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Classic vs. Agile – a Comparison of Project Management Methods 

February 5, 2024 | 8 min

Project and Portfolio Management

Classic or agile – when it comes to the management strategy of projects, these two approaches are often on the agenda. The methodology must fit the project like a wrench on a screw. There is no better or worse. But what is the difference between classic and agile project management? Which “wrench” fits which “screw”? And is there a possible combination? In this blog article, we get to the bottom of the questions surrounding the topic of “classic vs. agile project management”. 

Agil vs. klassisch

What Is Agile Project Management and How Does It Work?

In a constantly changing landscape of IT projects, agile methods are the key to adaptability. Agile (Latin: “agilis”) first of all means nimble or flexible. True to these characteristics, the methodology reacts to short-term changes. It is about adaptability. An agile approach therefore means reacting proactively, quickly and flexibly to changing circumstances and unforeseen events. Agile project management developed as a solution when traditional project management methods reached their limits. 

Agile project planning is a modern and flexible method for managing projects. It focuses on clear, delimited sections within a project – the so-called sprints. These sprints are intended to drive a project forward in cross-team collaboration, step by step and in time-limited cycles.

Agile project management: the five key phases

At the start of a project, a rough concept is needed – the five key phases: Planning, conception, research, testing and completion.  

  1. It all starts with the planning phase, i.e. the rough outline of the project. Important here: the product and the needs of the customer. This phase determines who is to work on the project and who the stakeholders are.
  2. The next step is the concept. This is where things get more specific, as the initial requirements for the product are defined. A list of features and milestones is drawn up in collaboration with the team members. The project takes shape.
  3. Phase three is exploration – the project is worked on. The team adheres to the project specifications but is also open to alternatives for fulfilling the project requirements. Milestones are processed iteratively (one after the other).
  4. This is followed by the test phase. This is where the results of the milestones are checked and adjusted if necessary. The team receives important feedback from customers and employees here. The project is adapted to the resulting changes and corrections. This phase is important because constructive criticism in the project process is what makes it possible to complete a project successfully and to the satisfaction of the end customer.
  5. Closure marks the fifth and final phase. After all change requests have been accepted, the finished project is measured against its updated requirements. What was learned from the project? Complications, errors, and problems that occurred during the process can be avoided in the future.

Incidentally, the most prominent agile methods include Scrum, Kanban and Lean. 

What Is Classic Project Management and How Does It Work?

Classical project management is like a timeless piece of music: it has been played in numerous orchestras over the years – tried, tested and constant in its expression. The individual steps are defined like musical notes and are played in a linear fashion.  

Traditional project management is based on clear structures, with coordinated processes and a hierarchical management approach. This hierarchy of responsibilities is an important part of this: there is often a project manager who has overall responsibility, and the team members are responsible for their specific tasks. If you imagine the structure as an orchestra, the project manager is the conductor, and the team members are the musicians.

Classic project management: the Waterfall Model

Planning is the credo of the classic approach. The project goal is approached step by step. The waterfall model is probably the best-known method of classic project planning. It consists of various clearly defined phases that are run through one after the other, like water flowing downwards in stages – hence the name “waterfall”. 

  1.  It all starts with the requirements analysis and definition phase. This is where the requirements of the project and the end customer are recorded and the basis for the next project steps is specified.
  2. In the system design phase, the project participants define the architecture, hardware and software, data, and interfaces. The result is a comprehensive design – a blueprint for implementation, the next phase.
  3. This is where the actual development of the product begins. The implementation follows the requirements of the previous phases exactly.
  4. In the next step, the product and its individual components are integrated and tested. The individual modules are brought together and those involved in the project ensure that everything works properly. If errors or problems occur, they are rectified.
  5. After successful integration and error-free testing, the product is accepted and introduced by the customer.
  6. The final phase is maintenance: if errors occur or changes are necessary, they are rectified and implemented here. The aim is to ensure the performance and functionality of the product.
Agil vs. klassisch

The waterfall model assumes that the requirements for the product are already fully and clearly defined from the start of the project. Structure and security are of great importance here, but flexibility must take a back seat. Projects with stable requirements and clear specifications are therefore ideally suited to classic project management. 

Did you know? Projects in controlled environments, PRINCE2 for short, are a classic example of traditional project management. 

Classic vs. Agile Project Management: The Differences

Think of your project as a walk. Does the path go straight ahead and follows a strictly defined route? Or are there always spontaneous shortcuts – even off the beaten track?  

This visual example can also be used to differentiate between classic and agile project management. The term “agile” refers to the flexible approach, while classic project management is based on linear, sequential processes that are divided into clear phases. Traditional project management is therefore well suited to projects with clear, stable requirements where precise planning and control are crucial. However, it may be less suitable for projects where requirements change frequently or where a high degree of flexibility is required. In such cases, agile project management, which is characterized by collaboration, flexibility, and continuous improvement, is often preferred. 

Classic vs. agile project management: methodological contrasts

When comparing the two approaches, methodological contrasts in the approach quickly become apparent:  

  • While classic project management is fixed in scope and variable in time and effort, the agile approach emphasizes a variable scope with fixed time and effort.  
  • The processes are also predetermined in the classic approach. With the agile approach, on the other hand, the processes can be adapted continuously and in line with requirements.  
  • Another difference is the influence of stakeholders on the project. While this decreases over the course of classical management, the influence remains constant in agile management. 
  • The distribution of tasks also differs: the classic method relies on direct distribution at the start of the project, while the agile method adjusts the tasks on an ongoing basis. 
  • When it comes to evaluating results, traditional management only presents and evaluates them at the end of the project. Agile management focuses on transparency: results are presented and evaluated during the project.  
  • In the classic approach, the project manager is responsible. They manage the entire process plus the results. The agile approach is different: each team manages itself and takes responsibility for its own part.  
  • Ultimately, there is also a big difference in communication: in the classic approach, this takes place in individual meetings and is document-based. Agile teams, on the other hand, meet in daily meetings and are in constant communication through comments. 

