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What is Waterfall Project Management Methodology? Here’s the Complete Guide

waterfall project management

Project management is a broad term that encompasses several methods and strategies that are used to develop, plan, organize, and execute all phases of a project’s lifecycle. There are a plethora of popular project management methodologies that each have their strengths and weaknesses and best use cases. Some of the most commonly used strategies include Lean, Scrum, Critical Path, Kanban, Six Sigma, Prince2®, Agile, and Waterfall.

To determine the optimal methodology, the project manager needs to take several factors into account. Initially, the nature of the project itself must be considered, as certain methods may be better suited. In cases where the advantages of one approach aren’t distinct, the company’s objectives, culture, and preferences should also influence the decision. The waterfall project management methodology, a longstanding industry dominator, remains a preferred choice in many organizations. Additionally, for professionals seeking to enhance their project management skills, the Post Graduate Program in Project Management provides valuable insights and knowledge.

What Is Waterfall Project Management?

The waterfall approach to project management methodology is a strategy that is used to manage all aspects of a project using a linear and sequential process. The name is derived from the linear strategy wherein one category “falls” into the next. Much like a waterfall cascade, one process cannot start until the other has been completed and approved. Once a stage closes and the next begins, it can be difficult and expensive to revisit a previous stage using this method. Because of this, it is preferred when there are clearly defined goals and processes in place. Essentially, it is the opposite approach of agile project management, where adjustments and adaptations are made continuously throughout a project to consider feedback and other alternations as they arise.

Also Read: Understanding KPIs in Project Management

Phases of the Waterfall Project Management Methodology

When following the waterfall project management methodology, there are five distinct phases. Because returning to a phase is immensely difficult and expensive once completed, anyone implementing this strategy must have a deep, thorough understanding of what is included within each phase.

1. Plan

Like most others, the waterfall methodology for project management starts with an initial planning phase. Through planning, the project manager works with leaders/stakeholders to identify the requirements for the project and the goals that they are aiming to meet. At this point, they are loosely defined, and any perceived risks and assumptions are identified and detailed.

2. Design

After the project manager has successfully closed the planning phase, the team can begin with the design portion. Here, the basic ideas gathered within the planning phase are narrowed down and transformed into more definitive, actionable concepts. All these factors are then addressed and used to create a project roadmap. Within this guide, matters like the budget, timeframe, and overall objectives are clearly defined.

3. Implement

The implementation phase starts after all design work has been hashed out and everyone is on the same page with the direction that the project will take. After receiving approval to close the design phase, everyone on the team is assigned specific roles and duties. They can begin working on the important tasks at hand. This phase of the waterfall project management methodology is where most of the time will be spent on each project. While doing the work, project managers will continually document the progress made and mitigate any risks or problems as they arise.

4. Verification

The fourth step when following the waterfall methodology for project management is the verification or testing phase. Moving on to this section verifies that all the work outlined in the design phase has since been completed according to plan. Relying on certain metrics like customer satisfaction, for instance, allows the project manager to identify any areas of concern. If errors are detected or the project has failed to meet all of the objectives outlined, the team must re-evaluate the entire project starting at phase one to identify what went wrong before moving on to the final stage of the waterfall method.

5. Maintenance

The maintenance phase is an ongoing process that extends beyond the lifecycle of the initial project and spills over into the whole lifespan of a project/product/service/application. This may last several years as flaws, errors, omissions, and other nuances are addressed to improve functionality. It also involves routine maintenance. The goal is to ensure that the project, over time, continues to meet the needs that it originally set out to fulfill.

Also Read: 5 Essential Project Management Steps You Need to Know

Advantages of the Waterfall Project Management Methodology

As a more traditional form of project management, the waterfall method has been relied on for projects within large organizations and in software development fields for over 20 years. While it isn’t a suitable approach for all projects, it does offer several advantages over project management methods, including:

Clear Timelines

Because the waterfall approach to project management requires one phase to be completed before moving on to the next, it offers a much more predictable timeline than methods like Agile. Having such distinct phases also helps the team continually assess whether they are on par to meet milestones along the way or if they are falling behind. They can take this information and adjust their processes accordingly to get back on track.

Enhanced Collaboration

With Agile and Scrum methodologies, one of the biggest challenges is keeping everyone involved on the same page. Because continuous evaluations and adaptations are being made, it can be tough to keep up. The waterfall method makes collaboration much easier because everyone is working on the same goals at the same time before moving on to the next stage.

Reduced Risk of Error

Errors that require teams to restart projects or re-work their strategies are costly. A minor mistake can ruin the entire budget and timeline if it isn’t caught early. Waterfall project management successfully avoids most errors because all portions are completed before moving on to the next stage. This allows the majority of problems to be identified early in the lifecycle of the project, whereas other strategies do not have this advantage.

Well-Defined Objectives

Before any work is performed, the waterfall method requires all objectives, tasks, and goals to be outlined. This is crucial for keeping all team members committed to the same objectives while also ensuring less rework or delays due to misunderstandings or scope creep.

Improved Control of the Project

One of the biggest challenges a project manager faces, particularly in large organizations or projects, is losing control of the project. This can happen for many reasons, like misunderstandings, delays, missed milestones, vendor or supply issues, and the list goes on. The likelihood of losing control of a project increases with methods that are less organized and structured. Because the waterfall method is highly structured, project managers have better control over all aspects of the project. When sticking to a budget and goals is a primary concern, this level of control is imperative.

Also Read: Project Management Frameworks and Methodologies Explained

Disadvantages of Waterfall Project Management

Despite the widespread use of the waterfall strategy, it isn’t the best option for all projects or industries. Because of this, project managers must ensure that the strategy aligns with the needs of the company and the tasks at hand. In some cases, control may be crucial, while in others, there may be a need for flexibility. Let’s explore the most common disadvantages.

Little to No Flexibility

In scenarios where flexibility is necessary, the waterfall methodology for project management is not ideal. Because of its highly structured nature, it is inherently difficult to make changes along the way. This is particularly true when the changes concern major alterations to the project outline or scope.

Limited Involvement of Stakeholders/Leaders

When stakeholders and leaders are interested in being intricately involved in decision-making throughout the project, the waterfall method provides challenges. Because each stage is completed before moving on to the next, there are fewer opportunities for stakeholders/leaders to provide feedback and request changes along the way. Other strategies provide more hands-on involvement and can lead to a higher level of satisfaction.

Larger Time/Cost Investments

Project management styles that adapt well to changes have an advantage when it comes to time and cost investments. Because they can adapt at the drop of a dime, little time or money is wasted before errors are identified and remedied. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of the waterfall method. It takes an immense amount of time to complete many of these stages, and once they are completed, it is a hefty investment in terms of both time and money to go back and re-work phases to remedy errors.

Learn Waterfall Project Management Methodology

Obtaining project management certification through this project management bootcamp, delivered by Simplilearn in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, shows managers are taking the initiative to advance in their careers. For those not currently in leadership positions, it can showcase that they are ready to take on more responsibility and lead a team to success.

The program takes approximately six months to complete and educates participants on the best project management methodologies, such as the waterfall method. It also delves deep into the technologies used to manage projects, like JIRA, Microsoft Office, and risk management software systems.

Enroll today to jumpstart your career!

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Project Management Phases: A Full Breakdown

The Top 24 Project Management Interview Questions for 22-23

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