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Waterfall Project Management: The Ultimate Guide
Do your projects need a more structured approach? Waterfall project management may be just what you need. Learn all you need to know in this ultimate guide.
As a discipline, project management is essential to ensuring end products are produced as intended, while also not blowing the budget or running over schedule. Waterfall project management is a longstanding methodology that adds intense rigor and structure to the discipline so processes can be refined and repeated for future projects. For project managers wanting to formalize their project efforts, the chapters below provide an in-depth rundown of virtually everything you need to know about waterfall, including when it's best to use (and avoid) the methodology, and its phases.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: What Is The Waterfall Approach To Project Management?
Waterfall project management is a linear methodology that requires a project to be completed in sequential steps. At the beginning of the project, you create a detailed waterfall project plan that includes requirements and expectations, among other aspects. You then proceed through a series of clearly defined phases—which we describe in Chapter 2—until you’ve fully executed on the plan.
Waterfall is documentation-heavy and can be unforgiving at times because you must fully complete each phase before moving on to the next one. It’s often contrasted with other project methodologies, such as agile—a flexible, iterative approach that develops a project in stages, instead of planning it from start to finish before kickoff. To help draw a distinction between the two approaches, consider several agile methodologies:
- Lean. This philosophy emphasizes cutting waste and inefficiencies, such as choosing only the most valuable features for a software system.
- Kanban. A flexible project management approach that promotes continuous collaboration and emphasizes visualization of work, typically through a collection of boards and cards.
- Scrum. An approach involving a small team led by a scrum master, whose main job is to clear away all obstacles to the team completing work. Work is done in short cycles called sprints, and the team meets daily to discuss current tasks and roadblocks that need clearing.
The flexibility of agile methodologies like the above have inspired some organizations to forego the traditional waterfall project management methodology—according to a PMI survey, 37% of organizations use waterfall approaches, while 41% use either agile or a hybrid approach of waterfall and agile. Still, there are certain industries and projects where the sequential approach is necessary; we explore a few examples of these in Chapter 5.
Chapter 2: Waterfall Phases
The waterfall method of project management defines five distinct phases you must carefully plan out and execute on, and each phase is a prerequisite for the next. Below we walk through what to expect in each phase.
The first phase is all about preparing for subsequent phases. You gather important setup information and requirements about the project through interviews, questionnaires, brainstorming sessions, and so on. Be sure to include all key stakeholders to address multiple perspectives.
One essential part of the planning phase is identifying the specific deliverables you’ll need throughout the life of the project, and what it will take to produce them. These should be queued up so as you proceed through each phase, your team has a clear idea of which deliverable they’ll need to work on next. Assigning roles is also important—each participant (even less-involved stakeholders) should know the part they’re required to play.
Remember that waterfall project management requires each step to be thought out in the beginning, so put a sizable amount of time and effort in this first phase to ensure you don’t have to go back to the drawing board down the line.
The second phase is intended to establish the project specifics. Here is where you outline all the actions you’ll take to deliver the agreed-upon scope, and the order in which you’ll take them. This is also where you flesh out and document expected timelines, budgets, and so on.
Design is all about solidifying and documenting your decisions from the first phase—think of the planning phase as the what and the designing phase as the how. For example, if you’re managing a software development project, you would document the programming language you’ll be using and any hardware requirements.
Here you execute on what you’ve planned and documented. The majority of your time will be spent in this phase. If your company creates software, this stage would consist primarily of coding and hitting product development and release milestones. If your company is in construction, this is where your team would be building a home or commercial property.
Like in the previous phase, remember to document your activities. Good recordkeeping for external and internal use is imperative, for example, if clients want evidence of certain tasks, and to give your team something to refer back to for future projects.
Here you look for any problems in deliverables from the implementation phase. Maybe there’s some errant code (for software) or issues with the roof (for construction). The rigor of the waterfall approach typically makes this phase relatively brief, but you should create a process for finding and reporting issues to keep the project moving smoothly. If your original plan was designed well, you may have a little buffer to remediate problems.
The focus of the maintenance phase is to tie up any loose strings, such as making minor modifications to the product to improve performance (typically through change requests) or to shore up any issues or defects.
In addition, you want to optimize your process for the next project. You may hold a lessons-learned discussion (sometimes called an after action review) to determine what went well and what didn’t. This helps identify the changes you should make the next time around. Document everything you discuss and make sure it’s saved where you know where to find it when you start your next project.
Chapter 3: Waterfall Advantages
The sequential nature of waterfall project management may make the approach seem inflexible, but these characteristics also provide the below upsides.
1. It speeds up training time for new team members.
New team members often have to go through the onboarding process, including shadowing with a current team member. The documentation for the waterfall approach comes in handy when getting new members up to speed. While they’ll still need to connect and establish a good relationship with the rest of the team, reviewing project documentation can give new members a solid foundation of knowledge. It can also help answer many questions they might have, meaning they won’t have to wait for a teammate to get answers.