Classic vs. Agile Project Management: The Advantages

The comparison of agile and classic project management approaches almost makes it clear: each method has its own advantages. 

Advantages of agile project management 

  • The agile project management method is characterized above all by short decision-making processes: the iterative nature means that decisions can be adapted to current requirements and developments. The teams thus remain responsive to changes.   
  • Short reaction times also promote continuous optimization. The regular feedback loops in agile approaches such as Scrum and Kanban make this possible. By regularly reviewing and adapting, teams can improve their performance and work more effectively.   
  • Not only does the work become effective – the use of resources also benefits from an agile approach. By organizing their work themselves, individual teams can concentrate on the essential tasks. Time and costs can thus be minimized.   
  • Transparent communication of progress also offers a major advantage. By using visual tools and holding regular meetings, progress is quickly and clearly visible. This not only promotes collaboration, but also an understanding of the project status.   
  • If everyone is up to date, changes in the project process are also possible. Unforeseen events can be responded to quickly. Flexibility proves to be a major advantage: priorities can be shifted, and new tasks can be integrated. The course of the project is optimized in agile project management.

Advantages of classic project management 

  • Classic project management is characterized by its clear structure and planning. Defined phases and processes enable comprehensive planning in a roadmap for the entire project. Schedules, resource allocation and budgets can be presented in detail. 
  • Above all, this contributes to better organization and control. It also allows clear responsibilities to be defined, with a clear allocation of roles. Tasks can be assigned more easily – each team knows its duties. A clear hierarchy also facilitates communication and the flow of information.   
  • Another advantage is the measurable progress: progress can be monitored through clear definitions and milestones as well as control mechanisms. Project managers can thus react to problems in good time and adhere to schedules and budgets.   
  • Classic project management also emphasizes comprehensive documentation. Decisions and developments can be tracked and quality assured.   
  • Clear standards and processes improve consistency and quality of work. Finally, risks can be systematically identified and evaluated – right from the planning phase. This results in early strategies to minimize risks and increase the project’s chances of success. 

When agile and when classic project management?

Classic project management is well suited to projects with clear objectives, stable requirements, and low uncertainty. Precise planning and control are crucial here. Especially in environments with high legal or regulatory requirements, the classic project management method is likely to prove its worth. However, it is less suitable for projects where requirements change frequently or where a high degree of flexibility is required.   

This is where agile project management comes into play: projects that are characterized by collaboration, flexibility, and continuous improvement benefit from the strengths of the agile method. If the requirements of your project are largely unclear, the goals are flexible to a certain extent and only short planning horizons are possible, this method is a very good fit. The scrum method is especially interesting if you need to work towards a goal particularly quickly and flexibly. In this case, a scrum master is ideal for making it easier for project participants and stakeholders to implement rules and a regular sprint cycle. 

Classic and Agile – Can the Methods Be Combined?

Agil vs. klassisch

If it is difficult to decide on one of the project management methods, there is also the option of combining the best of the two approaches. Hybrid project management is the magic word – this refers to the combination of classic and agile models. The advantages of both approaches are combined to achieve the best possible result. This can take various forms: 

  • The design and specification of the project are agile, the implementation remains classic.  
  • This also works the other way round: the concept and specifications are prepared in the classic way; the implementation is agile for the software. Attention: the implementation of the hardware remains classic.  
  • It is also possible to keep the concept, specification, implementation, and acceptance classic and make the integration agile.  
  • Or you can use a classic-iterative hybrid form: conception, specification, implementation, and acceptance remain classic, but are each designed in regularly planned time intervals (iterations). 

Some examples of this would be the combination of Waterfall and Scrum (classic + agile), Scrum and V-model (agile + classic) or the V-Scrum model (classic + agile). Depending on how the different methods interact, the individual phases of hybrid project management are carried out and maintained until the project is completed.  

Important here: a clear allocation of roles for the project members. However, there is no uniform standard for this. The classic parts of hybrid project management require a project manager who must combine both planning worlds with technical, methodological, and social skills. 

Are you looking for suitable software that supports all methods? With Next-Generation Project and Portfolio Management, cplace is the ideal platform for your project landscapes. With its flexible solution modules, the software also helps with specific business applications such as hybrid scheduling. 

Conclusion: Traditional and Agile Project Management Are Not Mutually Exclusive

At first glance, the classic project management method seems almost “old-fashioned” in modern business life. The increasing agility of many companies is on the rise. However, the “classics” also have important characteristics for successful project management. Hybrid project management in particular impresses with its combination of the strengths of both approaches. Ultimately, it depends on the situation and the type of project as to which of the two project management approaches is suitable. There is no “right” method that applies to all projects. The decision for the “perfect fit” is therefore up to you. 

About the Author

Julia Gerstner, Content Marketing, cplace

With its Next-Generation Project and Portfolio Management technology, cplace is revolutionizing and transforming the way people and organizations collaborate on complex projects. The flexible software platform enables leading companies to create customized solutions for digital transformation and developing complex products.

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Julia Gerstner

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