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Waterfall project management

For any organization, project management plays a crucial role in ensuring end services or products are delivered as intended while meeting specific criteria such as budgets and timelines. Due to its immense importance, various project management methodologies and techniques have been developed over the years, one of which is waterfall project management. This guide will provide you with an in-depth understanding of all you must know about the waterfall methodology to successfully leverage it for your project management needs.

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What Is the Waterfall Project Management Methodology?

The waterfall project management model takes a linear approach in which project activities are broken down into sequential steps or phases, and each phase is entirely dependent on the deliverables of the previous phase. As such, through the different phases of the project, the process flows in only one direction, similar to a waterfall.

The first formal diagram of the waterfall process is typically attributed to an article written by Winston W. Royce, an American computer scientist, in 1970. However, no single person is formally credited for the creation of the waterfall project management methodology. The original model proposed by Royce for software development is shown below.

First waterfall process diagram by Winston W. Royce

One of the most traditional project management methodologies, the waterfall model is particularly useful in projects that follow a single timeline with highly detailed plans. Team members are given clearly defined roles and are encouraged to work linearly toward the goal. A typical waterfall project management model can be broadly divided into the phases seen below.

Waterfall project management phases

This method’s success or failure depends on the effort given during the initial phases. As most of the research and planning is done early, the estimates for each phase are more accurate, resulting in more predictable outcomes. Any change to the project parameters usually means a complete or partial rework of the previous phases, making it more complicated and more expensive to change course once the project is underway. As a result, changes to the project phases or goals are typically discouraged.

The Phases of Waterfall Project Management Methodology

As described by Royce, the original waterfall model defined 6 steps or phases. However, variations in the process were developed over the years, and some of these models have 5 or 7 phases. In these models, some of the steps from the original waterfall model were broken down or merged into other phases. What is common in all these models is that they all follow a strictly linear progression, with one phase only starting once the previous phase is completed.

Here we’ll look at the five most commonly recognized phases in the waterfall project management methodology.

The Requirements and Planning Phase

Waterfall project management requirements and planning phase

The first phase in the waterfall model is focused entirely on planning and preparing for the later phases. After all, the success of this methodology depends on all project requirements being collected and analyzed at the beginning. Therefore, the project manager must ensure that requirements, objectives, and variables are documented at every stage of the project. This should include details such as costs, risks, dependencies, timelines, and success metrics. The key to success of the waterfall model is to put a lot of time and effort into the first phase. By planning the project down to a granular level now, project managers can prevent the need to go back to the planning phase down the line.

During the project planning phase, the project manager must also identify the deliverables across the project lifecycle and their dependencies. These must be lined up against the different phases to ensure that team members have complete visibility into their next set of tasks. The project manager must also use this time to assign roles to each resource in the project to prevent bottlenecks down the line.

The Design Phase

Waterfall project management design phase

This phase is all about uncovering and designing the solutions to the problems identified in the requirements phase. During this phase, the project manager adds to the project plan by building on and organizing the project specifics. This includes the tasks and activities necessary to deliver the project scope as well as the order of their progression. In addition, details such as budgets and timelines are fleshed out and documented against the project phases and resources.

While the planning phase determines what needs to be delivered, the design phase determines how to get there.

The Implementation or Coding Phase

Waterfall project management implementation or coding phase

The third phase of the waterfall model is when the actual work takes place. All the planning and designing activities from the previous phases are put into action here. If significant changes are necessary during this step, the entire project may be moved back to the design phase, and the process begins again.

The exact tasks and activities involved in the implementation phase vary greatly between industries, but the goal remains the same – get the deliverables ready. For example, a manufacturing organization may use the implementation phase to create a prototype of the product. On the other hand, a software development company will find its implementation phase filled with coding activities and release milestones.

The Testing and Verification Phase

Waterfall project management testing and verification phase

Thorough testing is necessary before the deliverable, whether a product or a service, is rolled out. Every project deliverable needs to satisfy some criteria laid down by the project stakeholders. The deliverables are checked during the testing phase to see if they meet those criteria. For example, in a software development project, testers may need to check for errors in the code. Another example is a manufacturing project where the end product must be tested against safety standards.

