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5 waterfall project management phases you should know about

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By: Emily Finlay


The waterfall project management method is one of the most popular options for a reason. Using this methodology to organize and direct your workflow can keep your team productive and prepared for everything the work demands.

If you want to truly enjoy the benefits of specific project management methodologies, however, it’s essential to follow the sequential process involved.

In this article, we’re taking an in-depth look at the five phases of the waterfall methodology. We’ll walk you through each one, discussing the key components, tips, and examples of how each phase works in practice.

What are the phases of the waterfall model?

The five phases of the waterfall methodology include:

  1. Collecting and documenting stakeholder requirements
  2. Design
  3. Implementation 
  4. Testing
  5. Maintenance

These stages are numbered for a good reason. Each one relies on the phase that came before it, so you have to follow this exact order for the project management methodology to work. As you complete the steps in each phase, the work should naturally flow into the next stage. This downward step-by-step flow is what gives the methodology its name.

As we start breaking down these phases, there are a couple of things to keep in mind for a successful project. First, the waterfall method only works when you have a good plan. We’ll go into this in more detail in a moment, but we want to emphasize the importance of being prepared. Unlike the agile method, waterfall doesn’t allow for quick, last-minute changes. You have to be prepared to deal with any potential problems in advance.

This leads us to our second tip. Avoiding problems that will delay or derail your project is only possible if you constantly check your work. Using the waterfall method means that you can’t make changes to the work you’ve already completed without adding excessive time and monetary costs. Take the time to audit your work – all of your work – as it’s completed to keep the project moving forward smoothly.

The 5 phases of the waterfall methodology

Let’s dig deeper into each of the five phases of the waterfall methodology.

1. Collecting and documenting stakeholder requirements

Before you can start working on your project, you have to know what the client is expecting from the finished product. Schedule a meeting with the relevant stakeholders. For some projects, this may just be your client’s project manager or liaison. Larger or more complex projects will likely require conversations with multiple stakeholders, including C-Suite executives.

You may be able to get everything you need from these meetings on your own, but it can be helpful to include your team as well. Everyone has their own needs and insights into the project. Their presence at the meeting ensures that everyone gets all of the information they need to excel in this work.

Even if everyone is at the meeting, though, you still need to keep comprehensive documentation of these requirements. This information will guide you through the entire project, so keep it as detailed as you can.

This meeting will also be the only time you’ll get client feedback until the product is delivered. Don’t leave any questions unanswered.

Waterfall model example

Let’s say your company has been contracted to renovate a home. Your meeting should include the homeowner, whoever’s designing the remodel, and your crew. You would use this time to understand both appearance and functionality the homeowner wants, as well as how they expect it to be achieved. By asking about everything from room size to tile colors, you can set your team and the project up for success.

2. Design

Now, that you know what you are building, it’s time to decide how you’re going to create it. Gather your team to go over the information you learned in the first phase. Consider what each part of the project requires and how you will accomplish it. If you come up with any new questions, send them to the client ASAP.

Next, plan out the next stages and steps of the project. Evaluate your team to ensure you have the manpower and skills you need to meet the client’s expectations. If there’s a gap, either pull in another employee with the relevant experience or hire a new team member or subcontractor.

You should also make a list of the resources you’re going to need, including tools and software. 

Once you have a solid understanding of everything involved, you can determine a fairly accurate timeline and budget. Give yourself a little bit of wiggle room for revisions at the end of the project, but otherwise use this plan to guide your decisions.

Depending on your industry, you may also use this phase to design the product itself. For projects involving software development, for example, you would use this stage to map out the requested system.

At the end of this phase, everyone should know what you expect from them and what their responsibilities are. The plan you create here is the one you’ll use through the rest of the project, so give it the time and attention it deserves.

Waterfall model example

If you are working on an ad campaign, you would use this step to decide what message the ad will convey, how you want to implement it, which audience you’re targeting, and how you will measure the results. You’ll want to include all of the fine details, such as the colors and medium you’ll use, before you move on to the next phase.

3. Implementation

When you move to this stage, you and your team should be fully equipped to dive into the work. Everyone has their roles and responsibilities, so the product should start to come together quickly. 

Your planning should enable a smooth process at this point, but you may experience problems or delays. When this happens, refer to the plan and requirements documentation you created earlier. If you’ve done your job well, these guides will help you resolve issues without disrupting the project as a whole.

Even though every team member is working on their own tasks, keep track of every development. The waterfall method doesn’t allow you to go back and fix mistakes made previously. Carefully review every bit of work to ensure you’re meeting expectations and laying the groundwork for future developments.

Waterfall model example

Let’s say your company was hired to develop a mobile app. In the implementation phase, your team would take the requirements and plans developed in the first two phases and use them to guide their coding. As you create and implement each part of the product, you would also test and review each snippet against your project standards.

4. Testing

Congrats, your product is finished and ready to be tested! You should have been testing each component as it was developed, but this is a more formal testing process. First, have your team test the product internally. To avoid missing issues, make sure everyone reviews the product as a whole, not just the parts they created.

Next, get feedback from beta testers. These outside eyes will find bugs your team missed completely. They will also use the product differently, giving insight into the ways end users will utilize it. 

If all goes well, you may only have a few problems to resolve. Sometimes, however, this phase reveals major problems with the product. In this case, address these problems through the waterfall process. Walking through the issues and planning your response will bring better results than just patching the bugs.

When your product is problem-free and functioning as requested, you can then deliver it to the client.

Waterfall model example

For those in the manufacturing industry, this phase is often the most important. Working so closely with the product often blinds teams to potential problems. By giving the product to users who aren’t familiar with it, these blind spots quickly become apparent. Seeing the product in action also helps teams determine if it meets the client’s requirements and standards.

5. Maintenance

Many projects don’t end with delivery. As the client uses the product more or technology changes, developers have to resolve any new issues that arise. If you tested it thoroughly, these bugs will hopefully be minor and easy to fix. Major problems, however, may require a return to phase one.

For some industries, this phase carries on indefinitely as ongoing support. If you make periodic updates and maintain the product moving forward, this phase will continue as long as your relationship with the client endures.

Waterfall model example

After building and delivering a website to your client, you can offer regular system updates to keep it compatible with new technology or changing requirements. You can also address any problems that the client may discover through continued use.

Waterfall project management example

Let’s use the last example and say your team is designing a website. You meet with the client to understand what they want from the website’s look and functions. Next, your team determines how they will design and code the website. Using your plan and requirements, your team creates a stunning new site. After testing and improving it, you deliver it to the client, who’s thrilled. You also agree to offer regular updates to keep it up-to-date and working beautifully moving forward.

That is the waterfall methodology in action.

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