The Ultimate Manual to Waterfall Project Management

When managing a project, the goal is to successfully move from the start to the finish without becoming sidetracked along the way. Keeping the project on task and advancing forward can be a challenge, however.

Making use of the waterfall project management methodology helps project managers and team members stay on track with the project, thanks to extensive preparation work.

What Is Waterfall Project Management Anyway?

Waterfall project management is an approach that works through the steps of a project in a linear manner. It combines the various phases of the project, providing a framework for successful completion.

When viewed in project management software, it will look like a waterfall with clearly visible project steps cascading from left to right and top to bottom.

With the waterfall model, one phase of the model must finish before moving to the next phase. This methodology keeps the project on task. It also ensures that prerequisites for the next phase are in place and ready for use. The team can begin working on the next phase immediately without having to wait.

The project manager and the entire team must agree on the proper completion of all aspects of the current phase before moving on to the next phase.

Waterfall project management is a common methodology for projects involving engineers, software developers, and similar positions.

Benefits of Waterfall Project Management

Some of the biggest benefits of following the waterfall methodology include:

  • Straightforward process: Team members and managers have a clear understanding of how the project will go from beginning to end. The expectations remain clear throughout the project.
  • Saves time: The extra work and time put in during the planning phase for the waterfall model should yield a smoother process once the work begins. This should save time over the long run.
  • Predictability: Stakeholders know exactly what they can expect the project to cost and what benefits they can expect to receive upon completion. By spelling out all deadlines and budgets ahead of time in precise detail, the project won’t have unwanted delays and surprising expenses as it moves forward.
  • Reducing risk: Because of the time spent in the planning phase, teams will understand all of the potential risks. Team members and stakeholders may find through their planning research that the proposed product isn’t going to have the impact in the market they originally expected. Thanks to the prep work, they may choose to scrap the project before even starting it, saving money.

Projects Where the Waterfall Method May Not Work Well

Understand that waterfall will not work for every type of project. The waterfall project management process will not work well with projects that are ambiguous in nature. This model needs specifics about the scope of the project and the end goal to work properly. If the team needs to make estimates about the project while it’s working on the project, waterfall is not the best method to follow.

If the team needs to work quickly, waterfall is not a great choice either. With waterfall project management, teams must prepare for all of the potential scenarios that the project may encounter. Because of all of this pre-project work, following this model can delay start times and potentially slow down the entire process.

Finally, if the scope of the project changes mid-stream, the waterfall method struggles to allow for changes on the fly. Teams often face the prospect of starting over within the documentation phase when they must change the focus of the project after beginning work. For this reason, it’s smart to limit the use of the waterfall model to projects for clients who are unlikely to request major changes once the work begins.

History of Waterfall Project Management

Winston Royce developed the waterfall methodology in the late 1960s while working as the director of engineering at TRW. The plan behind waterfall project management was to create a cost-effective means of completing a project that requires multiple steps in exact order.

Royce introduced the waterfall project management process primarily for software development and engineering. This occurred at a time when programming required the use of punch cards and extreme precision. One mistake could ruin an entire day of work.

Using the waterfall methodology ensured that each step reached the proper conclusion before advancing to the next step. This resulted in accuracy and precision for the project.

How Waterfall Project Management Works

When putting waterfall project management into practice, a team will collect extensive background material ahead of time.

Think of the waterfall methodology as being like a tricky home improvement project. The homeowner would create a plan for the project, develop a list of materials needed, and make sure the tools are on hand. They would then double-check all of the measurements before starting.

Doing this type of project without undertaking the preparation work just leads to delays, errors, and frustration.

A project following the waterfall methodology typically will include the following six phases.

Phase 1: Conception and Development

Project managers should use the conception and development phase in the waterfall model to create an assessment of the project. During the concept phase, teams will determine the benefits of the project, as well as whether the cost of conducting the project will be beneficial.

Making use of the waterfall project management model only works for a type of project where team members can gather this information. Teams need to be able to collect and comprehend all of the project requirements ahead of starting the project. Some of those requirements may include:

  • Project goals
  • Cost assumptions
  • Potential risks
  • Software requirements
  • Hardware requirements
  • Personnel requirements
  • Deadlines for completion
  • Lists of potential competitors
  • Ways to measure success
  • Steps for verification
  • Steps for product maintenance and improvement after release

Without this critical development step, the waterfall model will not be as effective as it can be.

Phase 2: Documentation

For a waterfall project, the documentation phase is perhaps the most important one. Anyone working on the project needs to have a clear idea of what the project involves.

The documentation should lay out the exact steps for the project from beginning to end. It should set up milestones for the project, allowing team members to measure progress. It should also lay out the budget for the project.