Typically, the testing phase in a waterfall project management system is of short duration. After all, the highly detailed planning and designing phases should weed out most potential issues in the final deliverable. Nonetheless, project managers must consider a way to discover, report and fix issues as the project progresses instead of leaving it all for the testing phase.

The Deployment and Maintenance Phase

Waterfall project management deployment and maintenance phase

Once the deliverables are tested, they are deployed to stakeholders or clients as the finished product or service. In many cases, this also involves an official product or service launch. However, for most industries, this does not mark the end. Instead, the project then moves into the maintenance phase.

During this phase, minor modifications may be made to the product or service to improve performance or rectify defects. Stakeholders may even request new features or capabilities during this phase.

Pros and Cons of the Waterfall Project Management Model

As with any project management methodology, there are both advantages and disadvantages of using the waterfall model. Therefore, project managers must not be quick to dismiss this model as an outdated one. In fact, the waterfall model is often the ideal choice for certain kinds of projects. Take a look at the advantages and disadvantages below to see why.

The Advantages of the Waterfall Model

1. A Clearly Defined Structure

At the core of the waterfall model lies a clearly defined set of steps. Every project must follow those fixed steps, and each step must be completed before the project can be taken to the next one. As a result, any roadblocks to project progress are identified immediately and resolved quickly.

2. Focus On The End Goal

With waterfall project management, the end goal drives the project from start to finish. All team members and stakeholders are aware of this goal from the very beginning and are committed to achieving it. As a result, the team is less likely to get caught up in details and deviate from the plan as the project progresses. This makes waterfall project management particularly useful for smaller projects with clearly defined goals.

3. Intuitive Methodology

Unlike other project management methodologies, the waterfall model is highly intuitive. Typically, project managers don’t need any visuals beyond Gantt charts to understand the project. Additionally, the waterfall model follows a linear progression. Therefore, no certifications or training are necessary for team members and managers to get started on the actual work.

4. Comprehensive Documentation

Documentation is a core feature of the waterfall project management model. As each phase comes to a close, project managers must review and document every step before moving to the next phase. Thanks to comprehensive documentation, it becomes easier to transfer knowledge to new resources or to ensure transparency.

5. Reduced Financial Risk

Each phase in the waterfall model clearly outlines tasks and activities and the accompanying requirements. Therefore, project managers can easily estimate each task’s labor and time costs well in advance. Moreover, there are fewer changes in the scope or tasks as the project progresses, lowering the risk of overblown budgets. Overall, the waterfall methodology allows for easier forecasting of budgets with greater accuracy and reduced financial risk down the line.

Pros and cons of the waterfall project management model

The Disadvantages of the Waterfall Model

1. Low Support for Changes

The waterfall project management methodology is about following a specific set of phases. There is only one direction the project moves, and that is forward. There is almost no scope for unexpected changes. If the project faces a roadblock that requires a change in its goals, scope, or plan, making that change will not be easy. In many cases, the entire project may need to go back to the planning phase, rendering all the work done up to that point moot.

2. Delayed Testing

Under the waterfall methodology, testing is typically done when the project is nearing completion. Therefore, all the deliverables are created before they are reviewed or tested. As you can imagine, significant time and effort gets spent to get to this point. If the deliverables need revision for any reason, it results in substantial delays and overblown budgets. This is one of the most significant issues with the waterfall model.

3. Shuts Out End-Users and Clients

The waterfall project management model is almost exclusively internal, as it is all about enabling internal teams to move through the different project phases in the most efficient manner possible. There is little to no focus on the clients or end users of the project. This can be a challenge for projects that require the opinions of the end user or the clients. In such situations, change requests may arrive during the late stages of the project, leading to delays and other issues.

4. Longer Delivery Timelines

The waterfall model requires all tasks to be completed and documented before one phase is completed and the next phase starts. Without 100% completion, there can be no transition to the next phase. This, inevitably, leads to longer timelines. In addition, roadblocks or change requests further increase these timelines as the teams have to restart from the beginning. For this reason, many project managers avoid using the waterfall method for complex projects.

