Understanding Waterfall Project Management with Its Benefits & Limitations

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Quim P.
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Having an efficient project management system is essential for any business or team. Without one, projects can easily become disorganized and chaotic. Winston W. Royce felt the same way when, in 1970, he proposed the waterfall project management methodology.

This system revolutionized how projects were organized and implemented, becoming one of the most popular project management approaches to this day. While you might constantly hear about agile and scrum, the waterfall approach still holds a relevant place in project management.

We will cover the basics of waterfall project management, including what it is, its advantages and disadvantages, and some examples of how it can be used.

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What Is the Waterfall Methodology?

Waterfall is a sequential methodology with distinct steps used in project management. Following the waterfall method, a project progresses in a linear fashion, with the output of one stage becoming the input for the next. Each completed stage of the waterfall process must be verified and approved before moving on to the next. This approach contrasts with the agile methodology, which takes a more iterative and incremental approach.

What Is the Difference between Waterfall and Agile?

The agile methodology divides the project into smaller tasks completed in short sprints. This iteration allows for more flexibility and the ability to make changes as needed during development. Agile also uses an agile team structure, with product owners and stakeholders guiding the process.

This last part contrasts with the waterfall method, which sets clear roles and responsibilities before the project begins. In other words, it's more rigid and structured than the agile methodology. Think of waterfall project management as building a house. You can't build a house starting from the roof. You have to start from the foundation and build up until you're done with everything in advance.

The Six Stages of the Waterfall Methodology

Since the waterfall method moves linearly, all products mostly use the same six stages. They are as follows:

Waterfall Methodology

Sometimes you’ll see that the stages are named slightly differently depending on the use case.

1. Requirements Analysis

This method frowns on making any changes to the project once it's begun, so the planning stage is vital. In fact, many projects spend most of their timeline on this first step. In the requirements analysis stage, the project stakeholders determine what they need to accomplish and what goals they want to reach. The requirements are collected and documented in detail to provide a roadmap for the entire project.

The following should be included in the project requirements documents:

  1. 1
    Various stages of deliverables
  2. 2
    Dependencies between tasks
  3. 3
    Resources, tools, and skills needed
  4. 4
    Timeline of when specific tasks must be completed
  5. 5
    Acceptance criteria for each task
  6. 6
    Which teams or members are responsible for each stage

Once the requirements have been established, they're reviewed and approved.

2. Design

The second stage of the waterfall process is the design phase. If we take software development as an example, this goes much deeper than drawing up an attractive user interface. This stage is all about creating a technical plan for the project. Here, software engineers and developers create an architecture and flow chart of how the project needs to progress.

That includes nailing down the tech stack that will be used, environmental requirements (like the cloud architecture), and other key details. Like any stage, it requires approval from stakeholders and engineers. Once all is agreed upon, it's time to implement.

3. Implementation

This next step is where the rubber meets the road–where teams turn project requirements into actual deliverables. The implementation stage is where programming processes are put into motion. If the first two stages have been completed correctly, the implementation should be relatively straightforward. Follow your design to the letter, and don't forget to document every step.

4. Testing

No one should release a project without testing it first. This stage is also often referred to as “verification”. Engineers, testers, and other stakeholders check the product against acceptance criteria in this verification phase. This is when bugs are identified and fixed before the product moves on to the next stage. Note that you are mostly looking for functionality issues and not design problems at this stage.

How to Manage Project Testing Infographic

The team will also evaluate the product's performance and security to ensure it's up to par. This is usually done through unit testing, automated tests, and user acceptance tests (UAT), among other various quality assurance tasks.

5. Deployment

For some people and projects, the deployment is considered a separate phase. For others, it’s part of the testing/verification. The deployment involves the creation of documents together with the final approval of the product by the stakeholders. This stage is relatively straightforward. It's just a matter of getting everything out there for the world to use and signing the papers to make the finish line official.

The rollout plan will depend on the scope and size of the project. In some cases, a product might be deployed in stages. For example, an app could be tested on a small group before being put into the wild. There may also be pre-launch tasks such as marketing, customer education, training for support staff, and more to consider.

6. Maintenance

Lastly, the project must be maintained. With software development, this means releasing updates and security patches whenever necessary. Most digital products are never really "finished" – they constantly require updates and improvements. The maintenance phase provides the necessary support for the product, so it continues to meet user needs.

Benefits of Waterfall Project Management

As you can see, the waterfall method is a fully functional system for managing software development projects. When debating which project management system to use, keep the following advantages of waterfall project management in mind.