The documentation should provide exact descriptions of how the project will look upon completion. It also can spell out the plans for managing the project after completion of the products.

Documents should specify the integrations between the different steps and phases, ensuring a full understanding of the interdependencies. Implementing project management software, such as Wrike, that can produce Gantt charts easily shows any links between steps.

Phase 3: Startup

With the documentation in hand, the manager is ready to move into the startup phase of the project. The project manager needs to bring team members on board, making certain that the team has the right number of members with the right skill sets. If needed, the manager may need to hire some new people to fill in any gaps.

In using the waterfall method, the project designers are able to follow the documentation created in the planning phases. By having an exact description of the goals of the project and the problems it’s trying to solve, designers can jump into the project immediately with great success.

Phase 4: Implementation

During the implementation phase of the waterfall model, team members will spend time putting the plan into action. They will use the documentation created in the planning phase to successfully complete each step in the process.

Often during the implementation phase, team members will work independently or in small groups. Because of the extensive preparation, teams rarely need to check in with other groups or individuals to be able to complete their specific tasks. By having multiple teams working on their individual tasks independently, the team makes progress toward the ultimate goal.

Under the waterfall model, the implementation phase should go quickly. By working through the project in such detail before starting it, including measuring the risks and potential problems, hiccups in the implementation phase should be rare.

However, should significant problems arise in this phase, the waterfall project management method almost always requires returning to the development phase. The project manager and stakeholders need to rethink the scope and processes for the project.

This is not a frequent occurrence in a waterfall project management situation, but it does happen occasionally.

Phase 5: Verification and Testing

As part of completing each step, the team may need to run a series of verification and testing processes. These tests ensure that the team followed the proper procedures and is ready to move to the next step.

Testing and verification of the product at each step along the way is important for many different kinds of projects. However, because software and app development teams use the waterfall model so frequently, the testing and verification phase is especially important for them. If the original code is not working properly, it will throw off the results in the following steps.

As part of the testing phase in the waterfall model, it’s important to have documentation in place that spells out the expectations for the tests. Designing the tests as part of the planning phase ensures the team considers all of the potential scenarios it wants to check as part of the tests. The team will not miss any important verification or testing steps when it has the key ideas listed in documentation ahead of time.

Phase 6: Deployment and Maintenance

After completing all the steps, the team is ready to release the product. The work completed in the planning phase should include documentation about how the team will deploy the product.

After releasing the product, the team then can focus on taking care of any bugs. Some customers may even want the team to add extra features or to make modifications.

Through the development of the initial documentation in the planning phase, the team should have instructions on how to handle updates and maintenance of the product after release. The team should have instructions in hand for when and how to release new versions of the product.

Sometimes, the team may have to deviate from these original documents when creating updates after the product’s release. However, these documents can at least provide a framework for handling product updates.

How to Get Started With Waterfall Project Management

Making use of waterfall project management involves quite a few steps. However, the most important steps occur in the preparation phase. By putting in time and effort in preparing for the project using the waterfall methodology, the steps that follow should go smoother.

Project management software like Asana allows managers to create task cards that can contain the documentation required for the waterfall project. It also simplifies tracking the steps and phases as they finish.

Some of the most important steps to follow before beginning a waterfall model project include the following.

Step 1: Determine the Project Parameters

The first step in designing a project under the waterfall methodology is figuring out the parameters and goals for the project. These should focus on things like:

  • Key features of the project
  • Projected audience and customer base
  • Deadlines for the project
  • Budget for the project
  • Projected financial earnings

Having the goals in official documentation gives the team a starting point for the project. But it also gives the team a framework to follow from beginning to end.

Step 2: Set the Project Expectations

With the goals in hand, it’s time to determine the expectations the team should have for the project. These can include the expectations at the time of the project’s completion, as well as what should happen six months, 12 months, and longer after the project finishes.

It’s important to set expectations to help the stakeholders who are backing the project understand what will happen. They need to know what it will take to complete the project in terms of work hours, cost, and time. They also need to know the expected results once the project comes to a conclusion.

Step 3: Collect the Project Documents

Put together the background materials required to start the project. These documents can include having team members and stakeholders complete questionnaires that discuss their desires for the project. They also can involve one-on-one interviews or planning meetings to gather information.

Compiling this information into documents that will guide the project is key. These documents are vital to having success with the waterfall project management style. Without full documentation about each step, the waterfall model may not work as intended.

Step 4: Start the Project

Have a kickoff meeting that includes the primary stakeholders and team members. Unveil the goals, the project scope, and the overall expectations. Team members then can begin working.

Some project managers will want to have a pre-kickoff meeting, where they can lay out the scope of the project. They then can solicit feedback on the plans for the project. Later, they can unveil the final decision in the official project kickoff meeting.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira