What is the Waterfall Methodology? Guide to Project Management
“A dinosaur process designed for a world that no longer exists.”
That's how Harvard Business Review recently described the Waterfall methodology—a traditional project management process favored by manufacturing industries and, for decades, software developers.
Haters gonna hate, but we think the Waterfall methodology still has its place in project management.
From launching social media marketing campaigns to planning complex sales deals, Waterfall can be a good fit for projects that need a solid timeframe.
In this guide, we’ll look at why the Waterfall process is loved (and hated), and how you can adopt it to simplify your internal processes.
Let's dive in.
What is the Waterfall Methodology?
The Waterfall methodology is a linear approach to project management. Each stage is created along a set timeline, and work only moves forward when those key milestones are completed. The goal—to get the whole project done on a clean schedule.
This type of linear approach covers a lot of bases for project managers. First, Waterfall can keep deliverables and timelines on track, and on the back of that, teams can create more accurate quotes and scopes for clients. As the project is mapped out in sequential phases before it begins, everyone is on the same page from day one, which makes it easier to execute and manage progress (and spot any bumps in the road.)
Traditionally, the Waterfall model divides a project into five stages, and each step can't begin until the previous phase is almost over. A project manager is also super important for Waterfall projects to keep task sequences on track and ensure everyone is sticking to the requirements in the original brief.
Project management tools, especially Gantt charts, are essential to making a Waterfall methodology work. These charts show each in the Waterfall with a start/end date, along with other information like next stages and deliverables to keep projects on track.
Well, if everything goes to plan, the Waterfall Methodology is a simple way to deliver projects on time and on budget.
Who Should Use the Waterfall Model?
From governments to software developers and manufacturers, the Waterfall methodology has been used by a lot of different industries. But to use the Waterfall Model effectively, your process must be clearly defined—in other words, you need to know costs, design, and time requirements before you even start the project.
At its core, Waterfall has three checkboxes: milestones, well-defined deliverables, and documentation. Its functionality and strict structure make it perfect for any project that has:
- Concrete requirements that are tied to a deadline.
- A clear roadmap, including milestones and expectations for everyone involved in the project.
- Clear goals set by upper management or the client—they won’t do a 180 on deliverables.
As one programmer mused on Reddit, Waterfall models are perfect for organizations with processes in place like budget tracking and stakeholder management. As long as the project will swim (and not sink) under clear constraints—Waterfall is a good choice.
Here's a quick example. A Tesla Model Y takes around 2 ½ hours—start to finish—to get down the production line. But this production rate can only happen if a strict manufacturing model is followed: the seats must be in before the doors are installed, and the engine is lowered into the front of the car before the hood is attached.
But there's also a downside to this structured approach to projects.
Remember when the U.S. government launched HealthCare.gov?
It was a new platform (built from scratch) where Americans could buy insurance. But to put it bluntly, the launch of the website was a total shitshow. It's believed developers used Waterfall to build the project, and when late-stage testing was carried out before it went live, multiple errors were found.
This is why so many industries (especially developers) are constantly asking what's best: Waterfall or Agile? 🤔
What’s the Difference Between Waterfall and Agile Methodology?
The major difference between Waterfall and Agile methodologies is how much planning is done before the project kicks off.
The heavy lifting of any project using Waterfall will have concrete deliverables, deadlines, and a clear roadmap ready before a single hour is spent on client work. Agile projects start working on a project and then hash out the finer details like client demands and final deliverables. For larger corporations, the Agile approach can be tricky and lead to a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen situation…
Source: Twitter (X)
Here's a quick breakdown of the major differences between the two methodologies:
Waterfall project management is a strict process without much room to make changes. This can cause projects to be delivered without everything the client wants due to inflexibility. That said, it’s a simpler process due to upfront planning at the beginning of the project and requires less dependency on collaboration and communication during the project. Waterfall also uses Gantt charts to visualize milestones and deadlines.
Agile project management, on the other hand, uses Kanban charts to move tasks along in a sequence. Agile teams are flexible even after the project kicks off, meaning they can adapt to any changes or requests from upper management or the client. This model can be more complex, since there are more moving parts during a project, and it can cause delays and budget overspends due to these changes. The Agile method also requires a lot more communication within the project team during each sprint to make sure everyone is working with the changing conditions.
The 5 Steps of the Waterfall Project Management Workflow
Every Waterfall project flow is going to be different based on the type of project you’re managing, and how your team is going to approach it.
That said, there are five general steps that fit most use cases of this project management approach. You should have a beginning, middle, and end that requires research, implementation, and testing.
Here are the basic ingredients a workflow should always include. 👇
1. Research and Planning
Before any Waterfall project starts, a butt-ton of work must be done in the research and planning phase.
