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Choosing a Development Approach

By Cyndi Snyder Dionisio

One of the key considerations on projects these days is which development approach is best to use for a given product. This is a different question than what life cycle to use. A life cycle is a series of phases your project will go through from start to finish. The deliverable approach is how you will create the products or deliverables that are part of your project.

Let us look at an example. Say you are building a series of electronic bulletin boards for a master-planned community. The electronic bulletin boards will have a map of the community, a calendar of events, menus for the restaurants, details about the various common areas (pool, gym, meeting rooms, etc.), and other pertinent information. For this project there are two main deliverables, the bulletin boards and the software that manages and displays the information.

For the bulletin boards, you can follow a traditional waterfall approach that might look something like this:

For the software you might want to follow a more adaptive development approach that allows you to change and evolve the presentation and the content that will be shown on the bulletin boards. The development approach might look like this:

Software works well with iterative or incremental development approaches where you can experiment, receive feedback, and make changes.

How do you know which approach to use?

Start by assessing your product and project variables. Product variables include innovation, scope stability, requirements certainty, ease of change, and delivery cadence. Project variables include criticality, safety, and regulatory issues.

We’ll start by looking a bit deeper into the product variables.

Innovation is the degree to which the technology and methods used are new and untested versus known and standardized. Methods and processes you are familiar with is conducive to waterfall approaches. Cutting edge technology or experimental processes work better with adaptive approaches.

Scope stability is how likely your customer is to change their mind, add new features, or request something different. If you are working on a project where the scope is fixed and unlikely to change, you can use a waterfall approach. In contrast, if your customer is fickle, or has a lot of new ideas they want to experiment with, then you should consider an approach that allows evolution and adaptation.

Requirements certainty is related to scope stability, but it is a bit different. The scope is what you are delivering, the requirements are the capabilities that must be present and conditions that must be met to deliver the intended outcomes.

Clear requirements lend themselves to waterfall approaches. Unknown or changing requirements should use an adaptive approach.

Change is a way of life on projects, but not all projects absorb change easily. The software for the electronic bulletin boards can absorb changes in scope or requirements fairly easily. The hardware is less forgiving of change.

Delivery cadence considers if your project has one main deliverable or can be decomposed into multiple smaller deliverables. Do all the deliverables have to be released at the same time, or can they be released in batches?

Typically, projects with one delivery at the end, like the bulletin boards, use a waterfall approach to plan the development, testing, and delivery. Projects that have periodic deliveries, such as a software, work well with adaptive approaches.

Now we’ll evaluate some of the project variables that influence the development approach.

Criticality deals with the relative importance of a deliverable or project. A deliverable with a high degree of criticality usually indicates that a waterfall approach is best. A component that does not have a significant effect if it fails, can work well with an adaptive method.

When safety issues are involved, most projects rely on a waterfall approach. Conversely, a project that doesn’t have a lot of safety issues can use an adaptive approach.

Many projects are done to achieve or maintain regulatory compliance. Most regulatory agencies want to see detailed documentation, rigorous policies, and procedures that demonstrate compliance. These projects use waterfall approaches.

These aren’t the only variables you can evaluate. You may want to consider variables such as risk, stakeholder experience, and funding availability as well.

Keeping all this information in your head can be challenging. You may find it helpful to use a rating scale for each variable. For example, you might use something like this for requirements, certainty, and ease of change:

Requirements Certainty

If you want to take it up a notch, you can enter information into a spreadsheet and insert a radar chart. This table shows the rating for each variable for the bulletin boards, a communication campaign for the project, and the software.

 Bulletin BoardCommunication CampaignSoftware
Innovation138
Scope stability247
Requirements certainty167
Ease of change159
Delivery cadence148
Criticality248
Safety139
Regulatory139

You can insert a radar chart to get a visual overview of the different deliverables, as seen below.

You can see that the bulletin boards are in the center, as the ratings were 1s and 2s. The communication campaign is somewhat centered, and the software is in the outer rim. The closer to the center, the more the project lends itself to following a waterfall development approach. The closer to the edge, the more beneficial an adaptive approach will be.

Use this information and tailor it to meet the needs of your project and your environment. If you want to find out more, check out my latest book, Hybrid Project Management. Good luck!


Cyndi Snyder Dionisio

Cynthia is the Practice Lead for IIL’s Project, Program, and Portfolio Practice. She has over 20 years of experience leading international project teams, consulting, developing courses, and facilitating training. She has received several awards, including the PMI Fellow Award in 2018 and PMI’s Distinguished Contribution Award in 2009. Cynthia is passionate about turning chaos in order, engaging with awesome teams, solving problems, and facilitating achievement.

Browse IIL’s Project Management Courses here!

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.