What the Waterfall Project Management Methodology Can (and Can’t) Do for You

Are you eager to understand whether this approach would work for your objectives? In this article, we’ll show you how the waterfall approach uses a linear process to streamline project management. You’ll learn how you might apply the basics of this method to achieve your goals.

What is the Waterfall Project Management Method?

Waterfall project management is a sequential process that consists of several distinct phases. It is known as a traditional method of project management. The title of this approach relates to a waterfall, because the process moves in one direction – downwards, as a waterfall does. When a phase is complete, you can’t return to an earlier stage; the only way to go backwards is to return to step one.

This means that you should make and finalize a comprehensive plan prior to starting the process. So you can progress through the stages until you reach the end result without having to perform several iterations. The method precludes any unpredicted changes and presupposes strict adherence to the plan.

In today’s IT industry, this system might seem too demanding. It makes sense, as the procedure was initially used in non-software fields like building and manufacturing, where a linear approach is a must. Suppose you are building a house: you can’t install windows if you haven’t constructed walls. Likewise, you can’t reconsider an earlier part of your plan without tearing it down and starting over from scratch.

The project manager should assign tasks and duties to the staff members from the get-go. Each participant should have a complete, holistic picture of the project as well as a clear understanding of their role in the team.

All project requirements should be recorded, and each team member should update the document regularly with their signatures to indicate the progress they have made. This document will serve as a guide to the product development process for the team. The documentation will also provide milestones of the project, which will help the project manager to determine the progress made at each stage.  

Phases in Waterfall Projects

The waterfall project management method is divided into stages defined by the type of activity, and they are followed in sequential order. The names of steps may differ from source to source, but usually, they involve something along these lines:

  • Software requirements

This phase is the foundation of the product development procedure. In this stage, you analyze the relevant business needs, then research, investigate, and brainstorm ways to fulfill them. You can do so in different ways, from client interviews to surveys of your target audience, to team brainstorming sessions. By the end of this stage, you should have defined clear requirements and provided your team members with the complete list of those requirements in written form.

  • System design

Using the document you created in the previous step as a guide, project members should now come up with the software architecture. No coding is required at this stage, but your team will determine technical specifications such as coding languages to be used and system requirements.

  • Coding

At this stage, the specifications are implemented with development and coding. Your team’s programmers write code to create the final product. Usually, they do this in small chunks that can be easily integrated before proceeding to the following stage.  

  • Trial phase

When the development is finished and all the pieces of code are assembled, the programmers test their final product. During this phase, the team debugs their code, identifying and resolving any errors or defects that are detected. However, not all problems can be fixed. If a serious issue is detected, you will need to turn back your project to phase one and reexamine everything, from scratch.

  • Installation

At this stage, the product is finished and is ready to be deployed. The programmers deliver the final product to the client and/or make the software available for use.

  • Product support

The product is released, and the clients use it. If users face any problems, team members create program patches and updates to solve them. If critical issues occur, you will still need to return to phase one.

Why Do Project Managers Prefer the Waterfall Methodology?

According to a 2017 report from Liquidplanner, though most IT software manufacturers combine different project management methodologies, 25.5% of companies still use the Waterfall model exclusively. What makes this method popular among so many companies?

Advantages of the Waterfall Model:

Easy to Understand

The waterfall model provides a structured approach and development is carried out linearly, through separate and non-overlapping phases. This makes it easy to identify clear milestones and assess progress made. Essentially, the method itself is straightforward. This is most likely the reason many newer companies start their business with this method; the model is easily comprehensible, even for non-developers.

Simple training

You don’t need to spend time and money on training the new team member, as all the knowledge remains inside the company, even if you have lost an employee. Because the waterfall model entails strict standards for comprehensive and regularly updated documentation, you can introduce a new member to your project at any stage. You don’t need to guess what a previous worker was working on, as everything is recorded. The new team member should be able to get into the swing of the work quickly and easily by consulting the documentation.

