A Quick Guide to the Waterfall Methodology

9 min read

Some projects require a traditional linear approach. This project management approach is called the Waterfall methodology, and it’s still common among software development, I.T., manufacturing, construction, and other industries.

The Waterfall methodology model begins by clearly defining the objectives and scope of the project. Each phase flows downstream into the next from there.

An example of the Waterfall model is the production of a new I.T. application for customers. Requirements are established upfront at the beginning of the life cycle, team members design and implement the product, customers review the product, and changes are made as necessary. 

Here’s a breakdown of this project management methodology.

Principles of Waterfall Project Management

Many other project methodologies transform and change directions throughout their life cycles. The Waterfall model relies on rigorous planning beforehand to avoid waste in execution. This approach originated in manufacturing, though it became widespread among software engineering during the 1970s-1980s.

Now, you’ll find teams in many industries following these Waterfall principles.

1. Sequential Structure

This is where the Waterfall methodology gets its name. Each task must be fully completed before team members move on to the next one. Each group of tasks are collected into a unifying phase, which ends with a milestone. Stakeholders must formally sign off on the completion of a phase before the next one begins. 

You should not revisit prior phases if you follow the Waterfall approach closely. The workflow always runs downstream. Backtracking is a sign of poor planning and inefficiency — something to avoid at all costs. 

2. Minimal Customer Involvement

Other project management methods incorporate customer feedback throughout a project. The Waterfall method does not, instead limiting customer involvement to before and after the product is created — not during.

The Waterfall methodology strives for total control and minimal variables to achieve optimal efficiency. Involving customers in the development process can be disruptive. Instead, customer requirements are gathered upfront during the requirements phase. Once the product launches, the customer will use and review it to give feedback. 

3. Robust Documentation

One of its biggest advantages of the Waterfall approach is the abundance of documentation. Every recommendation, statement, progress report, and testing session should be recorded for easy reference. For instance, the requirements document should contain a detailed project plan with a stable product definition.

The best way to collect and organize your Waterfall data is using a Gantt chart. Using project management software allows you to store and share documents, track subtasks and record progress. This allows all stakeholders to find information and check items like task status, dependencies, and next steps.

The 5 Stages of the Waterfall Model

What are the 5 stages of the Waterfall model? The 5 stages of the Waterfall model are:

  1. Requirements

  2. Design

  3. Implementation

  4. Verification

  5. Maintenance

These five steps guide your team through a project from start to finish. Here’s a look at what each phase involves.

1. Requirements

Typically, the requirements phase begins with high-level project planning. Then, more granular elements are explored and defined based on the initial statements. The project manager and all major stakeholders must define the major aspects of the project. This includes:

  • All expectations

  • Conception of the final product (function, purpose, etc)

  • Project scope and constraints

  • Projected costs and timeline

  • Goals and success metrics

  • User stories

  • Dependencies and risks

Collect all this information in a specification document. This will be the go-to guide for all stakeholders to ensure a clear and consistent project vision.. 

This first phase is the most important one in the Waterfall approach because it sets the foundation for the entire project. Your team needs to perform lots of research to gather all the necessary data. This can involve efforts like:

  • Data analysis

  • User interviews

  • Customer surveys

  • Financial reports

  • Brainstorming sessions

If done properly, you’ll finish this phase with a detailed requirements document that contains everyone’s input. 

2. Design

During the design phase, the project team translate the requirements into detailed product specifications. This involves logistical planning and identifying potential obstacles. 

Typically, no actual product creation occurs during the design phase. You’re creating a plan of attack for the work; not actually executing the gameplan. This may involve drafting concept models of the physical design but not working on the final product yet.

For example, in a software development life cycle, this involves:

  • Defining the system requirements

  • Programming language

  • Hardware limitations

  • Choosing templates

  • & Other facets of the system architecture

No actual programming occurs until the next phase.

The design phase is complete when everyone involved feels confident in the product specifications and the project plan.

3. Implementation

Now it’s time to bring your product to life! The implementation phase takes a while to complete, but it should go smoothly if enough planning was done during the first 2 phases.

The product is created to the specs established in the previous phase, with the work occurring in portions called units. Unit creation and unit testing can occur one at a time or multiple units at once, depending on the project. These building blocks will eventually make up the final product. 

The implementation phase ends once a functioning product exists that meets the established requirements.