When to Use the Waterfall Project Management Methodology

Despite the challenges and drawbacks of the waterfall approach, there are still scenarios where it shines. In fact, the reason the waterfall methodology continues to persist despite the development of other project management methodologies is because it is useful. Some of the industries that regularly employ the waterfall model are:

  • Construction
  • Engineering
  • Manufacturing
  • IT
  • Software Development

Ultimately, the decision to use waterfall project management will depend on certain factors. They are as follows:

1. Strict Requirements

Projects that need to follow regulatory requirements or have several initial requirements with very little room for changes will find the waterfall model to be the ideal approach.

2. Strict Processes

Some organizations tend to have inflexible processes in place that must be followed for all projects. In these circumstances, the waterfall approach will be easier to implement.

3. Low Client Involvement

Not all projects require constant hands-on involvement from the client or the product owner. If the project requires the client to check only during the initial phase and subsequent milestones, then the waterfall methodology is an excellent choice.

4. Existing Product Improvements

For projects that involve enhancing or improving an existing product, the requirements are already fixed at the start. Therefore, the waterfall method may offer the best route for these projects.

5. Inflexible and Fixed Timelines and Budgets

If the project has strict timelines and budgets to follow with no leeway, the waterfall model will be ideal. After all, it provides a more predictable outcome in terms of timelines and budgets.

Alternatives to the Waterfall Project Management Methodology

There are plenty of project management models available today, each with its own pros and cons. Therefore, it is only a matter of choosing the best option for the project at hand. Some of the most common alternatives to the waterfall model are as follows.

Agile Project Management Methodology

One of the most widely used project management methodologies today, Agile is also the best-known alternative to the waterfall model. It is, after all, the antithesis of the waterfall model in many ways. It is far more flexible in nature, allowing team members to take advantage of any opportunity that crops up as the project progresses. Agile is often employed by project managers when the end goal is unclear or when the end product or service will be adjusted as the project progresses. Choosing between agile and waterfall project management ultimately boils down to the degree of flexibility available, the potential for changes, and the project requirements.

Agile project management vs waterfall project management methodology

Waterfall-Agile Hybrid Methodology

A recent development, the hybrid methodology brings the best of waterfall and agile under one single model. This hybrid approach allows for optimization of the team’s time and resources while maximizing end-user satisfaction. Under the hybrid model, the initial phases of the project may follow the waterfall model to get a design approved. After approval, the project moves to an agile methodology for development and testing.

Scrum Project Management Methodology

Another popular project management model, Scrum allows for the organization and management of the moving parts of any project. Like the waterfall model, Scrum also originated from the need to manage software development projects but is now employed across various industries. However, unlike Waterfall, Scrum works well when project deliverables are likely to change, and the solutions are unknown. It also allows for recurrent interactions with clients or end users.

Choosing the Right Project Management Model

The waterfall project management methodology offers several benefits for certain kinds of projects. However, the choice of the project management model clearly depends on the various aspects of the project, such as its timelines, deliverables, budgets, requirements, and more. Therefore, a careful analysis of the project against existing methodologies is important when undertaking any project.

At the same time, it is essential to have the right project management platform in place. With the correct project management tool, managing the project and its variables becomes significantly easier. A good tool will enable complete visibility into all project data and metrics, which, in turn, enables a smarter decision-making process.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Waterfall Project Management model?

The waterfall model is a project management methodology that focuses on sequential and linear project progress.

What is the difference between Agile and Waterfall?

The waterfall model focuses on a linear system where one project phase is completed before the next one, while the agile model allows different project phases to proceed simultaneously.

What are the steps in Waterfall Project Management?

While the exact number of steps varies, the waterfall project management model can be broadly categorized into planning, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance phases.

Is PMP Agile or Waterfall?

Project Management Professional certification is based mostly on the waterfall project management model.

What is a Waterfall example?

The waterfall model was used to develop enterprise applications such as CRM, HRMS, and retail POS systems.

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Shashank Shekhar


Shashank Shekhar

Shashank Shekhar has been a Senior Marketing Communications Specialist for over 9 years. He specializes in writing about technology trends like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and their impact on shaping the project management landscape with tools like professional services automation solutions and time-tracking solutions. Outside of work, he loves reading about history, astrophysics and geopolitics.

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