Introduction to Waterfall Project Management

When it comes to waterfall project management, not everyone is on the same page.

Some folks are not fans: They see it as problematic—an outdated methodology.

Waterfall is Often Thought of as an Outdated Methodology

Does that mean those people are right? Not so much.
Just like anything else, waterfall project management has its pluses. The secret is knowing what they are and how to leverage them.
In this post, we’ll look at how to handle the problems of waterfall project management by utilizing a few different best practices.

What is Waterfall Project Management?


Waterfall project management is a traditional, linear approach to projects that tends to be more structured and rigid. It gets its name from the fact that when you put all of the tasks associated with the project up on a chart, the resulting workflow will resemble a waterfall. Following the waterfall methodology, projects are completed in stages and moved ahead in distinct steps toward a final end goal.
One thing to be mindful of: Because this project management style requires the plan for the project to be made upfront and includes the entire scope of the project, it does sometimes mean there is less flexibility possible than if you were using a different management approach like agile project management.
However, this format does present a very clear way to approach projects and to visualize what needs to happen from start to finish, making it very logic-driven and easy to follow.

Benefits of Waterfall Project Management


So what are the benefits of waterfall project management? Let’s look at a few of its positive features that can help teams execute projects efficiently, effectively, and without ambiguity.

Straightforward planning


Because waterfall project management uses a very simple, linear format with a project scope that maps out the entire process from start to finish, the planning stages of a project can be very straightforward and easy to understand for everyone involved. There’s not a lot of room for iterations or flexibility related to the project’s different phases, so this format keeps everyone focused on the documented tasks/steps required.

Simple progress tracking


The linear format waterfall uses also lends itself to easy progress tracking as a project progresses over time. Because a next step can’t begin before its predecessor ends, the rigid boundaries can help keep the project scope very concrete (which means it won’t spiral out of control). All stakeholders can quickly and easily assess where the project is at developmentally because of deliverables and stages that are tied to clear project phases.

Clarity around deliverables


One of the most important benefits of waterfall project management is that it eliminates much of the confusion and ambiguity that can arise from a more flexible project management approach. Instead, it works to define all aspects of a project in black and white terms with ultimate clarity around roles, tasks, due dates, etc.

Waterfall Project Management

6 Best Practices for Waterfall Project Management


When it comes to getting the most out of waterfall project management, a key ingredient is following best practices. Let’s get into those and look at how teams can leverage this style for maximum results.

1. Verifying that the nature of the project suits the methodology


Before you decide on a project methodology, you’ll want to be sure you’re choosing the best option that will accommodate the nature of your project.
If you’re following a linear process that doesn’t call for many iterations or much flexibility, waterfall makes sense. If you need something more fluid and less structured, you may be better suited by something like agile project management.
To decide on what’s best for you, study what other teams have used for similar projects in the past and weigh your options based on the reality of what needs to be done and how. This is a great opportunity for a group discussion about different methodologies available wherein different stakeholders can voice their opinions and be heard.

2. Creating comprehensive documentation


If you’ve landed on the waterfall approach, documentation will be essential because it makes clear who’s responsible for what and when in very obvious terms. It also outlines the project from start to finish and states what needs to be done in order to achieve a successful end result.
So what is documentation, anyway?
This includes things like a solid project scope that defines clear boundaries as well as a central, documented plan of action that acts as a central hub/point of reference for everyone involved.
Sometimes it’s also helpful to create and post a visual progress meter in a place where team members can see and understand how their efforts are working toward a larger end result. Seeing boxes checked or phases completed in a visual format adds a concrete, tangible element to what can feel like an abstract, far-off end goal.

3. Establish clear, realistic timelines and due dates


Another best practice around waterfall project management is to define the times and phases at which clients will be required to be involved.
Because clients and customers are only involved at specific points in the project with waterfall (rather than all along the way), you can establish clear deadlines for deliverables for both parties and have a frank discussion about how if assets or availability isn’t addressed on time, it will ultimately delay the project–keeping everyone involved from the final result.
Again, this is extremely helpful for keeping all parties involved accountable, on time, and clear about exactly what’s required for the project and when.

4. Defining clear criteria and procedures for the success of each phase


If you define clear criteria and procedures for each stage of your project process, you’ll likely discover that it allows for the establishment of a very simple action plan that everyone involved can follow, monitor, and work on as a collective.
The benefit of following this best practice is that there is no fluctuation around criteria and procedures for the project, which means there are fewer opportunities for confusion and/or changes that could slow up the process. Instead, progress tracking is simplified with stages clearly indicated. This makes it easier to plan launch dates and make future-facing decisions.

Waterfall Requires a Clear Timeline

5. Aligning expectations with the project’s stakeholders


Large projects often have a reputation for expanding along the way to their original end goal. As more stakeholders bring in their opinions, insights, and requests, tasks and deadlines get stretched well beyond the original scope.
This is why when using the waterfall project management approach it’s important to make sure those in the company who have some interest or power over the project are clear about project expectations from the beginning (and that they agree to not push beyond what was agreed upon during the course of execution.)
Due to its rigidity, it can be difficult to make changes in the middle of the project when practicing waterfall, so it’s incredibly important to have everything well planned in advance.

6. Leaving enough time for testing


Testing will be the final validator, so it’s wise to leave enough time so this phase of the project isn’t rushed. Waterfall projects tend to get a little rushed as the deadline approaches, so it’s important to account for that in the planning stages and to leave ample time for working out the kinks.
Also, keep in mind that testing shouldn’t be limited to a small sample size. Instead, be sure you have enough time to gather meaningful data and to get insight from valuable data sources that give a full, clear picture of what you’ve pulled together. Make notes on your findings and discuss them as collective.

Waterfall Project Management: Clear, Concise, and Easy to Follow


Waterfall project management can be a great way to move a project with many moving parts consistently forward in a clear, structured way. If your project doesn’t need to be all that flexible or to account for changes along the way, it’s a solid option with minimal ambiguity.
Weigh your options and figure out if it’s right for your team and its next big undertaking. It might be just the thing that helps you reach the finish line with minimal hiccups along the way.