2. It helps retain knowledge within the organization.
Documentation comes in handy with regard to employee turnover. When experienced employees exit the organization, their knowledge is retained in project documents. When you assign someone to the empty role or source new talent to fill it, they’ll have an easier time learning the ins and outs of their responsibilities.
3. It makes projects easier to manage.
Regardless of team size, the waterfall approach is straightforward. After putting in the work upfront to plan all the necessary details for a successful completion, the only thing left is to walk through the steps as directed. At any point during the project, you should know exactly what’s being worked on and by whom, along with any dependent tasks—this leaves little need to figure out what’s next on the agenda, or who to go to if you have questions about work items.
4. It reduces the time needed to complete projects.
Every waterfall-style project you complete helps you refine your project processes, and find new and better ways to complete similar work. Many companies perform the same type of work repeatedly for different clients or contexts. Construction companies are a good example—whether they’re building a home, an office building, or an industrial space, it requires the same repeatable process.
Assuming they’ve documented their processes—and updated that documentation in subsequent engagements—construction companies can achieve faster build times. They are also well aware of potential issues that can cause delays, and how to quickly remedy them. The same sentiment can be applied to other types of companies that employ a repeatable process to achieve similar end products.
5. It makes project progress simple to measure.
The waterfall technique for project management ensures all project elements are clearly defined, which makes measuring progress a simple task. You always know where you are schedule-wise, how many tasks you’ve completed, which deliverables have been submitted, and so on. Then it’s just a matter of doing the math, determining whether you’re on track, and seeing what corrective measures may be needed if you’re behind schedule.
6. It makes project progress easy to visualize.
Stemming from the last advantage, clear measurements make for easy charting and graphing. A straightforward percentage of completion can be shown with a pie chart to quickly communicate status to management. Gantt charts are also frequently used in the waterfall methodology to show the status of the current schedule, including dependency relationships between activities.
Chapter 4: Waterfall Disadvantages
There are also several downsides to the waterfall method of project management. While they don’t take away from the efficacy of the methodology, they do demonstrate why waterfall is not suitable for all projects.
1. It’s unadaptable to change.
As we described above, flexibility is the key difference between waterfall and agile methodologies. Waterfall takes a highly structured, step-by-step approach to producing an end product, whether that be a new office building or a new vaccine. In worst-case scenarios, if you miss an important detail, you may be forced to start the entire project over from phase one. This can be quite costly in terms of budget, client satisfaction, and employee morale.
2. It requires lots of planning.
Since waterfall requires that all project details are known upfront, you have to employ extensive, comprehensive planning efforts. From in-depth interviews to multiple brainstorming sessions, you have to get as much information out of as many people as possible to avoid missing any pertinent details that could impact the project in later phases.
Plus, if you’re looking to get a project up and running quickly, you’ll probably be out of luck—unless it’s a similar project that calls for many of the same requirements, which would reduce planning time.
3. It requires intense focus in each phase.
Waterfall can require that a phase be fully completed before proceeding to the next one, and it’s extremely difficult to go back if you miss anything. That means you and your team must check every box before moving on, or there could be a lot of rework needed. This could easily derail your schedule since there are many dependent relationships between tasks—every day of delay is another day added to your overall schedule.
4. It doesn’t permit working on multiple phases at once.
Agile allows you to move between phases as you learn more about what you’re working on. Waterfall is not so forgiving. In most cases, you’re not able to shorten the timeline on projects by working simultaneously on different tasks. Since there are so many dependent relationships between tasks, you’re forced to complete each one individually before starting the next. Rolling up this concept to a higher-level view, you can see why a project schedule would not have much flexibility. There may be a few places where waterfall steps overlap, but there is usually a gating mechanism to make sure each major area is completed before moving on to the next area of the plan.
Chapter 5: Waterfall Project Management Methodology Examples
The effectiveness of waterfall vs. agile is a hotly debated topic. In truth, every project is different, which means you may need to tailor your approach to fit whatever your current project needs. Below are some use cases where the waterfall methodology is a good fit, and others where another methodology would likely work better.
The effectiveness of waterfall vs. agile is a hotly debated topic. In truth, every project is different, which means you may need to tailor your approach to fit whatever your current project needs. Click To Tweet
Use Cases Where Waterfall Works Well
In general, traditional waterfall project management is a good fit for projects that:
- Can be planned from beginning to end before they start
- Don’t require work on multiple phases at the same time
- Have a clearly defined product and process
Both the construction and manufacturing industries have long used waterfall project management. In fact, over 25% of manufacturing companies still use the methodology.
Given the sequential operating nature of the two industries, this reality isn’t surprising. Construction companies build houses and commercial spaces literally from the ground up; changes in a construction plan can be extremely costly and, in some cases, not possible after certain points in the project. While there may be room for preparing certain materials in advance, buildings are constructed in a specific order, making it a great match for waterfall.
Manufacturing also calls for orderly operations—personnel and machines work together to turn various components into a cohesive product for additional processing or final product for consumer consumption. The rigid nature of waterfall project management helps ensure process outcomes are consistent, so products turn out the same way every time.
