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A Complete Guide To The Waterfall Development Methodology

The Waterfall methodology stands as a prominent project management approach known for its linear progression. In this method, the completion of each stage in the workflow is a prerequisite for advancing to the subsequent step. It finds particular strength in projects where clear and well-defined objectives are established right from the start.

This article delves into the inner workings of the Waterfall methodology, explores the types of projects it best serves, and provides a comparative analysis with Agile, another popular project management approach.

What Is The Waterfall Methodology?

A complete guide to the Waterfall methodology (source)

In 1970, Winston W. Royce introduced the Waterfall approach, which comprises five distinct phases of management. In this method, progress to each subsequent phase hinges upon the deliverables obtained from the previous one. Waterfall finds its ideal application in projects like software development, where the desired end result is well-defined and predetermined even before commencing the work. Its strength shines particularly in projects that demand a high degree of predictability and structured planning.

What Is Waterfall Software?

Waterfall software serves as a valuable tool for project managers to efficiently handle their tasks. Given its relatively intricate and phased nature, close attention and coordination are essential for successful implementation. This software can be either desktop-based or cloud-based, offering a range of functionalities to aid project managers. It facilitates the structuring of processes, enabling managers to organise tasks effectively, set up Gantt charts and schedules, and closely monitor the progress of the entire project.

Is The Waterfall Methodology Still Used?

The Waterfall methodology remains prevalent across a diverse array of industries. According to a study conducted by PMI, a significant 56% of projects utilised traditional, also known as Waterfall, methods within the past 12 months. Contrary to misconceptions, the Waterfall approach stands as the most popular project management methodology embraced by professionals, despite some labelling it as an ancient relic of the past. Similar to the surprising power exhibited by older technologies in science-fiction novels, Waterfall continues to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Deciding on the most suitable project management model hinges on various factors such as industry, objectives, team size, and project complexity. It is essential to explore how the Waterfall methodology compares to newer approaches like Agile and Kanban to make informed decisions for optimal project execution.

What Are The Benefits of The Waterfall Methodology?

The waterfall methodology allow for much clearer timelines to be set

The Waterfall methodology stands as a clear-cut and well-defined project management approach, backed by a proven track record of success. With its comprehensive requirement specification right from the outset, each team member gains a thorough understanding of their tasks and can effectively plan their timelines throughout the project’s duration. Among the numerous benefits of the Waterfall method are the early identification of design errors during analysis and design stages, preventing the implementation of faulty code. Additionally, accurate estimation of the project’s total cost and timeline becomes possible once the requirements have been precisely defined.

The structured nature of the Waterfall approach also facilitates precise progress measurement through well-defined milestones. Furthermore, new developers joining the project in progress can quickly catch up, as all necessary information should be documented in the requirements. Another advantage is that customers are less likely to introduce new requirements during the project, reducing delays in production. These strengths collectively contribute to the Waterfall methodology’s effectiveness and reliability in managing projects.

What Are The Disadvantages of The Waterfall Methodology?

As with any development process, what may be strengths in one area can translate into weaknesses in others. The Waterfall methodology’s emphasis on upfront planning and rigid adherence to predefined progress renders it less flexible and agile in later stages of the project. Introducing changes further along the process can become time-consuming, arduous, and costly, hindering adaptability.

Several reasons contribute to the Waterfall methodology’s limitations:

  • Projects tend to take longer to deliver compared to iterative approaches like Agile. The chronological nature of the Waterfall method can impede rapid adaptations and iterations, potentially elongating the development timeline.
  • Clients often have evolving requirements and may not fully understand their needs at the project’s inception. This lack of clarity opens the door to change requests and new feature demands later in the process when accommodating them becomes more challenging. You can learn more about getting customer feedback frequently here.
  • Clients are typically not involved in the design and implementation stages under the Waterfall approach, potentially leading to misalignments between their expectations and the final product.
  • Deadline creep can occur in the Waterfall methodology, meaning delays in one phase inevitably affect the timelines of all subsequent phases, potentially causing project delays as a whole.

Considering these limitations, it becomes crucial for project managers and stakeholders to carefully assess their specific requirements and the nature of the project before opting for the Waterfall methodology or considering more adaptive and iterative approaches like Agile.

