Agile Projects are More Successful than Traditional Projects

Agile Projects are More Successful than Traditional Projects

I’ve recently obtained the 2018 Standish Group Chaos Study results which show Waterfall and Agile project success and failure rates. It should come as no surprise that Agile projects are statistically 2X more likely to succeed, and 1/3 less likely to fail than waterfall projects. Read on for the most current statistics from the Standish Group Chaos Studies which back this up.

I’ve been a follower of the Standish Group Chaos Studies for a long time. The Standish Group has conducted surveys of IT project success and failure rates every 2 years since 1994.

Initially, the statistics were really bad with IT project success rates measured at less than 20%. Thankfully things have improved, with the most recent report from the Standish Group showing technology project success rates at 36%.

What is the Standish Group definition of agile project success and failure?

Initially, the Standish Group definition of project success was limited to the triple constraint, which has been the standard for the Project Management Institute for a number of years. Using the triple constraint, the Standish Group evaluated projects as successful, challenged or failed.

Successful – A successful project was one that met all three of the triple constraints: schedule, cost, and scope.

Challenged – A challenged project would have met two out of three constraints, for example, delivered on time and on budget but not with the desired scope.

Failed  A failed project is one that is canceled before it is completed, or completed but not used.

Challenges to the Standish Group definitions

The Standish Group took some heat over the years for their strict definition of success, challenged and failure. The triple constraint measures were really a measure of the project management ability to: 1) estimate and plan the project and 2) deliver according to the original plan. In addition to the obvious difficulty of delivering to the original plan, this success measure ignores whether or not the project delivered anything of value to the customer. Delivering a project perfectly on time and on budget without achieving the business objectives would be a huge waste and misses the point entirely!

So the Standish Group enhanced their measures of success to include the delivery of customer value, alignment to strategic goals and customer satisfaction. You can read more about the changes here. But I digress.

What is interesting to me and perhaps not very surprising is the difference between success and failure rates between Agile projects and more traditional Waterfall projects. Let’s explore this in more detail.

Comparing Waterfall and Agile Project Success Rates

The most recent report from the Standish Group covered projects they studied between 2013 to 2017. For this time period, the overall breakout of success, challenged and failure is shown below for agile and waterfall, with Agile projects being roughly 2X more likely to succeed, and 1/3 less likely to fail.

Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates
Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates


Project Size Also Affects Project Success Rates

Another key finding of the Standish Group is that larger projects have higher failure rates. This should not come as surprise to anyone. What was surprising to me was the extent to which the smaller projects reduced the risk (see project failure rates chart below).

Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates
Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates


Looking at the chart, you can see that Agile projects have a significant edge over Waterfall Projects for every project size. Of the two project factors, size and approach, the Standish Group says that size has more of an impact on project failure rates than agility. Both together have the greatest impact.

Takeaways from the Agile Project Success Rates

  1. Agile Project Success Rates are Higher. While Agile approaches are not necessarily a silver bullet, the data shows they can help to reduce project risk. The Standish Group data shows that Agile projects success rates are roughly double those of traditional projects. And agile projects 1/3 less likely to fail than waterfall projects. In my opinion, the primary reasons for this is the amount of user collaboration on Agile projects which helps to ensure the team is building the right solution and incorporating feedback. Agile teams also develop in short iterations and take items all the way to done within a sprint to shorten feedback loops and further reduce risk.
  2. Smaller projects succeed more often than big projects. Duh! Even though this may be common sense, many people ignore it. Organizations that take the time to break big initiatives down into manageable chunks find that they can better manage the schedule and risk, and often deliver something of value with each small chunk. Some organizations deliver a Minimum Viable Product and use that to get feedback or validate their assumptions about the end users or customers. Read more in my book, Agile Project Management.
  3. All Projects Are Getting More Successful. When I first published this article back in 2016, I used the Standish Group statistics from 2011 to 2015. The most recent article from the Standish Group provides project data from 2013 to 2017. In almost all cases, the data shows improvements in both traditional and agile project success rate. There are also correspondingly declines in project failure rates. The chart below shows success and failure rates for the previous period with data from 2011 to 2015.
    Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates
    Chart showing Waterfall vs. Agile Project Success Rates
  4. There is still room for improvement. There are still a lot of projects that are not considered “successful”, both Agile and Waterfall. And there are still a lot of projects that fail, which represents a tremendous cost to organizations. It also has a huge personal cost to the careers of the project managers and leaders who are responsible for these projects. I think organizations need to learn from the past and leverage the findings from the Standish Group. We can continue to use agile methods and break big projects down into smaller ones in order to continue to increase success and reduce failure.

How to Transition from Waterfall to Agile  

Making the transition from Waterfall to Agile is not trivial, but it is certainly possible. Many others have already adopted Agile approaches. Here are some resources that you might find helpful:

How to Successfully Transition from Waterfall to Agile and Scrum – This article provides an overview of the steps you need to consider when moving to Agile and Scrum. It also includes links to free resources like planning checklists and a detailed whitepaper on how to successfully transition to Scrum.

If you are wondering if your organization is too big or too old for Agile, read this Case Study about how Bank of America successfully made the transition to Agile and Scrum. Bank of America is both big and old and if they can make the transition to Agile, so can you.

You can also join our mailing list to receive our monthly newsletter with tips on Agile and Scrum and successfully adopting Agile in your organization. Join Now

The Leaders Role in an Agile Transformation – Leaders play the most important part of the Agile Transformation. Learn more about how to cast a vision for an Agile Transformation and lead through change. You can also visit our ultimate How To Guide for Agile Success which is aimed to give you everything you need to succeed with Agile and Scrum.

Agile and Scrum Related Training Courses

Training for Agile and Scrum – Our Agile Training page lists the courses we offer to help everyone in the organization make the transition to Agile and Scrum.

We partner with Northwestern University to offer the Agile for Practitioner Training for those project managers and other practitioners who want an in-depth understanding of multiple agile frameworks and processes.

This course includes the content the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner exam and may be used to prepare you to get your PMI-ACP certification.

Our most popular course is Agile and Scrum for Teams. This course is designed to be delivered to new Scrum teams to provide them both the theory and the hands-on experience that they need to hit the ground running and succeed with Scrum.

We also provide Scrum training including the Professional Scrum Master (PSM) training, and the Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO) Training courses.

Finally, we provide what we believe to be the best Agile Training for Leaders on the market. Our Agile for Leaders course provides both a high-level overview of various agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban, as well as an in-depth understanding of the cultural change and mindset needed to support successful Agile adoption in organizations.

You can learn more about Agile Project Management in my book: Agile Project Management, a Nuts and Bolts Guide to Success.


You can read more about the Standish Group Chaos studies here and here.

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Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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