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Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Kanban vs. Scrum: What’s the Difference?

If you haven't learned in depth about project management methodologies, it can be hard to tell the difference between a Kanban board and a Scrum board or to understand why the differences between Agile vs. Waterfall methodologies are important. And with so many similar terms floating around, it might seem like it doesn't matter which project management method you choose. Don't miss out on the distinct advantages that these methodologies can offer. Consult the following flowchart to get a quick overview of which project management methodology might be a fit for you and your team, or continue to better understand and compare Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Kanban vs. Scrum.

Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Kanban vs. Scrum While these methodologies have significant differences, it’s important to acknowledge that each project management methodology ultimately has the same goal: to facilitate the completion of projects. To that end, each methodology helps manage your team’s work processes through structure and communication. Though you would implement each of these methodologies differently, Agile, Waterfall, Kanban, and Scrum all have this much in common. But even the distinctions between the approaches can sound confusingly similar, especially from a distance. When do you use a Scrum board vs. a Kanban board? Is a burndown chart just another way of talking about a backlog? And where do swimlane diagrams come in? Throw in the project management best practices that apply to each methodology, and it’s easy to see them all as slight variations on a theme.

While the differences between methodologies might seem small, rest assured that they do exist. In fact, these seemingly small details make a big difference in how a method functions. With that in mind, let’s examine what sets each project management methodology apart.

What makes Waterfall unique In Waterfall project management, projects are broken down into linear and sequential stages, where every piece of the project relies on the completion of preceding deliverables. As such, Waterfall has two unique traits.

Discrete, terminal phases Waterfall project management originated in construction and manufacturing—industries where one phase must be completed before another begins. You can’t begin roofing, for example, if you haven’t completed framing. This emphasis on linear completion is central to Waterfall’s workflow.

Waterfall uses distinct phases rather than simultaneous work. When you use the Waterfall methodology, you must complete each stage before the next stage can begin. Likewise, you cannot go back to a prior phase. Any revision requires restarting the entire process. So if you're considering Agile vs. Waterfall for your project management style, remember that Waterfall offers less flexibility.