What Are The Phases of The Waterfall Methodology?

The phases of the waterfall methodology (source)

The Waterfall methodology comprises five distinct phases, each serving a crucial purpose in the project’s development:

  • Requirements: In this initial phase, the project’s broad scope and key requirements are outlined. These high-level statements, as explained by Dr. Chris Mattmann from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, could be achieved through various approaches. For instance, a requirement might involve processing a million transactions daily for a B2B software or serving 10,000 concurrent users within a community.
  • Design: Once the project requirements are clear, the focus shifts to devising solutions that meet those needs. For instance, if the requirement involves processing one million users per day, the design phase explores possibilities that can best support this objective. Mattmann emphasises the importance of redundancy, suggesting multiple backend servers to ensure resilience and meet the goal of processing a million transactions daily.
  • Implementation: During this stage, a chosen design is put into action using appropriate technologies. Data is collected and inspected to assess whether the implemented design adequately supports the specified requirements.
  • Verification: In the verification phase, the implemented solution is rigorously tested to validate its alignment with the initial requirements. For example, if the original requirement was to process one million transactions per day, extensive testing is performed to ensure this goal is achieved. Any issues encountered during testing prompt further investigation to identify and address the root causes.
  • Maintenance: Even after successful validation and verification, the project is not complete. The system requires ongoing maintenance to ensure its continued functionality and relevance. This phase involves designing strategies for updating, upgrading, and patching systems. Regular testing is conducted to detect and rectify any errors that may arise.

By adhering to these five well-defined phases, the Waterfall methodology ensures a structured and systematic approach to project management, allowing for comprehensive planning, rigorous testing, and consistent maintenance throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Who Should Use The Waterfall Methodology?

Project managers often opt for the Waterfall process when dealing with development projects that meet specific criteria, such as:

  • Having clear and unambiguous requirements: The Waterfall method is well-suited for projects with precisely defined and well-understood requirements, as it emphasises upfront planning and adherence to a predetermined path.
  • Offering a clear project roadmap: Projects that can be outlined comprehensively from the outset, with a well-defined sequence of tasks and milestones, align with the structured nature of the Waterfall approach.
  • Involving clients unlikely to change project scope: If the project’s scope is unlikely to undergo significant changes once initiated, the Waterfall method provides an advantage, as it depends on adherence to the initial plan.

For project managers who prefer a well-structured process with upfront knowledge of cost, design, and time requirements, the Waterfall methodology proves to be an appropriate choice. However, it is essential to consider whether the specific project aligns with the constraints and characteristics that the Waterfall approach entails. Properly assessing these factors will help project managers make an informed decision regarding the most suitable project management methodology.

Waterfall Vs Agile Methodologies

Waterfall and Agile stand as two distinct project management methods, each well-suited for different project types. Agile emerged as a response to the limitations of Waterfall, aiming to enhance speed and adaptability, especially in software development where changes are more frequent.

While Waterfall follows a fixed and rigid approach, Agile emphasises adaptability and proves particularly effective in client-facing projects. In the Agile methodology, the team works on multiple project phases simultaneously and for shorter durations. Unlike Waterfall’s sequential order, Agile allows these phases to occur concurrently and without a strict predefined order.

However, the Agile method does have its potential downsides. Due to its iterative nature, there’s a possibility of the team engaging in some unnecessary work. For instance, one part of the team may work on validating a prototype design that ultimately proves unnecessary during the implementation process.

Waterfall Vs Kanban

Kanban, a framework within the Agile method, shares the core focus on flexibility and continuous adaptation. However, unlike Agile’s sprint-based approach, Kanban emphasises ongoing improvement throughout the project. Central to this method is the Kanban board, a digital or physical whiteboard divided into columns ranging from “to-do” to “done.”

In Kanban, new ideas can be continually added to the “to-do” column, and teams or individuals can assume these tasks or have managers assign them. This constant adaptability sets it apart from the Waterfall approach, where changes are carefully managed within the scope and schedule, but the model lacks built-in mechanisms for ongoing adjustments.

Kanban also maintains the original company structure, encourages increased stakeholder involvement, and provides every employee with a platform to voice their ideas. This inclusive approach fosters a collaborative environment that promotes innovation and empowers employees to contribute to the project’s success.

