Waterfall, Agile or Adaptive?

Adaptive Project Management: How is it different?

Feb 28 2019 read

Project management is typically seen from two sides - waterfall or agile. When it comes to your digital agency's project implementation, which methodology do you follow or lean toward?

In a recent report, only 58% surveyed say they fully understand the value of project management. And of those organizations that undervalue project management as a strategy, on average 50% more of their projects fail.

If you're exclusive to one camp, or don't completely grasp the importance of project management, there's a chance you might find yourself frustrated and at risk (especially if you do fixed or value based pricing). The good news is that there's a third way! But to understand whether it is a good fit for your business, we'll start by looking at the pros and cons of the two most popular approaches to project management.

Waterfall Project Management

Also known as the traditional approach, the waterfall methodology embraces requirements, firm plans with distinct stages and is characterized by features like structure from Gantt charts, milestones, tasks with, dependencies, and critically assigning budgets, resources and timelines for delivery. About 15% of organizations surveyed, say they that always use traditional, waterfall approach, and 29% often use it when it comes to their projects.

This approach is at its strongest when you're planning a project, but unfortunately, it doesn't handle change well. This is especially problematic for service businesses and teams, because no two clients or projects are the same and the role of the client as a critical source of input and approval means that nothing ever goes exactly to plan.

While it is possible to keep adjusting your plan manually when change happens it is not ideal. In the reality of busy service business - where a project manager is already juggling many projects - the plan becomes outdated. Then it is ignored by the team, making it even harder to deliver a successful, profitable client project.

Agile Project Management

If waterfall is the traditional project management approach, agile is the newer, enticing way to deliver projects, especially where there's a high degree of uncertainty going in.

With 41% surveyors saying that they always or often use this particular methodology of choice; agile is all about managing the project from the present reality, with flexibility and agility. Following the agile approach, there's an understanding that the plan will most likely change anyway, so you don't lock everything in concrete and are not permanently attached to the plan.

While this has obvious appeal for service businesses and teams given the variable nature of the client projects and the fact things never go exactly to plan, the lure of going full agile can be detrimental for a service business or team. This isn't because of the way the project is run from a delivery point of view, it is because it can destroy the economics of the project from a commercial point of view.

With more businesses moving to value based pricing (either as fixed pricing or through a firm estimate) the lack of a plan from a financial perspective can be devastating for the business. With your income fixed (or firm), but your costs (in a truly agile model) are variable - you're the one wearing that risk.

The Third Way: Adaptive Project Management

With this concept, take the pros of each methodology! Handle milestones and budget allocations in your project like waterfall, but when it comes to doing the work in the project, be agile about that.

We've helped thousands of businesses transition from their methodologies with a focus on adaptive project management. We've found the best practice is to set up high-level milestones with budgets and expected timelines, treating them like an "envelope" for the work you and your team do. This ensures financial discipline, and by having real-time reporting and alerts when things are predicted to go outside of these envelopes even the most stretched or part-time project manager can see when something needs to be addressed before it's too late. With Accelo's Beta Feature, it gives users the ability to pause their projects, tasks, and milestones; as well as hide those project tasks from your team's schedules, making it easy to adapt to changes and hold off on projects until it's time to resume.

Another major key is to empower the people doing the work to create their own tasks within the envelopes of the project plan set out by the project manager. By creating tasks, re-estimating time remaining whenever they log hours and adjust the expected timelines given their on-the-ground knowledge of what's actually going on with a client project, the people actually doing the work get the benefits of an agile experience and the business benefits by knowing what's actually happening. This helps fosters the team's trust and reliability of the project management system.


With Accelo, pursue the in-between - manage your milestones with your budgets from a waterfall approach, and champion your team members with the agile aspect. Learn more with our Adaptive Project Management Best Practices webinar. Give it a try today and sign up for a free trial!


Schedule a Live Demo
Tailored to your business All questions answered
Request a Time
Accelo uses cookies to give you the best possible experience - by clicking 'Continue' you agree to our use of cookies. Refer to our Privacy Policy for details. Continue