Everything you need to know about waterfall project management

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshotSarah Laoyan
February 19th, 2024
5 min read
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Waterfall project management is a sequential project management methodology that's divided into distinct phases. Each phase begins only after the previous phase is completed. This article explains the phases of waterfall project management and how it can help your team achieve their goals.

Project managers have many different types of project management methodologies to choose from. There's Agile project management, Kanban project management, Scrum, and many more iterative processes that you can use. 

But what if your project requires a more linear approach? Waterfall methodology is a linear project management methodology that can help you and your team achieve your shared goals—one task or milestone at a time. 

What is waterfall project management?

Waterfall is a sequential project management methodology in which a project is divided into distinct phases. Each phase begins only after the previous phase is completed. 

This project management approach originated from the manufacturing and construction industries, where each milestone needs to be completed before the production process can move forward. For example, you cannot build the walls of a house if foundation has not been poured. 

Even though it began in manufacturing, waterfall project management has since adapted to fit the needs of many different industries, including software development. For example, here’s what a waterfall project might look like:

Waterfall project management methodology

The waterfall methodology is often visualized in the form of a flow chart or a Gantt chart. This methodology is called waterfall because each task cascades into the next step. In a Gantt chart, you can see the previous phase "fall" into the next phase.

Create a waterfall project management template

The 6 phases of the waterfall project management methodology

Any team can implement waterfall project management, but this methodology is most useful for processes that need to happen sequentially. If the project you’re working on has tasks that can be completed concurrently, try another framework, like the Agile methodology

If you’re ready to get started with waterfall project management, follow these six steps: 

1. Requirements phase

This is the initial planning process in which the team gathers as much information as possible to ensure a successful project. Because tasks in the waterfall method are dependent on previous steps, it requires a lot of forethought. This planning process is a crucial part of the waterfall model, and because of that, most of the project timeline is often spent planning.

To make this method work for you, compile a detailed project plan that explains each phase of the project. This includes everything from what resources are needed and what specific team members are working on the project. This document is commonly referred to as a project requirements document. 

By the end of the requirements phase, you should have a very clear outline of the project from start to finish, including:

2. System design phase

In a software development process, the design phase is when the project team specifies what hardware the team will be using, and other detailed information such as programming languages and user interface. 

There are two steps of the system design phase: the high-level design phase and low-level design phase. In the high-level design phase, the team builds out the skeleton of how the software will work and how information will be accessed. During the low-level design phase, the team builds the more specific parts of the software. If the high-level design phase is the skeleton, the low-level design phase is the organs of the project. 

Those team members developing using the waterfall method should document each step so the team can refer back to what was done as the project progresses.

Read: How to write a software requirement document (with template)

3. Implementation phase

This is the stage where everything is put into action. Based on the requirements document in step one and the system design process in step two, the team begins the full development process to build the software as outlined by both the requirements phase and the system design phase.

Read: What is an implementation plan? 6 steps to create one

4. Testing phase

This is the stage in which the development team hands the project over to the quality assurance testing team. QA testers search for any bugs or errors that need to be fixed before the project is deployed. 

Testers should clearly document all of the issues they find when QAing. In the event that another developer comes across a similar bug, they can reference previous documentation to help fix the issue. 

Create a waterfall project management template

5. Deployment phase

For development projects, this is the stage in which the software is deployed to the end user. For other industries, this is when the final deliverable is launched and delivered to end customers. 

6. Maintenance phase

Once a project is deployed, there may be instances where a new bug is discovered, or a software update is required. This is known as the maintenance phase, and it's common in software development to be continuously working on this phase.

When to use the waterfall methodology

The waterfall methodology is a common form of project management because it allows for thorough planning and detailed documentation. However, this framework isn’t right for every project. Here are a few examples for when to use this type of project management. 

Project has a well defined end goal

One of the strengths of the waterfall approach is that it allows for a clear path from point A to point B. If you're unsure of what your point B is, your project is probably better off using an iterative form of project management like the Agile approach. 

Projects with an easily defined goal are well-suited for the waterfall method because project managers can work backwards from the goal to create a clear and detailed path with all of the requirements necessary.

Read: How to write an effective project objective, with examples

No restraints on budget or time

If your project has no restraints on budget or time, team members can spend as much time as possible in the requirements and system design phase. They can tweak and tailor the needs of the project as much as they want until they land on a well thought out and defined project plan.

Creating repeatable processes

The waterfall model requires documentation at almost every step of the process. This makes it easy to repeat your project for a new team member; each step is clearly detailed so you can recreate the process.

Creating repeatable processes also makes it easy to train new team members on what exactly needs to be done in similar projects. This makes the waterfall process an effective approach to project management for standardizing processes.

Read: 5 project management phases to improve your team’s workflow

Benefits of waterfall project management

Consistent documentation makes it easy to backtrack

When you implement the waterfall project management process, you’re creating documentation every step of the way. This can be beneficial—if your team needs to backtrack your processes, you can easily find mistakes. It's also great for creating repeatable processes for new team members, as mentioned earlier. 

Tracking progress is easy

By laying out a waterfall project in a Gantt chart, you can easily track project progress. The timeline itself serves as a progress bar, so it’s always clear what stage a project is in.

[Old Product UI] Mobile app launch project in Asana (Timeline)

Team members can manage time effectively

Because the waterfall methodology requires so much planning during the requirement and design phase, this makes it easy for stakeholders to estimate how much time their specific part of the waterfall process will take.

Read: 18 time management tips, strategies, and quick wins to get your best work done

Downsides of the waterfall model

Roadblocks can drastically affect timeline

The waterfall methodology is linear by nature, so if there's a bump in the road or a task gets delayed, the entire timeline is shifted. For example, if a third party vendor is late on sending a specific part to a manufacturing team, the entire process has to be put on pause until that specific piece is received.

Linear progress can make backtracking challenging

One of the major challenges of the waterfall methodology is that it's hard to go back to a phase once it's already completed. For example, if someone is painting the walls of a house, they wouldn’t be able to go back and increase the size of one of the rooms. 

QA is late in the process

In comparison to some of the more iterative project management methodologies like Kanban and Agile, the review stage in a waterfall approach happens later in the process. If a mistake is made early on in the process, it can be challenging to go back and fix it. Because of how the waterfall process works, it doesn’t allow for room for iteration or searching for the best solution.

Read: Waterfall vs. Agile vs. Kanban vs. Scrum: What's the difference?

Managing your waterfall project

With waterfall projects, there are many moving pieces and different team members to keep track of. One of the best ways to stay on the same page is to use work management software to keep workflows, timelines, and deliverables all in one place. 

If you're ready to try waterfall project management with your team, try a template in Asana. You can view Asana projects in several ways, including Timeline view which visualizes your project as a linear timeline.

Create a waterfall project management template

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