Waterfall Methodology Phases Deep Dive

A deep dive into the phases of the waterfall methodology

In this example, we will delineate the essential activities within each stage of the Waterfall methodology.

1. Requirements Gathering

A significant number of projects encounter failure due to management overlooking crucial aspects during the requirements stage. A substantial 33% of project managers attribute project failure to inaccurate requirements gathering. To mitigate this risk, it is essential to move beyond basic business requirements and actively involve stakeholders throughout the process.

Various levels of requirements need consideration, including:

  • Objectives: Collaborate with stakeholders to establish project objectives that align with their expectations and needs.
  • Project scope: Determine the overall extent and boundaries of the project in consultation with stakeholders to ensure clear direction. Click here for more project scope information.
  • Risk assessment: Identify potential risks that could jeopardise the project and evaluate the feasibility and benefits of undertaking it.
  • Research: If the project involves a new product, conduct thorough market research during this stage to gather essential insights.
  • Project team: Assemble a skilled and appropriate project team, bringing together the necessary talent to execute the project successfully.

By prioritising thorough and collaborative requirements gathering, project managers can significantly enhance the chances of project success and avoid costly setbacks.

2. Feedback

As you progress to the second stage, “design,” it is crucial to have a preliminary project team in place. Don’t hesitate to leverage the expertise of domain experts when formulating the project schedule and budget. In this phase, focus on the following key actions:

  • Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to break down the project into manageable tasks and begin assigning project activities.
  • Develop a high-level project schedule that includes clear milestones, providing a benchmark for tracking progress throughout the project. You can learn how to do this here.
  • Give careful consideration to stakeholder expectations during this stage, as meeting their needs and requirements is vital for project success.

3. Start Implementing

When embarking on a project, it’s common to get absorbed in the work and lose sight of the initial plan. To avoid this, remember to:

  • Track progress regularly by comparing it against established milestones to ensure you stay on course.
  • Proactively identify potential roadblocks and bottlenecks that could impede project progress, addressing them promptly.
  • Monitor key project Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to gain insights into the project’s health and performance. Learn more about creating great KPIs here.
  • While changes are not forbidden, each request should undergo careful consideration and be managed through a standardised process to maintain project stability.

A helpful tip is to utilise a real-time dashboard, like the one offered by monday.com, to measure project performance metrics. This dashboard provides valuable data such as the percentage of tasks completed on time and resource utilisation, enabling better decision-making and efficient project management.

4. Deliver

Congratulations on delivering the project objective! However, before you celebrate, there are a few critical steps to ensure the product’s success:

  • Conduct direct user testing with existing or potential customers to gather valuable feedback and insights. This testing helps identify any potential issues or areas for improvement. You can learn more about getting direct customer feedback here.
  • Obtain the necessary regulatory approvals, ensuring that the product complies with relevant guidelines and requirements.
  • Standardize any repeatable processes that have proven to deliver positive results. This standardisation enhances efficiency and consistency in future endeavours.

By diligently performing these post-project tasks, you can guarantee that the product not only meets the objective but also satisfies user expectations, regulatory standards, and industry best practices.

5. Iterate

The final phase of the Waterfall life cycle is dedicated to ensuring the project’s long-term success. In this crucial stage:

  • Replace existing products or services with the newly developed ones, ensuring a seamless transition from the old to the new.
  • Phase out the use of old products or services, making way for the adoption of the improved and upgraded solutions.
  • Maintain and support the newly implemented product or process to continue reaping its benefits in the long run.

By diligently completing these tasks, the project can achieve sustained success and contribute to the organisation’s growth and efficiency over time.

