Complete Guide to Waterfall Project Management Methodology
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If you work in project management, you have probably heard a number of strange terms thrown around as you try to decide what approach will work best for your team: critical path, scrum, PMBOK, Six Sigma, etc. Amongst all these terms, you may have heard about the waterfall project management methodology, even if you’ve never used it.

Curious as to whether this approach would be a good fit for your project management needs? In this guide, learn how the waterfall methodology uses a sequential process to simplify project management and how you might implement aspects of this methodology in your own work.

What is the waterfall project management methodology?

Simply put, waterfall project management is a sequential, linear process of project management. It consists of several discrete phases. No phase begins until the prior phase is complete, and each phase’s completion is terminal—waterfall management does not allow you to return to a previous phase. The only way to revisit a phase is to start over at phase one.

Our free, customizable waterfall project management template gives a brief overview of the waterfall project planning methodology.

waterfall project management template
Waterfall Project Management Template (Click on image to modify online)

If waterfall methodology sounds strict, that’s because the system’s history demanded it. Waterfall project management has its roots in non-software industries like manufacturing and construction, where the system arose out of necessity. In these fields, project phases must happen sequentially. You can’t put up drywall if you haven’t framed a house. Likewise, it’s impossible to revisit a phase. There’s no good way to un-pour a concrete foundation.  

As you can imagine, proper planning is a must in the waterfall system. A project’s requirements must be clear upfront, and everyone involved in a project must be well aware of those requirements. Each team member should also understand what their role will be in the project and what that role entails.

All of this information must be thoroughly documented and then distributed to everyone on the project. We recommend outlining this information as a flowchart, as shown below, so your team can quickly understand and reference requirements as needed. You may also want to try adding swimlanes to show which tasks go to which team member. This waterfall project plan template can be a great place to start.

waterfall project plan
Waterfall Project Plan Template (Click on image to modify online)

Team members will refer to the documentation you provide throughout the process. When followed properly, this document makes clear precisely what is expected, thus guiding the creation of the product. It will also provide project milestones that will make it simple to determine progress.

Consequently, thorough documentation is a priority in the waterfall project management methodology. Documentation should take place throughout every phase of the process, ensuring that everyone involved is on the same page despite the sequential progression of the project.

Phases of waterfall project management

The specific phases of the system vary somewhat from source to source, but they generally include:

1. Requirement gathering and documentation

In this stage, you should gather comprehensive information about what this project requires. You can gather this information in a variety of ways, from interviews to questionnaires to interactive brainstorming. By the end of this phase, the project requirements should be clear, and you should have a requirements document that has been distributed to your team.

2. System design

Using the established requirements, your team designs the system. No coding takes place during this phase, but the team establishes specs such as programming language or hardware requirements.

3. Implementation

Coding takes place in this phase. Programmers take information from the previous stage and create a functional product. They typically implement code in small pieces, which are integrated at the end of this phase or the beginning of the next.

4. Testing

Once all coding is done, testing of the product can begin. Testers methodically find and report any problems. If serious issues arise, your project may need to return to phase one for reevaluation.

5. Delivery/deployment

In this phase, the product is complete, and your team submits the deliverables to be deployed or released.

6. Maintenance

The product has been delivered to the client and is being used. As issues arise, your team may need to create patches and updates may to address them. Again, big issues may necessitate a return to phase one.

Now that you know the phases,

customize the Waterfall method in Lucidchart.

Benefits of waterfall project management

Although most companies use some combination of project management styles, a 2017 report from LiquidPlanner showed that 25.5% of manufacturing companies currently use waterfall. What makes this methodology successful for so many teams?

Keeps training simple

This methodology could ensure your project’s success even if there are unanticipated changes in bandwidth. Because waterfall project management emphasizes thorough documentation, you can easily and seamlessly add new team members to any project. There’s no need to intuit what an absent programmer was trying to do, as everything—from the project’s conception to its completion—is recorded. New team members can simply refer to documentation to get quickly up to speed.

Shows progress

Waterfall project management also shows progress simply. The clear milestones delineated in the first phase make it easy to determine if a project is moving forward on schedule. Likewise, the discrete phases indicate how close a project is to overall completion at any given time, as the waterfall system does not allow for revisiting a prior phase. This eliminates much of the guesswork related to a project’s timeline.

Makes the project easy to manage

These benefits, combined with the linear nature of the system, make waterfall projects easy to manage. Because of the sequential system, you’ll know where the project is at any given time and if that’s where it should be. Rather than scrambling to manage a large team, a manager can focus exclusively on team members participating in a given phase. And should there be unexpected outside delays or personnel changes, waterfall documentation allow you to quickly get your team back on track.

Saves time and money

Whether you decide to fully commit to waterfall project management, there’s no question that certain aspects of this methodology—namely, thorough conceptualization and detailed documentation—better prepare you to execute a project the right way the first time. Taking the time early on to discover and plan for requirements can save you time and money down the line.

When to use waterfall methodology

Subject matter expert Patrick Rockwell advises on the types of situations in which using the waterfall method can be beneficial.

"Though less common these days, when your end product's requirements are fixed yet time and money are variable, choose the waterfall method. I like to imagine a scientist doing research for a big company—through trial and error, he'll likely restart his whole process many times and at different stages to get the coveted final result. Through waterfall project management this behavior is anticipated and even preferred! This enables members to adjust and re-think their approach time and time again."

As Patrick mentions, waterfall project management can be problematic if the project requirements are not perfectly clear, which happens when a user has a general idea of what they want but can’t nail down specifics. The waterfall system’s linear nature is not suited to discovery, and the project will likely suffer without more specific requirements.

Late-stage testing makes any revision a serious undertaking. In fact, strict adherents to the waterfall system would argue that a need for revision means the product requirements were not clear, and therefore the project must return to stage one. This can be a serious problem in many industries, such as the ever-changing world of software.

An agile approach is more likely to suit your project if you suspect that requirements could change during production or that revision will be necessary. Realistically, most software development fits in this category.

Because of its inability to adapt to change, the waterfall methodology is best suited to short projects that are well-defined from the beginning. If you are certain that the project requirements are static, then waterfall project management provides a straightforward way to push a project through a clearly defined process. It’s simple to manage and easy to track.

How Lucidchart can help you document your project

Decided to try the waterfall methodology? Now that you’ve seen the importance of documentation within this method, you know the first step is to find a platform to track all the necessary tasks and share them with your team.

Lucidchart can help from the moment you gather requirements to the testing phase:

  • Pull up a mind map as you gather requirements. You can even project your Lucidchart document during a meeting with stakeholders and add suggestions in real time.
  • If you work in software development, you might want to create a user flow diagram based on the requirements you’ve received. With this document, developers can see a high-level view of how the software should function.
  • Once you finalize requirements and understand the tasks needed to accomplish those requirements, create a workflow for your team. In Lucidchart, your team will be able to see dependencies at a glance. 
  • Make documentation available for everyone involved with the project. Sharing is simple since you can access Lucidchart documents from any operating system or embed your diagrams into popular apps. You can also control who can edit or merely view your document so Lucidchart remains a single source of truth.

Sign up for a free Lucidchart account, and see how you can improve documentation throughout the entire waterfall process.

Ready to use the waterfall methodology for your project management?