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Combining Agile and Waterfall in High-Tech Product Development

As over seventy percent of companies in 2020 have been using Agile methodologies to manage their software development processes, it is obvious that Agile is here to stay. But as Agile and Waterfall assert themselves in a world of increasingly complex software development, how should we know which method to choose? This article will discuss a third option: combining the best of both of them!


Agile and Waterfall: The Differences

In 2015, the CHAOS Report revealed that Agile projects are over three times as likely to succeed as Waterfall projects. This report is a significant reason to investigate Agile processes – let alone all the experience reports of companies that have adopted Agile in recent years. But first, let’s examine the differences between Waterfall and Agile!

Interested in how regulated industries can benefit from Agile? Access our 3-part webinar & white paper series:

Unlocking the Power of Agile in Medical Device Development

Waterfall: Sequential Software Development

Waterfall software development started as a method that evolved from physical production processes. As such, once you started the creation process, it was very costly to stop and pivot.

Because of this, a Waterfall process involves a greater extent of upfront planning and decision-making. It is often used for software that will not have more than one release. Another use is for software that will exist in non-updating hardware – once it’s done, it’s done.

In Waterfall, you must complete each phase before moving on to the next. As such, you must gather requirements and then design systems before any further development occurs. Testing and deployment are the final steps, with the process never going back to prior stages. With complex products where development cycles could take years, this rigid structure can be a problem. But Waterfall also has many benefits:

Pros of Waterfall

WYSIWYG: As you progress through the project, your final project will not drift far from your plan. This allows you to give shareholders or investors information on what to expect, including an accurate forecast of costs.

Small projects: Waterfall processes work very well on small projects that have a fast turnaround time. Each process can finish faster, and the next one can start thereafter. If many projects need to run quickly, the next can start when the requirements gathering stage ends for the first project.

Cons of Waterfall

Prohibitive: Once the project has started, it is both difficult and expensive to change the plan. Once it is in testing, it can be hard to push it back to change its design if issues come up. 

Not changeable: In a volatile market environment or when testing new concepts, it can be hard to respond to market changes using Waterfall. When developing modern (software-heavy) technology products, your product could become outdated by the time it’s released.

Agile: Iterative & Incremental Software Development

Agility in the world of development equates to responding to changes continuously. In fact, Agile thrives on change: it uses a cyclical development method (with iterations called “sprints” in Scrum) to make iterative changes to complete something they call a minimum viable product, a real product that can actually run, function, be tested, and receive feedback.

Pros of Agile

Easy to make changes: In the event of emergencies, changing legal requirements, or a shifting technology landscape, you can apply changes to the development cycle any time.

Transparent requirements: User stories are a comprehensible and simple method of making it clear what you need to complete.

Cons of Agile

Resource planning: It is hard to know how long a project will take when using the Agile methodology. With constant changes, development progresses continuously. For this reason, it can be hard to communicate your required resources to those who are supplying them. Scope creep (the bloating of product specifications as new requirements are added all along the process of product delivery) is a legitimate fear.

Lack of documentation: In Waterfall, you create all the documentation for the product upfront. In Agile, it is instead created "just-in-time" as you need it and as development goes on. This can lead to problems of transparency which is especially critical in regulated product development.

Combining Software Development Methods

Sometimes, software developers choose to mix these methods, creating an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid model. There are several reasons why you might choose to do this:

A stepping stone to true Agile

If you have worked using Waterfall up until now, using a hybrid methodology can allow you to start the process towards full Agile. You can use the time to teach your staff how to put Agile methodologies in place while not having to deal with its teething problems simultaneously.

Related reading:

Implementing an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Solution

To increase communication & enhance collaboration

If your departments are not collaborating enough with Waterfall, using Agile can help with that. It encourages constant and iterative conversations that lead to the development of a better product.

Learn more:

When, Why, and How to use the Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Model

If you are using Agile but have issues with communicating the details of requirements and locking them in, Waterfall can help. It encourages comprehensive and clear documentation between steps.

To maintain regulatory compliance

If you are being commissioned by an organization with rigid standards, such as a government or a company operating in a regulated industry, using a hybrid system can help. You can make use of the adaptability of Agile while allowing for detailed upfront requirements planning with Waterfall.

Find out how:

Marrying Agile and Compliance in Regulated Product Delivery

There is also the possibility that an organization commissioning you may demand that you use a Waterfall (or, perhaps not as often, a hybrid model). This is often due to the commissioner requiring oversight of each step before moving forward. This is difficult, though not impossible, to implement in a full Agile model.

Hybrid Methodologies

The simplest model for creating a hybrid methodology is by separating the planning and development stages. You can engage with the requirements and planning in a Waterfall method, then move forward with development and testing using Agile. Testing and support can work with both Agile and Waterfall.

Doing this can give you the benefits of having transparency in what you need for a project right at the outset. At the same time, you can respond to unexpected changes. This can satiate stakeholders who need clear estimates while reacting to unforeseen circumstances.

Tips for Using an Agile-Waterfall Hybrid Method

There are some things you should be aware of when implementing a combined Agile/Waterfall hybrid model. These include the following tips:

Communicate: Ensure that you include stakeholders and product owners at all stages. Their involvement throughout all project stages and allows course correction when necessary. 

Gather customer feedback: UX is becoming more and more important in the software development world. You should have a good idea of how your customers use your product and what quality-of-life improvements you could make at any time. Continue to gather feedback from them as you partially complete features, and use that to inform your product development process moving forward.

Equip Teams with the Right Tools

You should now have a comprehensive understanding of why you would consider combining Agile and Waterfall methods. When used the right way, this can give you a leg up in software development over those rigid in conforming to one or the other.

That said, implementing both methods also bears the risk of facing the common pitfalls of both Waterfall and Agile. Using fully controlled processes that don’t let developers divert from specified and compliant ways of carrying out development activities can be the key to success – in addition to automating as much of the documentation work as possible.

Download our guide to implementing Agile-Waterfall Hybrid to learn more:

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

Established practices are best supported by specialized Application Lifecycle Management tools that take much of the burden (and with it, the chance of manual error) off the shoulders of your development team. Look for a mature ALM platform like codebeamer to help drive your adoption of the Hybrid method to success!

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