Visible progress

Because clear milestones are outlined in the first stage of the project, it is easy to evaluate progress and discover whether the project is on track. The discrete development stages help everyone understand how much time is needed for the project to be completed. As it is impossible to turn back to a previous step, this model removes a lot of the guesswork that is associated with other methodologies. You can be more certain that the project will be completed at a specific point in time (assuming there is no need to restart).

Effective management

Due to the linear nature of the waterfall project management method, you can easily remain informed on where the project is at any point in time. This makes it easier to control whether it is on schedule. As team members are aware of what they’ll be working on from the start, it is easy to organize their time, and you might even be able to involve them in several projects. The waterfall method enables you to mitigate the consequences of unanticipated external delays or staff turnover; you can get your crew back on the right track quickly.

Economically advantageous

Unlike companies that use other project management models, those who implement the waterfall model devote 20-40 % of their time to the first two phases, which consist of creating system requirements and designing the system architecture. The nature of the model enables companies to reduce expenses at the end of the project. Project managers save time and money by determining and planning precise requirements and designing a system based on those. This goes a long way towards ensuring the project is completed successfully and on schedule, the first time around.

Clear expectations

In addition to all the aforementioned advantages for your company, your clients can understand clearly what to expect from your project, including the costs and milestones associated. This makes it easier for them to plan their business affairs and pay your team on time. It also eliminates the need for their participation in the project after the requirement phase. This can prove hugely beneficial for your project, as it enables you to work without waiting for the client’s approval.

What Problems Can You Face Using Waterfall Methodology?

Despite all the convincing factors outlined above, there are still some disadvantages associated with using the waterfall approach to project management.

Unanticipated pitfalls

Designers and developers can’t initially predict all the problems will arise with their architecture and code. Furthermore, because quality assurance is carried out only in the subsequent phase, developers can’t debug their product based on the feedback from QA engineers. This makes the entire process very complicated and stressful. For the waterfall model to work properly, everything should be carried out faultlessly, right from the requirement phase. If one stage of the process is running late, the whole project is delayed too, including the ultimate deadline. If you find any major mistakes in the project, you’ll need to turn back to phrase one, which obviously causes a significant delay and likely involves a lot of wasted time and work. This can lead to the problems with the customers, as you have deviated from the terms of the project’s completion, and poor customer reviews could affect your company’s reputation negatively – especially if you are just starting out.

Not appropriate for long-term projects

The longer a project will go on, the more planning it requires. Using the waterfall method is inconvenient and impractical when there is a high risk of the requirements changing over the course of the working process.

The waterfall model complicates communication with clients. Usually, clients can’t express their needs clearly and vividly in the early stages; they can do so only once they see what they don’t need. You can’t solve fundamental issues in complex, object-oriented projects at the final stages. So, if the client decides they want to change something essential once they see their software, your initial plan will need to undergo a severe overhaul. That means turning back to the first phase of the project and starting over from scratch.

What Types of Projects Is the Waterfall Model Best Suited for?

The waterfall approach is a good fit for projects that:

  • Have a fixed budget, requirements, and scope. This could be a single project, which doesn’t require further development.
  • Are easy for you to estimate. The projects are short-term, the technologies are familiar, and/or you’ve done a similar project in the past.
  • Are initially low-risk. A good example would be a copy/variation of an existing and successful product.
  • Will not require several iterations. For example, you are developing heart-rate measuring software.
  • Have a specific release date.
  • Don’t need software updates.


Don’t use the waterfall model if:

  • A client needs a functional prototype rather than a quality product.
  • You are not 100% sure about clients’ expectations for the product.
  • The clients are not entirely sure of what they need.
  • The product is being built for a company with rapidly changing requirements.
  • You know that you won’t release a perfect version of the product at first and you need user feedback.
  • The first release is successful, and you can ship additional features without updating.



The waterfall project management approach is suitable for smaller-scale projects. The project should have clearly defined requirements with a low risk of any changes. When deciding whether or not to use this model, you should consider the type of the project and your clients’ needs.