The analogy of a waterfall for the Waterfall methodology isn’t the best.
When someone thinks “well-controlled, step-by-step process,” whose mind jumps straight to a waterfall?
Maybe someone who has never seen its chaos and churn in person…
A staircase would be a better analogy to illustrate how the methodology works.
Waterfall gives your team a structure to help them navigate the treacherous terrain of project management — just like it’s easier to walk up or down stairs than a steep incline.
It adds predictability and stability to the process — a key priority for many projects.
In this guide, we’ll explain what the Waterfall method is, how it compares to other options, and how you can better implement it in your own company.
What is the Waterfall methodology in project management?
The Waterfall methodology is an approach to project management where you break down a large project into clear-cut linear stages, from requirement gathering to implementation.
The linear approach allows you to plan and set a structure for the project early on. That makes it easier to execute and manage progress in your projects.
Traditionally, the Waterfall model divides a project into 5 specific phases or stages. Let’s take a closer look.
What are the 5 phases of the Waterfall method?
- The Requirements phase: estimating requirements and assessing the viability of a project or proposed solution.
- The Design phase: planning the schedule, milestones, and deliverables of the project; this may also include creating the designs or blueprints for the final deliverable(s).
- The Implementation phase: implementing the plan and making the project a reality.
- The Verification, or testing phase: testing and checking that the resulting product or feature solves the intended problem.
- The Maintenance phase: phasing out older products, implementing a maintenance plan for the new machinery, or anything else needed after project completion.
If you’re familiar with the project life cycle, you might notice that the Waterfall methodology closely mirrors it.
Every stage is critical to project success, but pay extra attention to requirements and design.
Any shortcomings during these stages can lead to a lot of wasted time and money. If you pick an unstable area for a construction project, making adjustments later can cost a fortune and take months.
That’s the key difference between this and playing Jenga. The end goal is definitely not for everything to come crashing down.
Is the Waterfall methodology still used?
Yes, even in 2021, a wide range of companies use the Waterfall methodology in various industries.
According to a study by PMI, 56% of projects used traditional — AKA Waterfall — methods in the past 12 months.
So, rather than being “dead,” the Waterfall approach is, in fact, the most popular project management methodology among professionals.
Some managers might refer to it as an ancient relic of a bygone age. But — like in sci-fi novels — it often turns out that these can be just as powerful as the newest of new technologies.
Of course, which project management model is right for you depends on your industry, goals, team size, and project.
Let’s explore how Waterfall measures up against some of the newer methods like Agile and Kanban.
What is the difference between Waterfall and Agile?
The main difference between Waterfall and Agile is that the Agile methodology focuses much less on up-front planning. There’s no goal of a perfect, step-by-step plan before launch.
Agile outlines the high-level objectives, goals, and deliverables in a roadmap, sure, but it’s not the detailed battle plan from the Waterfall approach.
An Agile team adapts to the changing demands of the market and stakeholders during the project.
That often takes the shape of dividing the project into iterations or “sprints” — lasting a few weeks or months — and adapting the course after each one.
There’s a misconception that Waterfall and Agile project management have nothing in common. But, in many ways, they follow the same fundamental process, with slightly different phases.
The difference is that in Agile, the stages don’t happen in a linear order.
You don’t plan once and then start the project. The requirements and planning phases are never over. You keep going back to them with the finish of each iteration.
The Agile principles also dictate that you involve internal and external stakeholders throughout the process, which is something the Waterfall method was silent on.
Another crucial aspect of Agile is that teams typically self-organize, with less top-down management input.
To sum it all up, these are the key differences between Waterfall and Agile:
If you’re not sure which is better for you, you can read more in our post about Agile vs. Waterfall.
What about Waterfall vs. Kanban?
Kanban is a framework within the Agile method, so it too focuses on flexibility and ongoing adaptation.
But instead of dividing the project into sprints, in Kanban, your team is focused on continuous improvement. The main tool for achieving this is a “Kanban board.”
It is a digital or physical whiteboard divided into a few columns, from to-do to done.
You can add new ideas to the to-do column on an ongoing basis. Then, the teams or individuals will assume these tasks, or managers will assign them.
For a Waterfall project — unlike one managed with Kanban — you don’t continually adapt as you go along. You carefully manage changes to the scope or schedule, but constant change isn’t built-in to the model.
In Kanban, you maintain the original company structure, involve stakeholders more, and give every employee a platform to voice their ideas.
Some of the key differences are:
When should you use the Waterfall methodology?
The Waterfall methodology is the best choice for reasonably predictable projects with strict time constraints or flawless operation requirements.
These projects can come in many shapes and sizes, in many different industries.
Some examples include:
- Projects where you fully understand the scope and requirements through previous experience
- Manufacturing or construction projects where there’s no room for variation in schedule or implementation
- Projects that rely heavily on repeatable processes
- Other projects with strict time or schedule constraints
Impact of industry and marketplace
According to the 2020 State of Agile report, technology and financial industries are Agile’s primary users.
Traditional physical industries like manufacturing or energy represent a small minority of users.
The majority of Agile teams are in fast-moving sectors, and for a good reason.
If a marketplace is likely to change completely before your project is ready, it makes little sense to try to plan a multi-year project from start to finish.
Our R&D team might use Scrum — an Agile framework — but we wouldn’t push it on the construction company creating our new main office.
On some projects, predictable, reliable results are a much bigger priority than adaptability.
Sure, there are some equally unpredictable manufacturing, government, and construction projects. That’s why some teams in these industries manage the occasional Agile project.
Advantages of the Waterfall methodologyThe biggest advantage of the Waterfall methodology is the ability to create and control a predictable schedule — and outcome — for projects where timing is everything.
