The Top Project Management Methodologies for Software Engineering

software development methodologies

One of the crucial factors for a project’s success is how it is managed. Selecting the right project management technique can improve team productivity and the likelihood of project success. Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and XP are some of the most common software development methodologies.

Today, we’ll examine each technique’s strengths, drawbacks and when it should be used. After reading this article, technical managers should be well-equipped to choose the optimal project management technique for their teams. Let’s start with the oldest one, the waterfall methodology.


Waterfall is a linear approach to software development that follows a series of predefined phases. It is considered the very first software development methodology. Winston Royce popularized it in 1970. The Waterfall model consists of the following phases:

  1. Requirement Gathering: This phase identifies and documents software project requirements.
  2. Design: This phase creates system architecture and software design specifications.
  3. Implementation: Following design specifications, the software is coded.
  4. Testing: This phase ensures the software meets requirements.
  5. Deployment: Installation, configuration and user training occur during software deployment.
  6. Maintenance: In the final phase, the software is maintained to fix bugs, improve and add features.

Each phase must be completed before you can start the next phase and the output of each phase becomes the input for the next phase. 

When should it be used?

Waterfall works best for projects with clear requirements and objectives, where few things change as the project moves forward. You also need solid technology and processes already in place.

For example, the Waterfall model was used in many large-scale software development projects, especially government and defense contracts with fixed requirements and strict timelines and budgets.


Some of the essentials benefits of Waterfall include:

  1. Clear project goals: The Waterfall approach emphasizes upfront project goals and objectives to avoid miscommunications later on.
  2. Comprehensive planning: Waterfall planning, documentation and requirements gathering can help ensure that all project components are considered and included in advance.
  3. Predictable Timelines: Since everything is planned and executed sequentially, the Waterfall approach has a predictable timeline and budget.
  4. Emphasis on Documentation: Waterfall emphasizes documentation, making knowledge transfer easier.


The Waterfall method’s rigidity is also its major drawback. This makes implementing any changes requested by stakeholders without incurring significant delays and costs challenging. That is why you don’t see waterfall being used in most modern software development projects because it cannot keep pace with the fast-changing software dynamics.

For example, the Sentinel program represents the Waterfall methodology applied to a project that ultimately failed. The US Air Force embarked on this software development project in the 1980s and it was expected to take five years and cost $2.5 billion. After many years of development and millions of dollars spent, the project was canceled in 1985 due to numerous technical issues and delays. The waterfall method was criticized for being too static and unchanging for a project of this complexity.

A Standish Group Chaos Study from 2020 shows that Agile Projects are 3X more likely to succeed than Waterfall projects.



In contrast to Waterfall, Scrum is an iterative methodology ideal for modern software development projects. It divides work into one to four-week time-boxed sprints where the team delivers something valuable at the end of each sprint.

Scrum teams have Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Development teams. The Scrum Master manages Scrum and team compliance. The Product Owner organizes the product backlog. In each sprint, the development team must ship an increment of the product.

Scrum events include sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review and sprint retrospective.

Throughout the process, the team collaborates frequently with each other and with the product owner. Scrum has a high focus on transparency and adaptation. 

When should it be used?

Scrum works well for projects with an unclear scope or changing requirements. It suits teams that value collaboration, continuous improvement and rapid software delivery. It is highly desirable in complex, cross-functional projects requiring expertise from multiple disciplines.


Scum offers some powerful benefits, such as:

  • Productivity enhancement: Scrum increases productivity by breaking down complex projects into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be completed in short iterations. According to a study by Deloitte, companies that adopted Scrum saw an average productivity increase of 60%. (Deloitte Agile Survey Source)
  • The iterative approach of Scrum enables teams to deliver working software more quickly. According to a study by McKinsey, businesses that adopted agile methodologies such as Scrum saw a 30% improvement in time-to-market. (Reported by McKinsey)
  • Scrum’s emphasis on continuous testing and feedback aids in enhancing the quality of the software being developed. There have been numerous examples where Scrum played a crucial role in reducing the number of defects. For example, Cisco adopted Agile development and delivered a new release of their Subscription Billing Platform (SBP) on time and with all planned capabilities. When they compared this release to those using Waterfall, they found a 16 percent drop in the defect-rejected ratio (DRR). Additionally, critical and major defects decreased by 40 percent, demonstrating the effectiveness of using Scrum in reducing defects.
  • The iterative approach of Scrum enables regular feedback and collaboration with customers, resulting in a better understanding of their needs and increased customer satisfaction. According to a survey by VersionOne, 77% of respondents reported improved customer satisfaction due to implementing agile practices.


Scrum, though very famous and effective, can also face some challenges. It is not uncommon to see a Scrum-based project struggle. You can find some common Scrum challenges below:

  • Estimation issues: Scrum sprints depend on accurate estimations. Estimating complex or unfamiliar projects is difficult. Inaccurate time and resource planning can cause missed deadlines and overspending.
  • Lack of documentation: Scrum values software over documentation. This helps agile development but can also lead to insufficient documentation of project requirements and decisions, making it hard for team members to understand project history and future directions.
  • Dependency on Feedback: The scrum team thrives on frequent client and stakeholder feedback. If the client is unable to provide feedback on the ongoing development, the team will struggle to achieve the desired results.
  • Adapting to Remote Work: Scrum teams struggle to adapt to new work environments and communication methods as remote work grows. Remote Scrum teams need modern tools and processes to succeed.

