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agile versus waterfall design project management blog post

Why Waterfall Works in Manufacturing but Design Needs a Different Flow

When it comes to selecting project management methodologies, we’ve experienced some eye-opening revelations about the design process and the methodologies that yield the best results for innovation.

So, we’re sharing our thoughts on why the waterfall methodology, though proven in manufacturing environments to be a solid process, often falls short in the design process. We’ve seen an adherence to the waterfall project management approach in design time and time again because most design projects are managed by manufacturing project managers. However, we’re on a mission to challenge this status quo and reshape perspectives. We’re going to share the viewpoint that adopting more agile and iterative methodologies in design not only fosters innovation but also leads to more dynamic and successful project outcomes.

Understanding Waterfall Methodology’s Shortcomings in Design

What works in manufacturing doesn’t necessarily work in design. Why? Because design requires innovation and the ability to iterate and test throughout the process, not just at specific phases.

The waterfall methodology excels in the manufacturing realm due to its adherence to a structured phase-approach model. This approach ensures clarity about each phase’s expectations, fostering efficiency in production. However, when applied to design projects, we’ve found the method too inflexible because it frustratingly shackles creativity within predetermined stages, impeding the crucial fluidity needed to craft dynamic, swiftly prototyped designs that can be continuously tested across the entire design journey.

What Works for Design: Agile

Agile methodologies approach project management through timed sprints, during which a specific set of features or tasks is developed, tested, and delivered. The length of a sprint is predetermined and typically ranges from two to four weeks, allowing a set amount of time to accomplish major headway in the project.

  • Sprints emphasize incremental development, meaning that by the end of each sprint, there is a potentially shippable product increment. This allows for regular feedback from stakeholders.
  • Sprints provide a structured and iterative approach to software development, allowing teams to respond to changing requirements and deliver a product incrementally.
  • We’ve seen the use of sprints enhance collaboration, transparency, and the ability to adjust priorities based on ongoing feedback.

Rather than only having one or two prototype phases built in at specific intervals through the waterfall method, the Agile method allows for flexible and fluid quick prototyping, in which the software and hardware are both functioning. As designers, we can incorporate this feedback into the next prototype as needed, oftentimes learning critical information that shapes the end result, but would have been impossible to predict in the initial requirements.

We know holding a tangible, working prototype is beneficial in design because it allows for the human touch feedback loop: a user can feel and experience the working design. It brings software and hardware together in a real-life way. – Kirk Wolff, President and System Architect

In our hands-on journey through design project management, we’ve learned that while the waterfall method touts its straightforwardness, its rigid structure and predetermined requirements can stifle creativity and innovation. As designers, this frustration has been palpable, seeing how this approach often yields final designs meeting basic requirements but lacking the live fine-tuning and adaptability inherent in the more flexible Agile process.

This experience has illuminated a fundamental truth – achieving harmony between structure and adaptability is paramount. While the waterfall method certainly has its strengths, we’ve uncovered that the dynamic nature of the Agile approach is a genuine game-changer. It not only sparks creativity but also enables real-time adjustments, ensuring our designs evolve into refined, innovative solutions that go beyond mere compliance with requirements. In the ever-shifting landscape of project management, our secret sauce for success lies in embracing a blend of structure and flexibility.

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