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Ask Mr. Agile®: When does waterfall theory work?

Interviewer: How do I know when an agile project is complete?
 
Mr. Agile®: When we talk about the difference between agile techniques and waterfall technique, agile techniques really promote innovation. If you have a project that is not trying to be innovative, a project where you don't have to worry about requirements changing, a project where you don't want to get early empirical evidence of performance and quality, then you might have a project that makes sense for a waterfall type of an approach. Keeping in mind, waterfall really is a 1940's approach to modern systems engineering, and so in today's space it very rarely makes sense.
 
Standish Group, which is one of the large statistical analysis companies, did a study for their 2015 Chaos Report. What they found is, let's say you have a very simple project, one that is socially simple as well as technically simple. In other words, "I've got a single business stakeholder, they know exactly what they want, they know the order that they want the requirements and the requirements are not going to change. It's very technically simple, we've done it this way a hundred times, and we already know that it's going to work." If you have a very simple project like this, but you still use agile techniques to run that project, they found that you will increase your success rates by about 25%. If you have a medium-sized project you will increase your success rates by about 400%. If you have a large, complex and expensive project, you will increase your success rates by about 600%. So the larger, the more complex, the more expensive that your project is, the more appropriate it is for agile techniques.
 
So, when do agile techniques make sense versus when do waterfall techniques make sense? It would be safe to say just go with agile techniques. If you have something very basic, very simple, very static, you're not trying to innovate in any sort of way, maybe you could do it using a waterfall approach--but if you're doing that type of project, why are you doing it in the first place?
 
 

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