Straightforward

The waterfall approach is relatively simple. Because each step follows a linear process, there's less potential for getting caught up in complicated details or becoming overwhelmed. Once the first step is complete, it's just a matter of following through with the rest. In fact, this system is extremely effective for projects that have a set beginning and end.

Defines Clear Roles and Responsibilities

For larger projects, it's important to define roles and responsibilities in a clear manner. Compared to the agile methodology, where all roles are blurred, the waterfall method provides a clear system for knowing who is responsible for each task.

This way, everyone can do their respective jobs, and there's less potential for overlap or confusion. It also requires less coordination since the details are predetermined.

Reduces Scope Creep

A big problem with many projects today is scope creep. It refers to the tendency of engineers, clients, and other stakeholders to continue piling on features, tasks, and other requests that weren't part of the original plan. For instance, you may start off trying to build a basic video game and then end up with a multiplayer virtual reality experience.

The waterfall approach helps to reduce scope creep because it's based on careful planning. Once the details are outlined in the design phase, they are set in stone. This approach limits the potential for additional requests and allows teams to focus on their tasks without worrying about changing requirements.

Accurate Progress Tracking

The waterfall approach is also great for tracking progress. Since each step is predetermined and follows a linear process, it's easy to observe any time where the project is currently at. This helps with budgeting and setting realistic timelines. Each step also has a defined set of deliverables, so it's easy to determine which tasks take priority over others.

Drawbacks of Waterfall Project Management

Despite the benefits, the waterfall approach doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Here are a few cons to keep in mind.

Increased Possibility of Delays

Because each step must be completed in order, any delays or snags can cause major issues down the line. If one section takes longer to code than anticipated, the entire project timeline could be thrown off. Every subsequent step will have a domino effect, causing major headaches for everyone involved.

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Even if the delay isn't caused by someone on your team (i.e., third-party services or client demands), you could still find yourself in a tough spot.

Possibility of Less Invested Personnel

In other methodologies, like agile, people are more invested in the project due to its collaborative nature. Everyone is working in tandem to complete the necessary tasks. With waterfall project management, people tend to be more isolated and may not have as much incentive to do their best work. It can lead to a decrease in quality or even missed deadlines.

Lack of Flexibility

The waterfall approach is exceptionally rigid and doesn't allow for much flexibility. If you need to make changes, it could be difficult – or even impossible – to do so at later stages in the project. Plus, you may be forced to deal with higher costs and lower quality down the line. In some cases, you would have to go back to the drawing board and start over.

Costly Mistakes

Finally, the waterfall approach can be quite costly if mistakes are made. It's essential to catch any errors early on, or else you could end up wasting time and money trying to fix them later. Technical debt can add up and end up derailing the entire project.

When to Choose Waterfall over Agile

Ultimately, when it comes to choosing a project management method, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It depends on the size and scope of your project as well as the preferences of your team.

That said, the waterfall methodology is typically best suited for the following.

Projects with Rigid Requirements

If you're working on a project with clearly outlined requirements and where changes aren't anticipated (like when building a house), then waterfall project management is a great choice. It allows for better scheduling, budgeting, and coordination since the details are predetermined.

Remember that you need a clear picture of the beginning, middle, and end to make it work. Without that, you might be better off with a different approach.

Projects with No Defined Timelines

Because delays and mistakes can be so costly with waterfall, it's best for projects that don't have a strict timeline. This way, you won't be forced to rush and can take the time needed to create something of high quality. Waterfall developers often take as much time as needed to get the job done right.

Projects with Recurring Processes

Finally, if you have a project that's repeated with minimal changes, then the waterfall approach is ideal. The clear roadmap allows for the same process to be repeated again and again, making it easier to stay organized and productive. It also gives you the advantage of being able to improve your "template" from project to project, which can highly affect your efficiency, quality, and profitability.

Final Note

Ultimately, the waterfall methodology is a valid project management approach that can help you stay organized and efficient if applied correctly.

Regardless of your chosen approach, having the right tools to help you manage your project(s) is crucial. Be sure to check out our Best Picks, where we list the best project management software on the market.

These solutions help you with every step of the process – from planning and scheduling to tracking and even budgeting. This not only keeps you and your team organized but also puts you on the right path to successful project completion.

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Project management enthusiast who loves building a good working atmosphere in organizations. Good project management means making team members and clients feel comfortable at every stage of the process. Change my mind.