries, it’s hard for customers to define – beyond the shadow of doubt – exactly what they want at the beginning of a project. And in Waterfall, the customer isn’t involved after the planning phase and doesn’t get to see the product until the end, meaning they might ask for a ton of changes when the product is in its final stages. Accommodating these late-stage requests can be extremely stressful, expensive, and time-consuming – meaning that the project does in the end take longer than planned.

Related reading:

Agile-Waterfall Hybrid: Smart Approach or Terrible Solution?

That’s where Agile Software Development comes in

Agile is an iterative approach to software development that emphasizes flexibility, cross-functional collaboration, and putting customer needs first at all times. The methodology was officially launched with the Agile Manifesto’s publication in 2001 and has been a popular alternative to traditional development approaches ever since it took off in the 2010s. 

New to Agile? Check out our fundamental guide to iterative & incremental Agile development:

Download Agile 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Agile Software Development

Instead of creating an exhaustive plan at the start of a project and sticking to it till the end, Agile typically breaks up work into two-week cycles called sprints, delivering new iterations of the product (or what is referred to as Minimum Viable Product, e.g. a rudimentary product that, essentially, provides value to the end-user) at the end of each one. Work is prioritized according to user needs and whatever can’t be finished in one sprint is reprioritized for future ones.

In general, Agile works well for:

  • Smaller teams that don’t face a lot of corporate bureaucracy
  • Projects that don’t have a strict deadline or budget
  • Customers who are interested in being involved throughout the process
  • Organizations who are trying to foster collaboration and continuous improvement across the board

That said, Agile can actually be adapted to suit the needs of regulated product development projects with a high level of complexity and stringent regulatory requirements. A good example of this is medical device development, where Agile strategies are used to accelerate development while maintaining compliance with standards. This case study of Medtronic Neuromodulation tells the story of this leading MedTech innovator adopting Agile.

Learn more about adapting Agile strategies to suit the compliance requirements of regulated product development:

Unlocking the Power of Agile in Medical Device Development

The pros and cons of Agile

In many ways, the Agile approach revolutionized traditional software development. In contrast to Waterfall, customers in Agile projects are involved from the start and frequently consulted throughout the development process in demos and reviews. Their feedback is incorporated throughout. More often than not, this leads to higher customer satisfaction with the final product. 

And while an iterative process can take longer due to changing requirements, because of the nature of Agile, you can create a more basic working version of software to go to market sooner and then keep improving it. Since requirements evolve over the course of the project, you can address issues as they arise, which slows you down significantly less than trying to pull off costly and demanding reworks at the end of a project.

That being said, like any methodology, Agile comes with its own set of disadvantages or challenges that you need to take extra care to mitigate. Some of these include:

  • Scope creep: When customers review the product and provide feedback throughout the process, their needs inevitably change, which is the whole point. However, if there are plenty of changes in each iteration with new features being added again and again, that can mean a huge amount of new deliverables, which can be overwhelming and hard to prioritize. The project will start to bloat and, if not managed well, can spiral out of hand.
  • Harder to plan resources: It’s difficult to define a concrete budget and timeline (and get management buy-in) when user requirements are constantly evolving. This makes some project managers and organizations shy away from the Agile approach.
  • The “piecemeal” effect: When software elements or parts of code are defined as you go along and added to an application, you can end up with fragmented output instead of a cohesive final product. To avoid this, an integrated view of the product is necessary across the lifecycle of product development.
  • Teams can get sidetracked: Sure, the freedom to iterate, experiment, and even fail can feel very liberating at first. But for some, the lack of process and documentation can make it easy to get distracted or frustrated. Adequate and continuous management throughout the process is key.
  • High customer involvement: Although in theory, it is beneficial for the customer to be involved from the start, some clients simply may not have the time for it. In that case, their feedback will not be incorporated into the product, canceling out one of the main benefits of Agile.

Hybrid Agile-Waterfall to bring the best of both worlds?

Combining Agile and Waterfall is an exciting, if somewhat undefined alternative to picking a single approach. In other words, this hybrid methodology can take on many shapes and forms depending on the needs of your project and the organization as a whole. According to experience reports, hybrid Agile-Waterfall can help you improve collaboration, increase your speed-to-market, and slowly introduce Agile culture in your company.

Although there is a dedicated section in the latest A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Hybrid Agile-Waterfall doesn’t have an official manual per se. In some cases, Hybrid is a (hopefully) happy accident born from an organization’s stalled transition from Waterfall to Agile. Others choose the mixed method to support a gradual transition to Agile.

Yet other organizations intentionally design and follow a Hybrid approach to tackle a whole range of challenges like those of parallel-running hardware and software innovation processes. A good example for an intentionally adopted Hybrid strategy is the well-known use case of Schneider Electric’s Erick Bergmann and Andy Hamilton whose model is hailed as an example that takes the best of both worlds without compromising either.

While the models are all quite different, they do usually have a few things in common. They tend to use Waterfall techniques for predictive parts of the project and Agile techniques for the more uncertain ones. They also try to remedy the lack of consistent and early user feedback in traditional software development with Agile processes.

When you might need to try an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid

Here are a few scenarios in which Hybrid Agile-Waterfall might be a good fit for you:

  1. You work for a large organization that is bureaucratic and slow to change or innovate, but want to take advantage of Agile strategies.
  2. You’ve already embarked on an Agile transformation journey, but it’s slow going, complicated, and frustrating – and you could benefit from slowly and gradually incorporating Agile instead.
  3. Your software team wants to use Agile, while your hardware team prefers to stick to Waterfall because hardware elements are much harder to iterate on in the same way as software.
  4. You want to use different methodologies at different levels of the company (project, team, enterprise, etc).
  5. You’re working for a client who does not feel entirely comfortable with Agile as the budget and time frame cannot be concretely defined from the beginning.
  6. For compliance and regulatory reasons in your industry, pure Agile is more complicated than for other types of companies.

Useful resource:

Implementing an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Solution

Examples of Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Models

So the good news is, you can mix and match from both methodologies! The tricky part? You have to figure out for yourself what will work best. And that really depends on things like the scope of your project, budgets, deadlines, team needs, and your company culture as a whole.

Here are some ideas of how you can combine Waterfall and Agile techniques to get you started:

  • Create opportunities for client and stakeholder feedback to be given and incorporated from the start of the project.
  • Use one methodology at a team level, but another at a project and organizational level (for example, Agile for the project, Waterfall for the enterprise).
  • Use Waterfall for planning, requirements definition, and design, but switch over to Agile for development, testing, and releasing.
  • Incorporate Agile techniques like daily stand-ups, retros, Kanban boards, or sprints for example in an otherwise traditional development approach. These can help speed up development and achieve visibility on progress even in complex projects.
  • Implement a new collaborative tool like Intland Software's codebeamer that accommodates both Agile and Waterfall, and improves transparency, communication, and change management over the full product lifecycle and makes compliance easier

Closing thoughts

Hybrid Agile-Waterfall can be a great approach to try out if you find yourself in need of a more flexible development solution. Rather than treating Agile and Waterfall like binary opposites, a Hybrid approach accepts that there is a spectrum of development methodologies, meaning that you are free to build an approach that suits your particular needs as much as possible.

Doing so without an official manual can be daunting at first – which is why we put together a detailed eBook on when, why, and how to use an Agile Waterfall Hybrid method to help you decide which combination of techniques will work best for you. 

When, Why, and How to Use an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Methodology

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