What is the Waterfall model in project management?

Viesturs Abelis 16.05.2023
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Every project has an end goal and project management is the discipline of accomplishing that goal in the most effective and efficient way possible. To do so, there are numerous project management methodologies available, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. 

These methodologies, such as Waterfall and Agile, offer a framework for how to approach the project at hand. They are sets of guidelines, best practices, and procedures that help project managers plan, execute, and control projects.

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One framework isn’t necessarily better than any other, as different types of projects may call for different approaches. However, once you’ve settled on a methodology for a particular project, it’s wise to stick to it to avoid throwing the project into disarray, as these different approaches aren’t really compatible with each other. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Waterfall project management model. We’ll explore what it is, what are the Waterfall method’s pros and cons, and how it contrasts with other approaches.

What is Waterfall project management?

The Waterfall project management methodology is a sequential way of doing things – you map out your project into several progressive phases and work toward completing one phase before moving on to the next. 

One of the key characteristics of the Waterfall model is that you create a thorough plan for the project upfront. There is a clear end result and a detailed roadmap for getting there. 

Let’s visualize it with a Waterfall project management example for building a website. 

This project may consist of five distinct phases: 
1. planning the work
2. writing the copy
3. designing the website
4. programming and technical work
5. launching the website

With the Waterfall model, you would go through each process sequentially and always begin with thorough planning. Once that’s complete, in the first week, you might collaborate with a copywriter to craft the texts. In week two, you would hire a designer to create the visuals. And, finally, once that’s done, you would hand all of the wireframes and designs to a programmer to build the website itself, before launching it to the general public. 

Importantly, with Waterfall, you don’t go backward. Once something is done and a phase is completed you proceed to the next one and, generally, do not revisit finished work until the project ends. Hence the name – the project flows in one direction like a waterfall. 

Though the Waterfall project management methodology was originally developed for large software projects, it can be applied to a wide range of projects of different sizes in various industries such as construction, marketing, engineering, and others. 

man explaining waterfall project management methodology on whiteboard

Within the context of software development, the Waterfall methodology is typically broken down into the following six stages:

  1. Requirement analysis – defining the objectives and scope of the project
  2. Design – setting out a roadmap for how the objectives will be achieved
  3. Implementation – bringing the roadmap to life
  4. Testing – ensuring that the results meet the defined requirements and objectives
  5. Deployment – the product is launched and made available to customers
  6. Maintenance – ongoing maintenance and support are provided, as needed

In other industries, too, projects using a Waterfall approach will follow similar stages. Though the naming conventions and terminology may differ and stages will be adapted to the specifics of the industry, the core concepts and linear workflow remain the same. 

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Key pros and cons of Waterfall project management

The Waterfall model is a fairly straightforward way to approach project management, and, as such, offers several important benefits. Still, there are cons, too, and both sides of the coin should be considered before embarking on a new project. 

3 main Waterfall model advantages:

  • Bestows clarity and structure – extensive upfront planning ensures that everyone understands their role in the project. This clarity helps in setting realistic expectations, establishing a common understanding among team members, and aligning efforts towards the project’s objectives.
  • Makes it easy to manage and measure progress – a detailed plan with clearly assigned roles and responsibilities allows both stakeholders and team members to always be on top of what are the next steps, how far along the project is, and what are the expected timelines. In turn, this makes for accurate time and cost estimates and allows managers to adequately prepare for upcoming phases. 
  • Can reduce risk and improve cost-effectiveness – potential risks and challenges can be identified in advance and space can be made for dealing with them. Plus, a well-thought-out roadmap improves resource management, as you always know what resources are needed and when.

3 main Waterfall model disadvantages

  • Severe lack of flexibility – one of the biggest disadvantages of the Waterfall model is its lack of flexibility. Once a phase of the project has been completed, it’s difficult to go back and make changes without affecting the entire project. This can be a problem when requirements change or when errors are identified later in the project.
  • Complicated collaboration – the Waterfall model can make collaboration more difficult, especially when multiple teams are working on different phases of the project. Teams are often siloed and have little-to-no opportunity for input regarding anything that falls outside of their own scope. 
  • Can take a long time to produce results – the Waterfall model can take a long time to produce results, especially for large, complex projects. Since each phase of the project must be completed before moving on to the next phase, it can take a significant amount of time to complete the entire project. Moreover, any delays have a reverberating effect, as each team must wait for the previous team to complete their work before they can begin their own. 

With these advantages and disadvantages, it’s clear that the types of projects that will benefit most from the Waterfall project management methodology are those that are extremely predictable, namely, with a specific goal that can be achieved in a certain timeline and clear requirements that won’t need to be revisited over the course of a project. 

Let’s revisit our website-building example.

By making use of the Waterfall approach, the project manager responsible for launching the website will benefit from always knowing how far along the project is, who is currently responsible for completing the work, and have peace of mind about the budget. They will also be able to reliably inform key stakeholders about progress and expected timelines.

On the other hand, the main problems they might run into are, for example, the inability to make important changes on the fly once the writing and design stages are completed. Or missing out on a better/ more effective way to do things, because the copywriter, designer, and programmer didn’t get a chance to collaborate. 

team collaborating within waterfall project management

Alternative project management models – Waterfall vs Agile

The Waterfall model in project management is often contrasted with Agile. Contrary to Waterfall, Agile focuses on iterative progress and completing the project in small increments called “sprints”. This approach seeks to deliver value early and frequently and continuously improve on the project as it unfolds. 

One of the main benefits of this approach is that you may gather customer/stakeholder feedback much earlier in the project’s lifecycle and integrate it accordingly to craft a better result. 

Website-building featuring Agile

Let’s imagine our project manager is short on time and has to launch their website ASAP. In such a case, they might favor Agile over Waterfall. Here’s an example of what their project phases could look like. 

1. Project planning
2. Sprint 1 – creating and launching a basic landing page
3. Sprint 2 – gathering early feedback while launching other website sections
4. Sprint 3 – continue gathering feedback and updating the website page accordingly
5. Sprint 4 – finalize the website and conclude the project

In this case, the copywriter, designer, and developer would work (somewhat) together to deliver on each sprint, while also updating previous work as new feedback would come in. The result might be more cohesive and just generally better, as it has already gone through improvements and upgrades by the time of the project’s conclusion.

Generally, Agile is the preferred management approach when it’s clear the project will evolve over its duration and when you want to rapidly test anything and everything. But be cautious – Agile can be more resource intensive, difficult to manage, and much more unpredictable than the Waterfall method, though tools such as DeskTime can certainly alleviate some of the managerial challenges

That said, the ability to integrate early feedback and innovate during an ongoing project has allowed Agile to become the preferred mode of work for companies worldwide, and especially startups. Nevertheless, Waterfall still offers some timeless advantages and will likely serve most projects just fine. 

There’s no right answer

The best project management approach depends entirely on the type of project you’re faced with, what resources are at your disposal, and what goals you’re trying to achieve. 

The Waterfall method is a staple in project management and will best serve you if the project is predictable and any surprises are unlikely. If you’ve got something more dynamic on your hands, then some variant of Agile might be the better option. 

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