4. Verification

Or quality assurance. This is when you find out if your product meets customer expectations. The verification phase puts your deliverables in the hands of users for feedback. This part varies based on your industry, product, goals, etc. It may be as simple as launching your redesigned website or more involved, such as physically packaging and shipping products to consumers. 

Once you receive enough feedback to improve your product, you can progress to the maintenance phase.

5. Maintenance

The Waterfall process concludes with the maintenance phase. The product team will make changes to the deliverable based on the feedback received from users. They may perform all the updates at once or make alterations as issues arise — depending on the scope of solutions. 

Solutions may be a software patch, altered merchandise, or a system upgrade. If a major problem arises, you’ll need to return to the requirements phase and begin the process over to satisfy new requirements.

Your product team or product owner may also find ways to improve the performance of the product and proactively make maintenance alterations without user input. 

Additional Phases

The standard Waterfall methodology follows these 5 phases, but some approaches modify this sequence to add additional steps. 

  • Testing: Some SDLC approaches separate implementation from testing, waiting to begin system debugging until after all units are made and integrated. In that case, system testing would be its own phase.

  • Integration: Unit integration can also be designated as its own separate phase to be completed once the individual components are constructed.

  • Delivery/deployment: It may require a separate phase prior to verification to get the product into the hands of customers to verify the product. The Waterfall approach typically includes the product’s distribution or release to the market in the verification phase, but you may need to plan that separately before user verification.

Pros & Cons of the Waterfall Method

Waterfall development has its benefits and its shortcomings. As with any project management approach, Waterfall has its strengths for overcoming certain situations but limitations in addressing others.

The biggest benefits of Waterfall are:

  • An abundance of documentation throughout

  • A straightforward sequence of steps with clear progress

  • Universal buy-in before proceeding with project

  • A lack of ambiguity or shifting elements during the project

  • Ability to provide accurate timeline and cost estimates

  • Organizes the process into clearly defined phases

  • Establishes milestones and requires signoffs

  • Easy for a project manager to oversee and train members

  • Potential to save time and money

The biggest problems with the Waterfall model are:

  • Can become costly if product does not satisfy customers

  • Inaccurate, misstated requirements from customers can ruin a project

  • No flexibility to adapt to unexpected incidents, changing scope, etc.

  • Bottlenecks and delays affect the entire project’s progress

  • Not suited to complex projects or indeterminate products

  • Product is not created until late in the life cycle

  • Not sustainable over a long period of time, waiting on frequent approvals

Waterfall vs. Agile

Few software development teams still use the waterfall approach, opting for an Agile methodology instead. 

What is difference between Agile and Waterfall methodology? The main difference is that Agile is fluid and ever-evolving in its progress, while Waterfall expects completion of each phase before proceeding in a linear fashion. In other words:

  • Agile: An iterative process with repeated sprints in the form of cycles. Receives continual customer feedback.

  • Waterfall: Linear sequence of phases with no backtracking or repeating. Each phase is isolated and receives little outside influence. 

The Waterfall approach has also been adapted into more flexible models, taking characteristics from Agile methods. A Waterfall-Agile hybrid takes the best of both approaches, allowing teams flexibility and ongoing customer feedback while maintaining the organizational oversight. Waterfall can provide enterprise-level structure, while Agile allows project-level innovation.

Who Should Use Waterfall Methodology?

Some project management experts criticize the Waterfall model for being too constrained and outdated. But this approach has some advantages that could benefit your team, depending on the type of project.

The Waterfall approach is best for projects involving:

  • A short timeframe 

  • A preexisting vision of the final product and the project’s course

  • No ambiguity in objectives, scope, or requirements

  • A project team with clearly defined roles

  • A user base who clearly communicates their expectations

If this doesn’t sound like your situation, a more agile approach might better suit you, such as Scrum, Kanban, or Lean. These dynamic approaches can equip you to navigate through a project with open-ended goals or products.

Let Us Help with Your Next Project

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About the Author

Match wants to bridge the perspectives of talents and companies, and Marta’s job is to blend all the elements without burning the engine. She translates backstage know-how into practical insights and stories. What can’t be written on a blog will land on socials as a meme. She believes that shaping the #futureofwork is all about transparency and courage in communication. While collaborating with writers and authors from all over the world, she makes sure that everything that ends up on the Match blog makes the bridge stronger than ever.