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Why switch a failing waterfall project over to agile?

10/15/2007 by Anthony Heath

Many people assume that only new projects should switch to Agile. That’s not necessarily true. Switching a failing waterfall project can inject new life into a project, giving it a chance for success.  Moving to agile has both long-term and short-term benefits. 

Long-term benefits

Long-term benefits include increased project awareness for new team members, restored confidence in the original project concept, and the inclusion of clear and present business critical design requirements that were not evident at the project inception and thus fell out of scope.

While waterfall projects fail for many reasons, there is a direct correlation between failed projects and overall project timescale. Part of the reason for this is that long projects often see a fair level of staff turnover. New team members may not understand the original project or may have never been fully integrated when coming onboard. After a certain period of time, even the original team members have difficulty maintaining a clear view of project goals, no matter how well they were articulated at the onset of the project. Switching a failing project from a waterfall-based form of project management to agile methods gives organizations the opportunity to review project goals, analyze past performance, and refresh the project team’s understanding.

Short-term Benefits

There are clear short-term benefits in switching to agile.  As costs rise and no deliverables are produced, failing projects often fall under the critical eye of top-level management.  A switch to agile allows a project to start producing recognizable results in the short term.  This will help to raise the falling opinion and remind the organisation of the initial perceived value of the project.

A switch to agile is especially beneficial when a project is struggling to pass the test and review stage. The agile method is especially suitable in this situation as it inherently promotes quick turnaround, fast response, and instant solutions.

For a project with an out-of-control budget, switching to agile will allow for tighter financial control across the much smaller agile iterations. When planning a far-reaching waterfall project, budget is often calculated incorrectly, as it is almost impossible to foresee every possible future problem. Agile, on the other hand, allows for shorter budgeting periods, clearer indication of future budget requirements and tighter controls on overspending.


Waterfall projects often bog down when plans don’t match reality. Switching these failing projects over to agile can yield both immediate benefits and long-term improvements. The implementation of the agile methodology, including its iterative approach to software development, allows a failing project team to quickly revisit and redevelop problem project areas as needed.  This single benefit alone is often enough to save the project, as results no matter how small are deemed preferable to no results at all.