The below comparison describes the difference between waterfall and agile in a visual manner.


Kanban tracks work progress using task cards and boards. The board has columns for “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” Task cards move across the board as they move through the workflow. The team can easily track tasks through the workflow and identify bottlenecks. The below visual shows a common Kanban board:


When should it be used?

Kanban can be used in any project that requires continuous workflow and flexibility. It works well for teams with multiple projects or changing workloads and priorities.

Kanban is useful for teams that prefer visual, flexible approach to project management.


Here are some of the benefits that Kanban provides:

  • Visualizing Work: Kanban helps team members visualize their work and project progress. Collaboration, decision-making and productivity can all improve this way.
  • Flexibility: Kanban lets teams adapt quickly to changing needs and priorities. It’s ideal for projects with variable workloads and requirements.
  • Kanban encourages teams to eliminate waste, streamline processes and optimize their workflow. This can improve efficiency, quality and reduce costs.

Many companies around the globe have used Kanban to improve their operational workflow. For example, this case study shows how Encoparts was able to improve its operational efficiency by 33% using Kanban


Kanban also comes with its own set of risks and drawbacks. Some of these include:

  • Over-reliance on the board: If the team becomes overly dependent on the Kanban board and fails to communicate effectively, it can lead to misunderstandings and errors.
  • Team confusion: If team members do not properly update the status of their tasks, incomplete tasks may remain in the queue for an extended period of time. This can cause confusion and delays for other team members awaiting the completion of these tasks.
  • Absence of metrics: Without proper metrics, it can be difficult to measure the Kanban process’s effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

According to the 15th annual State of Agile report by VersionOne, SAFe is the most popular Agile scaling framework, with 37% of organizations surveyed reporting that they have implemented it.


SAFe is a methodology for implementing agile practices at an enterprise scale. Through SAFe, organizations can scale Agile and deliver value to customers faster.

The three core SAFe principles are:

1.  SAFe applies Scrum and Kanban to larger teams.

2.  SAFe aligns teams and stakeholders with organizational goals by incorporating goal alignment, planning and effective team collaboration.

3.  SAFe teams follow a predictable planning, execution and delivery cadence. This ensures that everyone has the same goals and that progress is measured.

When should it be used?

SAFe is ideal for organizations with large and complex systems that require coordination across multiple teams and departments. 


Some benefits of SAFe include:

  • Improved collaboration and alignment between teams and stakeholders.
  • Better visibility and transparency of project status and progress.
  • Enhanced quality and predictability of product delivery.
  • Improved employee engagement and satisfaction.

A famous project that has benefited from SAFe is the development of the US Air Force’s GPS III satellite system, where development time decreased by 25% and costs by $100 million.


While SAFe provides numerous benefits, it comes with a few downsides such as:

  • Overhead and Complexity: SAFe introduces new roles, practices and meetings which can increase complexity and overhead. If not managed well, this can lead to reduced efficiency.
  • Training and Skill Development: Implementing SAFe requires substantial training and skill development investments. Team members, managers and leaders all need to understand and embrace the new practices and principles.

Extreme Programming (XP)

XP helps develop high-quality software quickly and efficiently. Communication, teamwork and customer satisfaction are its core principles. XP also works in the time-boxed duration of work called “cycles” which is similar to Scrum sprints or iterations.

XP fundamentals include planning, small releases, pair programming, test-driven development, refactoring and continuous integration of code.

Below you can see all the XP practices:


When should it be used?

XP is a flexible methodology that is well-suited for small to medium-sized teams that need to quickly deliver high-quality software while maintaining flexibility and responsiveness to changing requirements. XP is for you if your team desires to emphasize software engineering practices and technical excellence.


XP brings a lot of valuable benefits to organizations, including:

  • Continuous integration and automated testing help XP teams deliver high-quality software faster.
  • Testing, code reviews and refactoring improve code quality and reduce bugs in XP.
  • XP encourages teamwork, communication and collaboration which can improve results and work satisfaction.
  • XP puts the customer at the center of the development process, helping you understand and satisfy their needs.

There have been numerous examples of projects utilizing XP to increase team productivity. One example is C3-Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation System which greatly benefited from XP. This project was completed in 18 months, much faster than comparable projects. Pair programming and continuous integration helped the project team succeed.


Let’s look at some of the challenges of adopting XP:

  • Technical complexity: XP uses technical practices like automated testing, continuous integration and refactoring which can be difficult for some team members to adopt.
  • Knowledge and skill Gaps: XP requires team members with technical, interpersonal and organizational skills which can be hard to find or develop.
  • Feature creep: XP emphasizes delivering working software quickly, which can cause feature creep if not managed.          


Software development project success depends on choosing and using the correct method for the team and project. Each method has its pros and cons. Scrum is appropriate for agile teams working on projects with evolving or unclear scope, and Waterfall is for projects with clear requirements. SAFe is ideal for large multi-team projects, whereas Kanban improves throughput and reduces waste. Finally, XP prioritizes technical excellence and client happiness. The one you choose will depend on your situation considering the advantages and drawbacks of each methodology.

Further reading: