The term “waterfall” might make you think you’re headed for a quick rush down a river and over a cliff, but Waterfall project management isn’t that extreme. It’s more like stair steps that get you from point A to point Z in a clear and orderly fashion.
The Empire State Building, huge websites, and some of the most successful marketing campaigns have been built on this tried-and-true process. But is it right for you?
In this chapter, we’ll cover what the Waterfall methodology is, how the Waterfall process works, and the pros and cons of Waterfall project management.
The Waterfall method is a traditional project management methodology that takes a well-defined project idea to completion through a sequential series of linear steps, tasks, and hand-offs. This straightforward and somewhat rigid method uses early planning and estimation to define and document project requirements prior to executing on the work.
The Waterfall methodology centers around a visual timeline—or gantt chart—of your project. This makes it easy to see how long every task should take, who should be working on it, and what order work should be done in.
The Waterfall model was first presented in 1970 by American computer scientist Winston W. Royce—though he didn’t actually use that term to describe it—in his article titled, "Managing the development of large software systems.” The first mention of “Waterfall” is often attributed to a paper written by T.E. Bell and T.A. Thayer in 1976.
Since then, the Waterfall approach has made an impact on many projects and project managers. It’s still widely used across industries and has even inspired formalized education around project management.
In Royce’s original article, he expressed his personal views on software development and presented Waterfall as a case of a flawed, non-working software development methodology—a critical view that persists today and has led to the rise of newer methods, including Agile project management.
Any industry that relies on a well-defined process can use the Waterfall methodology. Those may include, but are certainly not limited to:
Waterfall project management follows a linear process designed to deliver project quality and cost-efficiency. Each phase of the Waterfall process happens in sequential order, meaning one step must finish before the next one begins. You start at point A, finish that step, move on to step B, and continue that way until your project’s complete.
The Waterfall lifecycle doesn’t allow for a ton of iteration unless it’s planned. So if you’re working with a client, be very clear about how much time is scoped for feedback and iteration on your deliverables. Those steps will be built directly into your project plan.
The same goes for change! If a client wants to change the direction of your Waterfall project midstream, you’ll face challenges with your project scope, budget, and deadline. That’s because the Waterfall method is grouped by phases and tasks that depend wholly on previous tasks and decisions. The minute you go off track with the plan, things start to fall apart.
The Waterfall development process can be broken down into 6 key phases. Let’s take a closer look at the Waterfall methodology phases so you can get familiar with the high-level steps of the process.
The first step of any Waterfall project is to question and analyze business needs and understand project goals with a focus on documenting project requirements.
This phase is critical to project success because it fully explains what’s needed—in detail—to complete the project both at a high level and as it relates to each requirement, which will be tracked throughout the project.
The second phase of the Waterfall lifecycle builds on the first step by creating an overall plan for what’s being built. After all, you’ve got to know what you’re designing before setting out to design it.
Here are a few ways this plan might come together, depending on the project you’re working on:
In this Waterfall phase, the goal is to come away with a foundational design document everyone agrees on that acts as a true north for your project. Once that plan’s complete, you can hand it to a designer who will bring the plan to life.
That said, it’s important to remember to keep an eye on your project requirements and documentation so the design work can be handed over in the next phase to begin implementation.
The next phase of the Waterfall process involves the actual build or development of a product.
This is where the documentation you’ve created in the previous 2 steps proves critical, as it will guide your team to implement the design work. Hold your team accountable for checking those requirements—as well as their work in this step—to ease the pain of rework or fixes in the testing phase.
Now it’s time to ensure your product meets all the requirements with the utmost quality and precision possible. Here are just a few activities testing might include:
The testing step carries the most risk in a Waterfall project because you just don’t know what issues or defects will pop up and how they’ll impact the timeline. That’s why careful planning is so important. Adding a buffer into your testing schedule can help ensure your team has adequate time to make fixes.
You’re close to completion, so do everything you can to perfect the project in the testing phase before it launches.
At this point, requirements have been met, the product’s fully tested and approved, and everyone’s confident your product is 100% ready to release.
Depending on the type of product you’re launching, you’ll have a plan to ensure your deployment is smooth and drama-free. Be sure to discuss what the deployment or launch will look like far in advance of actually doing it. Working out the details early will enable you to approach your release day with a checklist and some confidence.
It may feel like time to celebrate, but you’re not done yet.
Not every project needs this step. But many products require a team to hang on for updates. So while you might have a product out in the wild, there’s a chance you might need to continue to support it after launch.
These 6 phases make up the core of the Waterfall process. What you don’t see here are the tasks, milestones, and hand-offs that occur within each phase. To get a sense for that, check out this Waterfall model and example.
Every method has advantages and disadvantages. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons people choose the Waterfall approach for their projects—and some of the downsides you should be aware of.
We’ll start with the benefits of the Waterfall methodology. Here are some advantages you may find when you use the Waterfall method for your projects:
Of course, Waterfall project management comes with a few limitations too. Consider these important factors before deciding if the Waterfall method is right for you:
Now that you’ve got the Waterfall basics down, you’re ready to move onto another popular approach to project management! Keep reading to learn all about Agile.
NEXT CHAPTER: Agile Project Management Methodology
When you’re a project manager, every minute counts. Our free project management software enables you to stay focused on the tasks that move the needle—no matter which methodology you use.
Whip up a project plan in minutes, and watch your team cross the finish line faster. It really is that simple.