The distinct benefits of Waterfall make it an excellent choice for a lot of teams and projects.
- Predictable: the detailed schedule means each team knows when they should start working
- Repeatable: with entire workflows outlined, you can easily standardize and create a repeatable process
- Reasonable: with a well-planned budget including contingency costs, it’s easier to allocate resources to a project
But for long-term projects with lofty goals and lots of unpredictability, it’s probably not the best choice.
Of course, you don’t need to 100% commit to one or the other.
The Waterfall project management methodology can be your foundation, and you can add to it. For many companies, modified Waterfall models can be a better choice than jumping straight to Agile.
For example, you can make stakeholder engagement an ongoing priority and cultivate a more self-organizing team.
There’s no need to forego long-term planning — and all your processes — just because some “experts” say so.
A Waterfall methodology example: what goes into each phase?
In this example, we’ll outline key activities in each stage of the Waterfall methodology.
1. Cover all your bases in the requirements phase.
Too many projects fail because management overlooks something at the requirements stage. 33% of project managers highlight inaccurate requirements gathering as a leading cause of project failure.
You must look past basic business requirements and involve stakeholders in the process.
- Objectives: work with stakeholders to set project objectives that meet their expectations.
- Project scope: figure out the overall extent in collaboration with stakeholders.
- Risk assessment: find dangerous risks to projects and assess whether the project is worth undertaking.
- Research: if it’s a new product, this is the stage where you would do market research.
- Project team: start assembling the talent for your project.
2. Involve all parties when designing your project plan.
Once you reach the 2nd stage — design — you should have a preliminary project team. Don’t be afraid to rely on domain experts when creating the project schedule and budget.
In this process you should:
- Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) and start assigning project activities.
- Create a high-level project schedule with clear project milestones that you can use to benchmark progress.
Carefully consider stakeholder expectations at this stage, if you want to succeed.
3. Don’t lose sight of the plan when implementing the project.
Once you start a project “for real,” it’s easy to have tunnel vision and lose sight of the original plan.
- Track progress by seeing how you measure up against milestones.
- Actively work to identify potential roadblocks and bottlenecks to project progress.
- Monitor key project KPIs.
Changes aren’t forbidden, but each request should be carefully considered and managed through a standardized process.
Pro tip: if you don’t know how to measure project performance metrics, monday.com offers a real-time dashboard with data like percentage of tasks completed on time, resource utilization, and more.
4. Test and verify that the result is satisfactory.
So, you’ve delivered the project objective? Don’t celebrate just yet.
First, you need to make sure that the product holds water.
You have to:
- Arrange direct user testing with existing — or potential — customers.
- Get the necessary regulatory approvals.
- Standardize any repeatable processes that deliver results.
5. Replace, phase out, and maintain.
The last part of the Waterfall life cycle ensures that the project delivers in the long term.
In this phase:
- Replace existing products or services with new ones.
- Phase out the old products.
- Maintain the new product or process to reap the benefits for the long term.
How to take Waterfall project management to the next level with monday.com
What makes monday.com different is that we give you the tools to build the exact project management platform your company needs.
With smart automations, tons of native integrations with other tools, and an interface that makes sense, you’ll feel like you hired an extra project manager.
Create a high-level project plan using a ready-made template.
First things first, use our ready-made project proposal template to kickstart your project. The template outlines the core elements that your project plan should include.
The plan should have a problem definition statement, core goals and objectives, milestones, and more. That’s all the basics.
Keep in mind that nothing is set in stone at this stage. You don’t need to spend hours trying to get overly specific.
Engage stakeholders by sharing real-time access to key project documents.
Instead of just talking to them in workshops or on the phone, give them direct access.
With monday.com, you can easily share guest access to individual boards — or all of them. You can also control their permission level with the click of a button.
For example, you can give editing access to only the most vital stakeholders.
Use Gantt charts to optimize your project schedule.
It can be hard to create the perfect project timeline without seeing all the moving parts.
That’s where our interactive Gantt view comes in. The drag-and-drop editor makes it easy to make small changes until it feels just right.
Use integrations and automation to improve cross-departmental collaboration.
We’ve entered the age of SaaS.
Most companies use 100s of different apps throughout the organization. And it’s not likely every team and department uses the same software, either.
That’s where monday.com’s robust integrations come in. You can democratize data within your company by automatically sharing it with everyone involved.
For example, if a customer submits a relevant complaint to customer support via Zendesk, monday.com can automatically let your whole team know.
And that’s just an example of what you can do with 1 of 40+ integrations.
Standardize processes with custom templates.
Once you start to get the hang of this project management thing, it’d be a waste of time to start from scratch every time a new project came along.
Create custom templates tailored to your company’s unique requirements and workflow. With monday.com, it’s as easy as clicking a button.
Custom templates are crucial if you decide to develop your own unique hybrid approach.
Create a strict process for managing project change.
One of the main benefits of Waterfall, when done right, is the predictability of projects. But nothing will be predictable if you mindlessly change the base plan as much as you want.
The difference between a positive change — and a destructive one — isn’t always clear at first glance.
That’s why you should put in place a rigorous change management process. Again, monday.com has ready-made templates for change request management.
You can even set up change request forms and share them directly with your stakeholders.
Adapt it to your own needs and make sure you only implement change with positive potential.
The right order is key to project execution
The Waterfall methodology isn’t “dead” in 2021. The majority of large projects implement it.
Plus, it tends to make more sense than Agile for more physical projects.
But, using the Waterfall method shouldn’t be an excuse for complacency.
You can still optimize how you handle projects through each stage of planning, testing, and implementation.
Use monday.com’s project proposal template — and our 14-day free trial — to reach a new level of control over your projects.