Your introductory guide to the waterfall methodology
By: Emily Finlay
Before you can start any project, you first have to answer the question: Which project management model are we going to use?
Even if you’ve never formally named the process your team follows to complete projects, you are likely following one of two options: waterfall and agile. These methodologies help you organize the work you’re doing and ensure you accomplish your tasks successfully and on time.
In this guide, you’ll learn what the waterfall project management methodology is, how it’s different from agile, and when it will benefit your team the most.
What is the waterfall methodology?
The waterfall methodology is often considered the traditional approach to project management. When using it, teams break projects into linear, sequential steps. They gather all requirements at the beginning of the project and use this information to create a plan. Each phase of this plan flows into the next, hence the “waterfall” name.
You will often hear this methodology mentioned in connection with software development, but it was first used in industries such as construction and manufacturing. As you might imagine, following the right steps in the right order is critical when constructing a building or manufacturing a product.
Even more important, you can’t go back and tweak the building’s foundation when you’re several steps down in the process. You have to do everything right the first time and check to ensure you’re hitting the right marks.
Because of these reasons, this method is considered fairly rigid. You can’t start the next phase until everything in the preceding step is completed, so strategic early planning is a must. When you have developed and optimized your processes, you’ll find that everything flows as it should.
What are the typical waterfall method phases?
The waterfall methodology is typically broken into five phases. These include:
- Collecting and documenting stakeholder requirements
Let’s dig into each phase now.
1. Collect and document stakeholder requirements
Every project using this method starts by meeting with stakeholders (usually the client and your team) to determine what will be involved. Remember, you are going to use this information to create a step-by-step plan, so you need to get as many details as you can. You won’t be getting any more client feedback until the end of the project, so give this step your full attention.
You will also need to clearly document the information you receive. Your team will use this documentation to guide their work throughout the project, so it needs to be accurate and comprehensive.
If you work in software development, you would use this step to design the system you’re going to create. For those in other industries, this is your team brainstorming phase. Now that you have the product requirements, decide how you are going to complete the project. Make a list of the tools and resources you will need. If you are going to need help from another employee or subcontractor who isn’t on the team, determine who you will work with and how the partnership will go.
Once your team is equipped to do their best work, decide how you will complete the project. Outline the steps you will take and assign tasks to every team member. This plan should guide the entire project, so create it with care.
At this point, you should be fully prepared to complete the work itself. Using the requirement documentation, work together to develop the product or service you’ve been tasked to create.
When you’ve completed the product, you can then move to the verification phase. Though you’ve likely been testing the product as you go, use this step to see how it performs as a whole. You should be testing for functionality to ensure that there aren’t any bugs or issues that need to be fixed.
More importantly, use the verification phase to check the product against your stakeholder requirements. Go through the product piece by piece to ensure total client satisfaction when you deliver it. Once you’ve found and fixed any problems you find, you can deliver the product to your client.
No matter how thorough your testing, there will likely be issues that your client will discover as they use the finished product. Before you can close the project, you have to address and resolve these issues to achieve full customer satisfaction.
The pros and cons of the waterfall methodology
As with any project management method, there are both benefits and disadvantages when using the waterfall approach.
1. It simplifies project management
Following a step-by-step process allows you to track progress with ease. By simply checking which phase the project is in, you’ll know if you are on track with your timeline and what your team should be doing. Plus, you will always have the client requirements to use as a guide without worrying about mid-project changes.
2. It is easy to implement
Some project management methods require specific training to use, complicating each addition to the team. When using the waterfall method, the first phase’s detailed requirements documentation eliminates any difficulties. Your project plan shows exactly what your new team member will be doing and how you expect them to do it.
3. It saves time and money
One of the best things about this project management method is that it allows you to accurately budget for the project before you even begin work. Armed with the client’s wishes, you can determine the costs and time involved at the start. These comprehensive requirements also empower your team to do everything right the first time, saving time on any changes or fixes later on.
1. Clients may struggle to give accurate requirements
Too often, clients have a vague idea of what they want from the final product, but can only give detailed feedback after they receive the finished product. This can lead to projects with excessive delays and costs as you adjust the product to meet these new requirements.
Although you may not be able to avoid this completely, you can minimize this problem by walking the client through potential scenarios and being honest about the reality of what they’re asking for.
2. It can be difficult to pivot and adapt to new developments
If something changes for the client, such as the discovery of a new feature they want or an internal development that affects their needs, you may struggle to integrate these new requirements. You may also run into difficulties if part of your work doesn’t go as planned. Though there are many ways to address and resolve these potential issues, the waterfall method’s rigid structure doesn’t make it easy.
The best way to avoid these problems is to consider as many potential scenarios as possible while gathering requirements and creating your project plan.
Waterfall project management vs Agile project management
As we mentioned earlier, there are two primary methodologies for project management: waterfall and agile.
We went over the waterfall method above, but let’s briefly explore the agile methodology.
What is the agile methodology?
Agile project management uses a series of iterative cycles or sprints rather than steps to complete work. First, the project is broken into multiple deliverables that form the whole of the product. For each iteration, teams choose a specific deliverable to complete. Planning is done at the start of every cycle and is focused only on the upcoming work.
When a deliverable is completed, the team sends it to the client for feedback. This frequent feedback loop allows the team to work on changes and problems as they go.
Agile focuses on keeping the project fluid and adaptable, addressing work in small portions to offer the greatest flexibility.
Waterfall methodology vs agile methodology: what is the difference?
The biggest difference between the two methods is the way they structure projects. Waterfall follows a rigid, step-by-step approach while agile focuses on flexible iterations. They also differ in the level of client involvement. Agile includes the client in every part of the development process, but waterfall only involves the client at the beginning and end of the project.
Both are acceptable options, but offer different strengths and benefits in their processes. Next, we’ll give tips on knowing when waterfall is the right option for your project.
When to use the waterfall model
The waterfall methodology is best used when you have a project that is well-defined from the beginning and is unlikely to change in scope. Generally, this means those with short timelines. The less certain you are about what will be involved, the more problems you will experience with the waterfall method.
If, for example, you are working with a new client that uses systems you are not familiar with, agile’s learn-as-you-go approach will offer a better experience.
For projects with more familiarity and simplicity, such as template-built websites or products you specialize in, waterfall is the ideal choice. This step-by-step approach allows you to plan with accuracy, capitalizing on your knowledge and experience. As you sketch out your process and requirements, your team can wow clients with ease.