You need to hash out who is responsible for what tasks, what the client's budget is, and, most importantly, what the project deadline will look like. A project manager usually takes the lead at this stage to spearhead the work and will create a detailed roadmap for each phase.
To-do list for this step:
- Estimate project requirements and outline how/when your team will complete them, preferably in a Gantt chart.
- Communicate with the client about deliverables and timelines to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Create a detailed contract for the client to sign, which outlines milestones, deadlines, and budget to avoid any scope creep.
The design phase is when a framework is built for how the project will go from idea to conception.
What this step looks like depends on what department is using Waterfall to manage a project. For an app build, for example, a project manager will convert the details from step one into a requirements document (usually a Software Design Document (SDD) for the development team.
This document will be the team's blueprint to build out a physical design of the app. The team can follow the SDD to make sure they hit all the goals, UI, and software descriptions from the planning phase.
Here's an example of an SDD for software teams in the system design phase:
To-do list for this step:
- Finalize the design of the project so the team is 100 percent sure what the final product should look like.
- Map out final timelines, milestones, and client expectations on a document that is accessible to every team member working on the project. This keeps everyone on the same page.
This step is when the fun begins.
Your team will get to work on the goals and roadmap you built in steps one and two. If we use the app build example we used in the previous step, the implementation phase is when developers will start to write code, wireframes, and design interfaces. All of this work must align with the project spec and customer goals to ensure the team can (smoothly) move onto the next phase.
To-do list for this step:
- Start to build out the foundations for your project.
- Daily/weekly standups with the team working on the project to keep everyone on the same page.
This is the launch… before the launch.
Testing is arguably the most crucial phase of any Waterfall process. Before a project can be handed over to a client or released to customers, it must be put through its paces to catch any errors and ensure the final product aligns with the roadmap.
Testing using Waterfall usually happens in three steps:
- Alpha: Internal tests done by your dev team.
- Beta: The product is taken for a test drive by a small number of target customers to give feedback.
- Sign-off: Once Beta testing wraps up and the product is delivered to clients, they will decide if they are happy with the end result.
Once the project has been fully tested and launched—it must be maintained.
The good news? You don't have to rush the maintenance phase. Continuously improving a product post-release can actually work in your favor.
Just look at Google's Gmail, which had a beta tag attached to it even after more than 100 million users and 5+ years after its launch. Although it smells of a marketing ploy (co-founder Larry Page once admitted the beta label had more to do with “messaging and branding”), it made users feel like they had a voice in how the product was molded.
And that's pretty damn powerful.
To-do list for this step:
- Listen to feedback from customers/clients and implement any ideas to improve the project.
- Fix any lingering bugs or issues from the original deployment.
- Gather the team to get their thoughts on how the project went and what could be improved for next time in terms of planning, implementation, and testing.
Key Advantages of Using the Waterfall Model
There's a reason the Waterfall model is still talked about for project management—it's a perfect fit for certain projects.
For projects with hard deadlines and deliverables, Waterfall is a good choice because:
- The development process allows team leaders to build out a detailed project plan. The team working on the project will have a crystal clear idea about what the design, implementation, and launch will look like.
- It keeps the project budget in check. As each phase of the project is planned in advance, it's easier to estimate the final cost for your client accurately.
- Every milestone and deadline is scheduled at the start of the project, so everyone knows what they are expected to deliver (and when).
- There isn't a ton of room for project scope creep. Clients can't add new requirements once the work kicks off, so there's less chance of delay or blowing up the project budget.
Disadvantages of the Waterfall Approach
- It needs a huge time investment to sufficiently research, plan, and map out the project before any work can begin.
- Any delays during each phase can have a huge impact on reaching project deadlines and milestones.
- There is no looking back. Once planning or implementation is complete, your team must move on to the next phase. This rigid method doesn't have much flexibility to turn around and have a do-over.
- Clients may change their minds about a final deliverable or outcome. However, Waterfall doesn't really allow for any major changes, so they will be harder to implement, or worse—you will have to tell the client no.
- The client won't see the project until the testing phase. If they don't like it or they have feedback, it's too late to make any (significant) changes.
Waterfall Methodology Examples: How to Use this Approach in Your Startup or Small Business
Think Waterfall methodology is just for software engineers? Think again.
Waterfall has a bunch of different use cases, and thanks to its rigid approach, it's perfect for teams who want to create a repeatable system. Think of any recent product launches you did or the last deal you closed—chances are, the process looked similar each time. Waterfall can act as the blueprint for these projects to ensure they are successful.
Let's take a look at what that looks like 👇
Waterfall Model in Software Development Projects
For developers, Waterfall is a solid choice for any software development life cycle that has high certainty and low (or no) ambiguity.
