Beginner's Guide to the Waterfall Model for Project Managers

A Beginner’s Guide to the Waterfall Model

Waterfall method of project management

Trying to find the right project management methodology for your project can make a project manager feel like the titular character of Goldilocks and the three bears. Kanban is visual and popular for its simplicity, but not necessarily the best for repeated projects. Scrum is the king of agile methodologies, but maybe not suited for bigger teams. So what about the waterfall model? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have a clear-cut set of procedures to follow? 
  • Will you document each step of the process so rotating personnel can pick up where previous teams left off? 
  • Are you working on a repetitive project with very little allowance for procedural changes?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, the waterfall model might be that perfect bowl of productivity porridge!

What is the waterfall model?

As the name implies, the waterfall model is a linear project methodology. Each sequential phase in the model depends on deliverables from the preceding phase. Work can only progress towards the next phase by building upon the output of the previously completed phase. 

The waterfall model originated from the manufacturing and construction industries where progressive movement of a project is linear. That’s why there’s no overlap in the work phases of the waterfall model; you need to finish a car’s frame before you can start bolting on the body. 

The straightforward nature of the waterfall model makes it a popular and easy project management system to adapt. Any team, regardless of size, can track the progress of a project and each member can determine the importance of their contributions.

That’s why the waterfall model is one of the oldest and most widely used software development life cycle models.

Phases of the waterfall model

Being a sequential process, the waterfall method follows defined phases:

  • Requirement gathering and analysis: all necessary requirements for the development of a system are gathered and documented
  • System design: the general framework of the system is developed as well as the specific functions and overall architecture
  • Implementation: component parts of the system are developed, tested and prepared for the next phase
  • Integration and testing: the previously developed individual units are integrated into a singular system, then the entire system is tested to ensure all component units are functioning properly
  • Deployment of system: the finished system is deployed and used for its intended purpose
  • Maintenance: ongoing issues are addressed either by releasing patches, updates or even newer system versions

Remember that there is no overlap between phases for this process. Each phase must be completed before moving on to the next one.

Pros and cons of the waterfall model

No methodology is perfect for every scenario; like every other method, waterfall has its advantages and its downsides. Here are some of its advantages:

  • Reliable and predictable. The phases of the waterfall model are straightforward, meaning anyone in the team can easily understand the whole development process.
  • Great for large, long-term projects. Because of its rigidity, this methodology can be applied even with large projects that rely on multiple moving parts
  • Good for tracking tasks with dependencies. Because each phase has to be fully completed before the next phase can be started, finding and resolving dependencies is simple.
  • Easy to manage. Well-defined phases with no overlap make handling operations easier than other methods

On the other hand, be aware of the following disadvantages:

  • No flexibility, even in the early stages of your project. Because of its rigidity, this model leaves little room for creative deviation.
  • Keeping documentation up to date is crucial. Extensive process documentation is needed in order for the waterfall model to work, and this takes up a lot of valuable time.
  • Integration is done all at once at the end of the process. This does not allow for operation-level troubleshooting early in the project development process.

With these in mind, a project manager can decide if the waterfall model is appropriate for a particular project or not.

When to use the waterfall model

The waterfall model works best for projects that can benefit from a clearly defined structure. It’s also an ideal methodology for handling large teams, because it’s easy to identify what development stage the project is in. This also makes projects easier to plot.

Additionally, for repetitive projects where procedures are already clearly defined, using the waterfall model is sure to drive you and your team towards your goal.

The best software for waterfall model project management

If you’ve decided on using the waterfall model as your project management methodology, your next big decision will be choosing the right software to apply it. Many popular project management tools offer Gantt chart functionality, which is a form of Waterfall. This includes Wrike and Asana, both have some form of built-in Gantt-style chart, and Trello and Jira who offer it through third-party integrations. Then there are dedicated tools like Smartsheet which are driven by waterfall-style solutions. 

Want to learn more about other project management methodologies?

The waterfall model is just one option for organizing and managing projects. If you’re not sure it’s the right approach for you, check out our round-up of the five most-used project management methodologies.

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