There has long been a philosophical tug-of-war in between proponents of agile methodology and those of waterfall methodology as to which is the better approach to managing marketing projects. If you’re a marketer or creative, you may be new to this debate, having given little thought to how your team structures its processes and whether there is room for improvement. You can’t afford to remain in the dark any longer.

The good news is that current thinking is moving toward a more nuanced look at which marketing project management technique will bring the best results. It’s not waterfall vs. agile methodology, it’s more about understanding both project management methods and being able to apply one or the other–or even a blend of the two – depending on the needs of each individual project.

When you think of traditional project management, one project flowing into another in a way that’s easy to put on a Gantt chart, that’s waterfall methodology. It’s been around since before the Beatles.

Agile methodology, on the other hand, is all about rapid response to changing conditions, in a way that can’t be mapped out ahead of time. It’s an iterative process of testing and tweaking that has its roots in software development, but has, over time, gradually come to be adopted in other contexts, including marketing.

So how do you decide when your marketing team should use one approach over the other?

Have you done this all before?

If you’re launching a typical campaign with a steady audience you know, a routine annual event, or a pattern you can pretty much expect to unfold in the way it has for at least three cycles, you can count on waterfall. It will allow you to make a thorough plan and see it through. Waterfall fits predictable work perfectly.

Are you working with a large team and lots of managers?

If you have many players with various levels of influence and tasks, those complications might best be handled with a waterfall plan. It will allow everyone to stay on the same page with the same view of tasks.

Is communication a weakness in your organization?

If you’ve had trouble in the past cutting through the red tape and creating the processes needed for dynamic company-wide change, you might want to stick with waterfall, at least until those processes get set in place. Be honest about the stage you’re in with your internal communication and documentation.

Do you think needs will evolve?

If you have internal stakeholders or clients who tend to have changes of heart as often as they change their clothes, agile methodology will allow you to meet their needs more quickly and easily than waterfall methodology.

How rigid are your (or your client’s) end goals?

If you know exactly where you want to end up, it may be best to create a roadmap that waterfall provides. Agile is better for when the goals are flexible and can evolve with the process.

How strictly must you adhere to deadlines and budgets?

If there’s no wiggle room in the date of delivery or the amount of resources expended, then agile is not the way to go. Waterfall will be the better predictor of outcomes, at certain times and with certain costs.

How much time do stakeholders have for input during the process?

With waterfall methodology, you can get input from the customer or client upfront, and go off and do your work, coming back with a completed outcome to turn in. With agile, you need their input nearly constantly. Feel free to ask how much they’d like to be a part of the development. Would they rather be highly involved or do they want to check the kick-off meeting off their list and not see you again until you have something complete?

How solid is your team?

Do you have a lot of turnover, many projects going on at once, or people who like to work alone? Agile might not be best for you. It’s all about teamwork, and creates the best outputs when the same team works on the project for the entire time.

Are people working together or remotely?

Because communication and stand-up meetings are such a big part of the agile methodology, it can be a better solution for teams working in one environment, rather than working remotely or, as in some cases, on opposite sides of the world.

How much risk can you tolerate?

Agile is the methodology of the gambler. It can return amazing output that its biggest cheerleaders love. But it can also crash and burn a budget and a timeline. Ask yourself how much you, or this particular project, wants to stake on the chance to come up with something mind-blowing, but that may also take more time, resources and iterations to realize than you anticipated.

As with so many things, the answer to the agile or waterfall? question is, “It depends.” If you’re clear about the type of work you’re doing, the dynamics of your team and the outcomes you expect, the right methodology for your needs should become clear.

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