Long Term Planning Vs Short Term Agility – Which Approach is Best?

For many years, the key to successful project management was believed to be in the planning. With enough research and analysis, risks could be largely eliminated, and the project would be executed on time and on budget.

At least that was the theory.

In truth, the world of large scale change and transformation has never worked this way. And as innovation has accelerated, smaller, start-up style organisations have shown the merits of a very different model built on reactivity and fluidity.

Nowhere is this conflict captured more than in the competing methodologies of agile vs waterfall project management.

But which is the right approach for your project? Let’s get into it…


The waterfall model of project management (where progress flows in one linear direction – downwards – like a waterfall) originated in the manufacturing and construction industries. Within the waterfall model, there was a very clear sequence of events, from conception, design, execution, testing and finally deployment.

This made sense in that physical environment, where change to the original plan was typically too disruptive and expensive. However, in the more creative and flexible world of software development, this rigid approach made much less sense, hence the emergence of a new model.


Agile project management evolved from a document conceived in 2001 by 17 software developers, known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. It’s 4 core values prioritised:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  4. Responding to change over following a project plan.

In Today’s World of Constant Transformation

This is not a question of right or wrong – each approach has its merits and shortcomings. It’s a question of context.

In the traditional world of manufacturing, the linear and structured nature of the waterfall model made sense. But with software development, where ongoing iteration was not only beneficial but also relatively low cost, the flexibility of Agile became a no-brainer.

So where does your project sit along this spectrum?

In most cases, the answer is probably a little closer to Agile than Waterfall, but to be clear – that is not an excuse for a lack of planning or structure.

The truth is we need elements of both – we need to research and plan diligently, and account for all the likely contingencies. Yet at the same time, those at the helm need to understand that, as Eisenhower once wrote, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, and the team’s ability to react to the evolving landscape will be one of its defining characteristics.

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