A project management methodology is a set of guidelines, processes and tools that are used to help project managers and their teams plan, execute and organize projects.
There are many project management approaches, and choosing the right method can vary from team to team — or even from project to project. Of the methods available, the waterfall methodology is a popular choice for many teams due to its linear processes and detailed project documentation.
We’ll discuss waterfall project management methodology below and provide everything you need to know before adopting the waterfall approach for your next project.
Waterfall project management is a project management approach that divides project work into distinct, sequential phases, with each phase beginning only when the previous phase has been completed.
The waterfall project methodology was originally established for software development in 1970 and is now often considered a traditional project management approach for all types of industries and project types.
When using the waterfall method, project work flows from phase to phase in a linear process, and work is often completed individually, with little to no need for collaboration on individual tasks. The methodology relies heavily on early and thorough planning and often follows strict deadlines to meet project deadlines.
The waterfall method follows six chronological phases to plan and execute a project. We’ll cover the six phases and what happens during each below.
This is the initial planning phase of a waterfall project in which the project manager gathers the essential information needed to complete a successful project. Project planning is important in any project management methodology, but especially for waterfall. This is because each phase following will depend heavily on the guidelines set during the requirements phase.
Beyond identifying the desired project outcomes and timeline, project managers will need to identify any potential risks or roadblocks that may occur during the project lifecycle. This is a critical part of this phase since changes made mid-project could be costly and impact the ability to meet deadlines.
Example: Your team has been assigned the task of organizing an event for a client. You meet with the client to discuss the deliverables needed, the project budget and the overall project timeline. Before getting started, you take time to assess your team’s resources, set metrics for measuring project success and identify project contributors based on skills needed to achieve your project outcomes.
Using the project plan created in the previous phase, the design phase is the opportunity for a team to brainstorm and develop ideas for the best ways to accomplish the project goal. In this phase, the team will develop solutions to meet the overall project goals.
Once ideas have been exchanged, the project manager will create a project roadmap or blueprint clearly outlining the steps needed to successfully complete the project with its desired outcome. This outline would include specific task deadlines, dependencies and assignments and would document the project scope to set guidelines for budget and time that the team can reference as they progress in the project.
Example: Now that you’ve discussed the event and its objectives with your client, your team can now set up an actionable plan for creating and hosting the client event on time and within budget. You create a project schedule with individual tasks and assignments and set firm budgets for each team to prevent scope creep during the course of the project.
The development phase is when teams begin to execute their project plans, and the actions in this phase rely on the documented project plans from the previous two phases.
During this project development, contributors can work individually on their assignments and document their progress. These records can then be shared with the project team, leadership and external stakeholders to show overall progress and to create documentation to refer to for future projects.
Example: Once your project enters the development phase, your team divides and conquers to complete their tasks. For the event your team is planning, one team member is focused on identifying an event venue, another is working on hiring a catering staff and one other team member is working with the client to create a contact list for invitations. As each team member works through these tasks, they document their progress so that you can share project status with your client.
TIP: For easier client status updates, consider using a client portal to share important project information automatically.
The testing phase is the last phase before a project is released, where teams test their work to determine if there are any errors that need to be corrected before the project is finalized.
In some industries, like software development, this phase would include passing the project to QA testers to search for bugs that need to be fixed. In other industries, this testing phase is still crucial but may look a bit different. This could include a task for proofing new copy or reviewing a final design for brand consistency.
Example: Your team has finished their individual tasks. The event is planned and you’re ready to send out the event invites, but before hitting send, you make sure the invitations are reviewed and the address, event time and R.S.V.P link are all correct. This extra step ensures that your client will successfully reach each of their contacts and won’t have to deal with any confused guests.
The deployment phase is when the final project is launched and delivered. While that launch process can vary from industry to industry, it is the final culmination of all previous phases.
Example: In the case of your client project, this stage is the event itself. All planning is complete, and the tasks you assigned have been completed and documented as well.
The final phase of a waterfall project is the review phase. Also sometimes referred to as the maintenance phase, this stage of the project is meant for teams to review a completed project to identify any areas for improvement.
For software projects or a product launch, this could mean continuous and indefinite improvements, but this phase can also be applied to projects with concrete end dates. In cases such as those, the review is an opportunity to review project documentation and identify what went well and what did not so that changes can be made to improve future projects.
Example: Following your client’s event, your team meets to discuss the success of the event and any problems you encountered leading up to the event or during. One team member shared that they heard feedback from the client that guests were very happy with the event, but that they would have liked to have had the option to respond to the invitation digitally.
You make note of this feedback in your project documentation so that it can be referenced for the next event your client requests.
Because the waterfall method requires sequential steps and the ability to clearly define project outcomes at the beginning of the project, it is not always the best option for project management. Depending on your project and your team’s needs, you’ll need to pick the best approach.
If your project aligns with the following scenarios, the waterfall method may be the best fit for your project:
READ NEXT: How to Choose a Project Management Methodology
Waterfall project management is popular for a reason. From extensive planning and documentation to a logical, linear progression, there are a lot of reasons teams choose to manage their projects with the waterfall approach.
A phase dedicated to early planning encourages detailed documentation and creates an easy-to-follow project timeline and clearly defines individual tasks and responsibilities. With this documented, you’ll be better prepared to train new team members to take on roles in future projects.
With a waterfall approach, your team will use the requirements phase to fully understand a project’s potential risks and roadblocks compared to your available resources. This rigorous analysis of project requirements early in the project reduces potential risks and helps prevent any expensive, unexpected changes from happening mid-project. Additionally, the predictability of waterfall project phases improves the ability to accurately plan for budgets, scheduling, resource use and project scope.
With thorough project planning and clear, sequential project steps, your team has a better foundation to create repeatable processes for future projects. The emphasis on detailed documentation throughout the project also gives your team the data you need to adjust your current processes to be more efficient in the future.
Because waterfall project phases are completed in a linear order, you’ll have an easier time measuring project progress. This clarity will help with providing accurate status updates to clients and other stakeholders.
While there are numerous benefits to using the waterfall model for projects, there are also some negatives that teams should consider before implementing the approach for an upcoming project.
With so much of the project planned from the start, waterfall projects offer teams little flexibility. This can become a problem when changes are requested after a project has started. In situations that require flexibility — like a client with a history of last-minute changes — waterfall may cause problems as you try to stick to your project plan.
Because of the limited flexibility, this project management methodology can also be risky when it comes to changes impacting project scope. If a change is required to successfully complete your project, your team may have to start over or there may be larger costs, either monetary or time-related, associated with that change.
The most noticeable difference between these two project management methodologies is how teams move through stages of their work. While waterfall project management is a sequential approach, agile project management is more cyclical and collaborative, giving teams more flexibility to adapt to change.
In this method, agile teams complete work in short sprints that include the following five stages:
In the agile method, each sprint includes planning, executing and monitoring project progress, and sprints typically last two to four weeks.
To summarize, agile project management gives teams the ability to test and experiment with outcomes as they go, as opposed to waterfall project management which creates clearly defined project expectations and outcomes at the start of each project.
Because waterfall projects require detailed documentation and planning, you’ll need a project management tool to record your work, collaborate across teams and successfully deliver your projects.
With an end-to-end client work management platform like Accelo, teams can connect their projects to all other aspects of their client work in one centralized system.
Explore how Accelo can support your team’s projects with a free trial or request a demo to speak with a product expert to ask questions and learn how the platform can support your business needs.