Healthcare is another area that can benefit from using waterfall, specifically pharmaceuticals. Scientific research is naturally an orderly practice, and the end product is clearly defined. To develop a new drug, for example, scientists form a hypothesis and proceed through a rigorous set of steps. Each time they fail, they start over, forming an adjusted hypothesis to explore.
Here’s a brief overview of how a waterfall project might go in a pharma context:
- Planning. Scientists perform research about the disease they’re trying to cure, including studying it in a lab and interviewing patients affected by it. They form a hypothesis on a potential cure.
- Designing. The scientists develop a waterfall project plan as to how they will explore the hypothesis and what resources they need.
- Implementation. The scientists execute on their plan and develop a drug that potentially cures the disease.
- Testing. The scientists perform relevant testing to verify the efficacy of the drug. If it doesn’t work, they start over.
- Maintenance. The scientists reflect on the process, identify lessons learned, make changes to their hypothesis and development process, and document all these aspects to optimize their next drug development project.
The waterfall method of project management also works well for local governments and municipalities that build or reopen any type of public works project. For example, consider the reopening of a seasonal public space such as a park or recreation center. A waterfall project may proceed in this manner:
- Planning. Government staff conduct interviews with maintenance workers and park officials to determine the appropriate steps and resources needed to reopen the space to the public.
- Designing. The staff outlines a plan, assigning people to relevant responsibility areas and creating a work timeline.
- Implementation. The staff oversees the execution of the project, ensuring each task is completed successfully and on time.
- Testing. The staff carries out appropriate tests to ensure the space is safe and operating correctly, and that it will hold up well under public use.
- Maintenance. The staff holds a review discussion to evaluate the reopening process, and make any necessary changes to the process for next year’s reopening.
Use Cases Where Waterfall Isn’t Suitable
In general, traditional waterfall project management would not be a good fit for projects that:
- Necessitate different phases or tasks be worked on simultaneously
- Have an unclear end state, where you’re not exactly sure what a product or outcome will be or even how best to approach creating it
- Require feedback at multiple points throughout the life of the project that impact processes and deliverables
Software development is a great example. Historically, waterfall was used to develop software; it is still sometimes used for prepackaged software products, such as Microsoft Office 2010. However, subscription-based software has become the norm in recent years. This type of software is maintained continuously and typically uses customer feedback to roll out new features frequently. Instead of packaging together a set of features for a given year, then restarting the development process to roll out a new version the next year, customers are continually presented with the latest version every time they log in.
Dubbed software as a service (SaaS), this development and pricing model requires lots of flexibility to accommodate changes based on customer input and updates. That’s why many modern software development companies choose agile over waterfall project management.
Sometimes waterfall doesn’t work because technology is evolving so quickly that you cannot plan out an entire year-long project. It doesn’t allow for you to learn from your clients along the way or include a new innovation in underlying software. That being said, you may take an agile development approach, but still have aspects of waterfall in the release process to make sure that testing is completed and customer communications occur as a product or enhancement is being released.
Chapter 6: How To Support A Waterfall Approach With Software
Whether you decide to follow the traditional waterfall project management methodology or a hybrid approach, you can increase your chances of success by using a solution designed to track and support the progress of your projects. ClearPoint strategy execution software not only keeps your projects running in an orderly fashion, but also ensures they align with your overall goals.
ClearPoint brings together all your project data in one place to help you easily keep your team and management informed about project status. You can also upload all your requirements documents so your whole team can stay on the same page throughout the life of the project.
In keeping with waterfall’s focus on optimizing processes for future projects, you can even save your project data as a template and duplicate it when you start a new project—saving a significant number of hours and money. Other features that help you manage your waterfall projects successfully are:
You can build and track your entire waterfall project plan in ClearPoint, from planning to maintenance. Use the project management dashboard to maintain a high-level view of progress. Track milestones to see which ones are complete, on track, or falling behind. Assign tasks to users based on their responsibilities, including due dates and notifications alerting you to their completion, and link those tasks to higher-level project phases.
Recall that waterfall makes visualizing project progress easy; ClearPoint has a number of charts and graphs to help you accomplish this. For example, Gantt charts are an essential visual tool for waterfall project management—these are automatically built into ClearPoint as you enter start and end dates for individual tasks. You can see the status of each project through standard colors like red, yellow, and green, making it simple for anyone to quickly gauge project status.
Another important aspect of waterfall is reporting. You have to keep your team, department leaders, and executives in the loop about progress. ClearPoint helps you easily report on KPIs—including adherence to the budget—to each of these audiences by enabling you to quickly build and save reports that show varied levels of data and different visualizations.
The traditional waterfall project management methodology can help add structure and rigor to any project, but it’s not necessarily best suited for every project. Consider whether your project fits the criteria described above, and remember you can always opt to try a hybrid approach of waterfall and agile if you need more flexibility.
Whether you choose to go the traditional route or follow a hybrid model, ClearPoint can help your project make it to the finish line on time and within budget—all while supporting your strategy. See how ClearPoint can help you track and manage your projects, regardless of the methodology you use.