Waterfall or Adaptive Life Cycle?

Project life cycles form the foundation for every project.  They are generally defined by the organization and not by the project manager. Why do we need life cycles?  There are two basic reasons.

  • It establishes project controls through defined gates or measurement points.
  • It increases the business’ confidence in the ability to achieve business results or value as specified.

Interestingly, both waterfall and adaptive can help businesses accomplish these goals and both can lead to project failure.  The real question is when is it appropriate to use which life cycle?

Let’s start with an understanding of these terms.  Waterfall in a nutshell is a sequential phase oriented process.  At the end of each phase there is a control point or gate where the team verifies that all work of that phase is complete prior to approval to move to the next defined phase. Iterative models are more cyclical where the sequence of design, build, test and deploy occur multiple times until the end goal is reached.  One of the more popular adaptive models is Agile.

By identifying industry and project characteristics, the organization can determine which approach to projects is most appropriate.  Let’s run down some of these characteristics.

  • Scope / Requirement stability: Every project creates something new which means there are one or more elements which are unknown.  There may also be a high degree of variability or alternatives.  Projects that have relatively stable requirements and scope lean towards waterfall and projects with unstable requirements tend towards adaptive.
  • Business value: One of the advantages of adaptive life cycles is that deliverables are completed and put into production at multiple points which means that there is some business value provided prior to the formal end date of the project.  The typical project using waterfall delivers all products/services at the end point of the project and the organization incurs investment costs without a business value to offset it until then.
  • Instant or delayed gratification: Can the customer or end user wait until we have every deliverable completed? If the answer is no, then an adaptive approach may be preferred.  If the answer is yes, then waterfall may be the better option.  The choice of life cycles does not impact the overall duration of the project.  It does however define which and when deliverables are turned over to the customer.
  • Risk: Every project has risk and every organization wants to control undesirable risk which is why a life cycle is utilized.  However which risk is most critical to project success?  We already discussed schedule and scope but what about technology, resources and budget?  When there are real dependencies between work efforts, then sequential (waterfall) is more appropriate.  When work efforts can be scheduled in parallel with nominal rework risk, then an adaptive method may be preferred.
  • Project size: Larger projects tend toward waterfall and small projects prefer adaptive. Whether it is considered large because of its high budget, long schedule or the sheer amount of work, gates are needed to keep progress moving forward and maintain controls. That being said, could a large project be broken down into small projects?  Sometimes it is possible to break them down as long as the end goal remains clearly visible and each smaller project is in alignment.
  • Project teams: Large projects usually have a large number of team members.  The communication plan is critical to ensure that the right information is given to the right team at the right time.  These characteristics can be managed more formally in a waterfall life cycle.  However, when there is a small, tight and co-located team adaptive can be very effective.
  • Project visibility: In waterfall phases, project visibility can be challenging except in the early and final days of the project when primary stakeholder involvement is highest.  Due to the nature of adaptive life cycles, stakeholder engagement is constant and visibility remains high.

The project life cycle is a major influence on any project.  It will determine how the project manager will proceed.  There are many derivations for waterfall and adaptive life cycles that are unique to specific industries and companies.  It is critical that the project manager understands and aligns their project planning and managing with the life cycle to be successful.

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