It is used for everything from game development to building out government software. While some developers say Waterfall is an "old school" process, it still has its place. Mega companies like Ubisoft still use it to develop characters and create initial codes to ensure a well-constructed foundation. Until recently, the US Department of Defense Software Systems baked into their contracts that Waterfall is the preferred build process, at least during the design phase.
The one gripe about using Waterfall for software development was the lack of movement around timeframes and budgets. If a project is quoted using Waterfall and then shit hits the fan, the developer loses out.
To avoid this, developers on Reddit have some suggestions:
- Pad any estimates. Double (or triple) them depending on how long the project will take and how much uncertainty you think there will be when it gets off the ground
- Stay strong and say no to scope creep. The developers suggest setting up an "ice box" to store any additional asks from the client so they don't fall through the cracks—but you don't do them for free either. Then, you can discuss the extras stored in the "ice box" once the major work is out of the way and see if they have any extra budget to pay for them
- Try to get feedback before the final stages. If you can, do mini-project releases at major milestones to show to the client or test out the code. This will help catch any snagging issues and make sure everything is on track
Waterfall Methodology for Sales Project Management
Most Google searches about Waterfall Methodology will talk about software development, but the method can also be used to close deals.
Any deal in your sales pipeline will follow a similar journey: a lead turns into a prospect, you nurture them, jump on a few phone calls, perhaps do a demo, and then get the contract signed. So, your sales process can be plotted onto a Waterfall Gantt chart:
This is perfect if multiple reps are working on one deal. Everyone can keep up to date with different projects and how a deal is progressing by just clicking on the Gantt chart.
Waterfall is also ideal for onboarding new sales reps. Everything is mapped out on a chart, so they can see how each phase progresses and how long each part of the deal should take. It's a great way to get them used to your process and selling like the rest of your team!
A Waterfall Marketing Approach
Waterfall is also another great fit for larger marketing projects.
It can create repeatable processes, so it's perfect for more complex projects. We're talking about product launches or important social media campaigns that require weeks/months of work with multiple stakeholders.
Waterfall can even build interest in a new feature or product if used wisely. For example, Max Leblanc over at Groover explains using a Waterfall marketing approach is a smart fit for industries like musicians who want to create buzz around a new release.
Take a look at that ⬆️
The artist dropped a new single on Spotify, but also included two other new releases on the playlist. The two bonus singles have separate release dates on them, and the listener will get notified when the artist unlocks them. It's subtle, but Leblanc says this type of "waterfall" album release boosts the chances that the user will listen to every song.
"The hierarchical order of the songs in the waterfall strategy will allow the first single released (Single A) to have a greater exponential growth of streams by simply appearing at the top every time you release a new track. It’s like re-releasing your singles with each release. "
Pretty genius, huh? 🤓
The 3 Best Tools for Waterfall Project Management
Unless you are kickin' it old school and plotting out a Waterfall project on a whiteboard—you need a project management tool.
Here are our top picks 👇
1. Monday.com: Gantt Charts and More
If you want a solid visual for your next marketing project—take a look at Monday.com. It has basic Waterfall Gantt charts that are perfect for plotting linear projects with individual milestones.
What's great about Monday.com is the team can see what type of task each phase in the project is (e.g., social media department, graphics creation) and if the next phase depends on its completion. This helps prevent bottlenecks and makes it easy to track different phases of every project in the pipeline.
2. Asana: Adaptable Project Management Tool
Asana is a super flexible tool to manage any project schedule. The tool makes it super simple to work inside a Waterfall project management methodology as it can automatically create a linear Gantt chart from a list of tasks if you attach due dates/timelines. You can then allocate tasks to the right team members and add instructions along with important deadlines to keep the project running on time.
3. Close CRM: Waterfall Sales Pipeline
We're biased, but Close has everything a sales team needs to build a solid Waterfall process. Close's pipeline gives you a clear view of each linear phase of your sales process. Each phase can be changed depending on your specific process and project life cycle, and you can even build custom Waterfall strategies and Workflows for different customer profiles.
Should You Use the Waterfall Method?
This question doesn't have an easy answer—it all depends on what your goals are. Waterfall isn't the most agile approach (excuse the pun) to project management methodology out there, but it still has its place.
If you have a project in your pipeline with a strict budget or timeline, Waterfall may fit the bill. It's also good for managing projects you don't usually associate Waterfall with, like sales rep onboarding or marketing campaigns.
Think through what project you need to manage, and don't sleep on Waterfall—it just might be a good fit!
Wondering how to create a sustainable process for your sales team? Check out our guide to setting up your sales process, and get the free template!