Waterfall Example – University Software

A university example of the waterfall model

In this example, the Waterfall model is applied to develop a software programme that utilises university rankings and student scores to determine the best-suited universities and courses for undergraduate students. The organisation undertaking this project begins with a feasibility study to assess existing market programmes that offer similar academic tasks. Subsequently, the essential phases of the Waterfall model are executed as follows:

  • Requirements: This phase focuses on gathering all relevant information about student scores and university rankings, defining the parameters to be used in evaluating a university’s suitability for a student.
  • Design: In this particular example of the Waterfall model, the Design phase fine-tunes the parameters established in the Analysis phase and ensures that the software programme’s structure is precise enough to handle large volumes of data without any manipulation or confusion.
  • Implementation: The critical Implementation phase involves conducting dummy runs of the software programme using a provisional set of data to assess its accuracy in suggesting appropriate universities for students. The suggestions are then compared with those obtained from academic counsellors, who arrive at them through their professional expertise.
  • Testing: As with any Waterfall model example, the Testing phase is dedicated to ensuring the smooth functionality of all software programme features, detecting and resolving any glitches that could undermine the overall programme’s utility.
  • Maintenance: In the final phase, the software programme undergoes checks for necessary updates or alterations. This includes incorporating new data, such as a larger volume of student scores and updated university rankings, to ensure the programme’s relevance and effectiveness over time.

By following the Waterfall model’s structured approach, the organisation can systematically develop and deliver a robust software programme that empowers students in making well-informed decisions regarding their academic pursuits.


What Are The Steps of The Waterfall Methodology?

The Waterfall methodology comprises five distinct phases: Requirements, Design, Implementation, Verification, and Maintenance. In this method, each stage must be completed and validated before progressing to the subsequent phase.

Is Waterfall Better Than Agile?

Waterfall and Agile represent two distinct project management methodologies with their own unique characteristics. The primary difference lies in the approach to progress: Waterfall mandates completing each phase before proceeding to the next, whereas Agile involves concurrent work on different phases.

Each approach brings its set of advantages and disadvantages, making them better suited for specific types of projects or work. Understanding the individual strengths and limitations of Waterfall and Agile is crucial in choosing the most appropriate methodology for a given project.

Why Is Agile Better Than Waterfall?

In Agile, the customer is viewed as an integral part of the implementation team and is actively involved at every stage of the process. Regular collaboration and feedback from the customer are emphasised throughout the project’s lifecycle. On the other hand, Waterfall dedicates significant time to engage with the customer at the beginning, aiming to document all perceived requirements comprehensively. Once this initial phase is completed, the implementation team typically takes over with limited customer involvement in subsequent stages.

What is the Main Advantage of the Agile Approach over the Waterfall Methodology?

Agile adopts a flexible approach that allows customers to make adjustments to the products during the development process.

Can I Make Changes During Waterfall?

Making alterations is more feasible in the early stages of development, particularly when the project manager is still finalising the specification documents in collaboration with the development team and clients. However, as the Waterfall process progresses and coding has already commenced, implementing design changes can become challenging and costly.

Scrum Vs Waterfall

The primary distinction between Scrum and Waterfall methodologies for software development lies in their core principles. Scrum is value-based, emphasising shorter iterations to deliver incremental value to customers. On the other hand, Waterfall is schedule-based, focusing on clearly estimated costs and adhering to a well-defined plan throughout the development process.


While waterfall methodologies have been widely used in the past, they come with inherent limitations in today’s fast-paced and dynamic business environment. Although they may suit certain projects with well-defined requirements, they lack the adaptability and flexibility that Agile methodologies provide. Embracing Agile approaches enables teams to respond to changes quickly, foster collaboration, and deliver value to customers more efficiently.

As we move forward in the ever-evolving landscape of project management, it’s essential to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies and choose the one that best aligns with our project goals and organizational needs. By embracing Agile principles, we can position ourselves for success and remain competitive in today’s rapidly changing world.

You can learn more about the agile methodology here, or check out our guide to validating your startup idea with the Mom test.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, we’d recommend diving into the following other posts in this Agile series:

  1. An Introduction to The Agile Methodology
  2. Themes, Epics and User Stories – The Core Components Of Agile
  3. Embracing Agile Team Dynamics
  4. What is SAFe Agile and Why Should I Use It?
  5. What is Waterfall Development?
  6. What is Lean Development?
  7. What is Scrum?
  8. A Deep Dive Into Epics
  9. Exploring The Power of User Stories
  10. How Can I Use Personas?
  11. Decoding Agile Estimation (Story Pointing)
  12. Agile Transformation: How Can My Business Start Using Agile?
  13. The Spotify Approach To Agile Development
  14. What Is Agile Portfolio Management?
  15. Agile Glossary
  16. Agile Statistics

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