What is waterfall project management and why is it useful?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 14 September 2022 | Published 30 November 2021

Updated 14 September 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Managing the various responsibilities and staff members involved in a project can be challenging. Employing the use of a project management system can help you organise tasks and keep the project on a path that leads to success. One of the proven frameworks you may wish to use may be waterfall project management. In this article, we define waterfall project management, discuss what processes this involves and how it's unique compared to other approaches.

What is waterfall project management?

Waterfall project management, also known as the waterfall model, is a method that involves breaking down tasks and approaching them in a linear fashion. As the waterfall model uses a linear approach, a phase cannot begin until the preceding phase is complete. It's also important to note that once a phase is complete, you cannot go back to it. The name of the methodology comes from the way a waterfall trickles down from above, and in the same way, waterfall project management processes trickle down throughout different teams.

This method is particularly helpful for some specific aspects of a project. For example, with IT-related tasks, it's important for managers to complete each step fully in the development process before moving on to avoid causing major issues. It also helps keep each of the different stages within the proposed timeline.

Related: What is technical project management?

What are the phases of the waterfall model?

Due to the linear nature of this approach, documenting each phase is essential to ensuring everybody involved is aware of the timeline and its demands. It's common to use the Gantt method alongside waterfall project management. This method involves the use of charts to illustrate project schedules and track resources. By factoring project deadlines, requirements and objectives into the chart, you can more efficiently organise large-scale projects. Here are the stages involved in this method:

Planning

Planning is the first stage of the waterfall model. When planning projects, the project manager typically takes time to understand the varying requirements before making progress. Without the completion of this phase, the subsequent phases would be impossible to complete. The planning stage includes:

  • Understanding the brief: Fully understanding what the brief requires is an essential first step. As a project manager, you can achieve this by liaising with clients and studying briefs.

  • Determining deliverables: Using the information gathered from the brief, you can outline the desired outcomes of the project. This includes setting short-term goals that progressively lead to the completion of the long-term goal.

  • Considering stakeholder expectations: It's important to understand what stakeholders expect from the project. This includes being mindful of deadlines, budgetary restrictions and whether you require any assistance from them.

  • Researching: Undertaking extensive research is the best way to collect any information you might require. This is useful because it can help identify any additional goals for the project.

  • Personnel management: To avoid problems with meeting deadlines, it's important to organise team members and assign them responsibilities and clear due dates for their tasks.

  • Scheduling meetings: Discussing and brainstorming goals and timelines with the entire team and stakeholders is a great way to clarify what the project requires.

Related: Stakeholder types and management in business: a guide

Design

The design stage comprises two distinct parts which are the conceptual and physical designs. The conceptual phase involves team members brainstorming ideas. These ideas are theoretical in the first stage and may not have a specific timeline for waterfall project management. In the physical design stage, successful ideas can become concrete steps or goals. The design phase includes the following key steps:

  • Identifying and defining tasks: After comprehending the brief and the needs of the stakeholders, vague ideas become clearly defined tasks. It's common to use breakdown schedules in this stage, which is a top-down approach to project planning.

  • Creating a workflow and timeline: Keeping team members informed about the workflow is crucial as it helps them understand what you expect them to do at each stage. It can be useful to draw up a chart and assign team members to different phases of the project.

Related: What is workflow management? (A definition and guide)

Implementation

The implementation phase includes the following objectives:

  • Assigning team members to specific tasks: It's essential to assign specific responsibilities to team members with the appropriate skills and experience.

  • Tracking progress: Tracking progress towards the completion of tasks is crucial for determining when it's time to move on to the next stage of the project.

  • Identifying challenges during workflow: Issues may arise and require an effective resolution during the implementation stage. It's the responsibility of the project manager to identify these issues and develop workable solutions.

  • Reporting progress to stakeholders: As the project manager, you may report progress to stakeholders during the implementation of the project. You can agree on reporting schedules during the planning phase of the project.

  • Testing progress: Depending on the scope of the project, team members may test some aspects of the project when making progress. They can then use this information to make improvements to additional work.

  • Presenting the project upon completion: Once the project is complete, you can present it to the client and stakeholders for review.

Related: What is strategic management and why is it important?

Verification

Verification happens once the client receives the final deliverable. During this stage, the product faces testing and clients and stakeholders are able to voice any concerns they may have. It's typical to measure the end product against the brief to ensure it meets all the requirements. This phase also includes:

  • Paying team members: Upon the completion of the project, ensuring that all team members receive proper payment for their work is an important step.

  • Managing paperwork: Complete and organise any paperwork that you're responsible for, as this may be necessary to close contracts and finish the project.

  • Reviewing the project: Reviewing what went well and what could require improvements can help with managing future projects and setting standards for future workflow.

Related: How to become a project manager

Maintenance

Maintenance is typically a requirement as you progress through each stage of waterfall project management. As the project manager, you're in charge of measuring the team's progress towards the completion of tasks in accordance with the project's timeline. Some projects require maintenance once the project is complete, particularly when it involves software development. It's helpful for project managers to assess what the maintenance needs may be in advance so the team can prepare accordingly.

Related: Project monitoring: importance and how to do it effectively

What are the benefits of this method?

The waterfall model provides structure to the implementation of projects. There are many pros to this type of project management approach, including:

  • Organisation: The linear method makes it easy to employ effective organisation. Each team member understands the specific tasks they're responsible for and when each task is due.

  • Cost transparency: Breaking down larger projects into smaller tasks with anticipated completion times helps project managers estimate the number of hours required. This helps with providing accurate pricing estimates to customers.

  • Timeline accuracy: Setting expectations and a timeline in advance make it easier for you to determine accurate estimates of how long each phase of the project may take to complete. This is helpful information for all parties involved in the project to be aware of to adhere to the schedule.

  • Measuring progress: This method is helpful for measuring progress throughout the project, as it requires you to close a task before beginning the next phase.

Related: How to develop SMART goals

How does waterfall project management differ from agile project management?

The waterfall model and agile project management are the two most commonly used project management styles. They differ from each other in the following ways:

  • The flow of work: The waterfall model works on a linear basis while agile management emphasises the prioritisation of tasks based on their importance.

  • Planning the project: The waterfall model involves planning the entire project in advance, while agile management achieves this in sections, with each of the sections facing review as the project progresses.

  • Openness to changes: The waterfall model has very little room for changes or updates, whereas the agile management approach is likely to involve consistent amendments and improvements.

  • Delivery of the product: The waterfall model involves presenting the end product to the clients and stakeholders upon completion, whereas agile management involves consulting the client about the product in various sections and stages.

  • Customer feedback: When using the waterfall model, you can expect to receive customer feedback upon the completion and submission of the project. With agile management, you can expect feedback after completing each phase of the project.


Explore more articles