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What is Waterfall Project Management?

Updated on March 7, 2024By
What is Waterfall Project Management

Have you ever wanted your project to flow smoothly and fluidly like water? Well, then, the waterfall project management methodology is what you need. 

Waterfall project management is a linear project management methodology that progresses through distinct stages to reach the end. However, it requires extensive planning, documentation, and implementation to get a taste of success.

In this post, we take a detailed look at what is the waterfall approach in project management and why and when you should be using it.

What is waterfall project management?

As mentioned previously, the waterfall project management method follows a sequential and linear approach to project management. Here, the entire project lifecycle is divided into clearly defined discrete stages, with one cascading into the other and so on. The project will transition from one phase to another only when the previous one is absolutely complete. Further, the flow of the project is unidirectional; that is, once a phase is over, it terminates, and it is not possible to revisit it.

Waterfall Project Management

Given this background, it found great relevance in manufacturing and construction, where the subsequent steps are heavily reliant on the completion of the previous ones. For instance, you cannot install the roof until your walls are ready. Along the same lines, you cannot go back to a previous phase. Say, you cannot revert from an assembly line to manufacture an internal component that was to be put together or installed in the product! Once manufacturing is over, it is over.

Despite such niche applications in the initial years, the waterfall project management methodology has matured since to accommodate the needs of different industries.

Phases of waterfall project management methodology

To recapitulate, the waterfall project management methodology comprises distinct phases that are arranged sequentially. One phase should begin only when the previous one is wholly complete. Now that you have a foundational knowledge of what is waterfall approach in project management, let’s talk about its different phases.

Typically, there are five to seven waterfall project phases in your average project. However, the five fundamental ones are as below:

1. Requirements

The requirement-gathering stage is the first phase of planning in waterfall project management. Here, the stakeholders will come together to capture all possible information related to the project – from specifications to benchmarks to timelines and beyond.

5 Stages of Requirements Gathering

Remember, the waterfall model flows unidirectionally, and you cannot come back to this stage. As such, be as upfront and meticulous as possible while capturing requirements. Also, follow this step up with thorough documentation and validation. In all probability, this stage will take up a chunk of your project timeline – and there’s nothing wrong with it considering the payoff.

During this phase, you will be:

  • Defining the project scope using a project management tool like Nifty to capture the broad objectives, deliverables, cost, features, deadlines, etc.
  • Setting stakeholder expectations and negotiating terms of the project
  • Conducting market research to work out the feasibility of a project and justify its need
  • Building a project team depending on resource and skill requirements
  • Hosting a project kick-off meeting to apprise all stakeholders of the requirements and expectations

By the end of this phase, you will have a clear idea of the project scope, each stage involved, teams working on every stage, key dependencies, necessary resources, and a stage-wise and project-wide timeline.

2. Design

Next comes the design phase. Here, the project requirements would be used as a frame of reference to design how the project would flow. 

First, you will be working with your team to brainstorm and theorize the possible solutions and approaches for this project. This would be the logical design subphase. Then, all the ideas would be put together, and the project managers will use their skills to develop work breakdown structures (WBS).

This hierarchical and logical design to organize the project corresponds to the physical subphase of project design. After decomposing the project into the smallest deliverable task, you can mark project milestones for key accomplishments. 

Nifty Gantt Chart View

Platforms like Nifty can be extremely useful in such settings as you can view the project design at a high level and zoom into the smallest unit. Plus, it visually captures the entire project design and layout through reliable project management tools like Gantt charts.

3. Implementation

Now that you have laid down all the groundwork, the next phase of the waterfall project management approach pertains to the actual implementation of everything you have been working towards. In other words, here’s where all your planning will translate into action.

As a project manager, your role will be involved with:

  • Assigning tasks to project teams on a system of priority
  • Facilitating collaboration between teams and ensuring timely delivery and handoffs
  • Managing the workload and balancing shared or dedicated resources
  • Monitoring and tracking project progress and taking curative measures in case of delays
  • Reporting to internal and external stakeholders
  • Performing risk management activities to mitigate scope, budget, or timeline creep
  • Conducting performance, usability, and various other tests
  • Delivering the finished project to the customer

Interestingly, this phase would be the shortest of the waterfall project phases – provided that you have put sufficient legwork into the planning stages. Further, a nifty project management tool like Nifty can also help ease the implementation.

4. Verification


Verification is the penultimate stage of the waterfall project management methodology. By this point, the product is complete and ready for release or launch. However, it should first meet the customer’s approval. As such, the customer will review the product and its performance during this phase and compare these parameters with the benchmarks discussed during the requirement stage.

You may even share the results from the testing that you may have performed, or the customer may have prescribed certain quality checks at this stage of project development in the requirement stage.

Once the customer is fully satisfied with the outcome, you may proceed with the final paperwork and terminate legal contracts. You can even retain a copy of the project management template for future reference.

5. Maintenance

The maintenance phase of the waterfall model in project management is typically seen for digital products like software solutions and platforms. It is the post-delivery stage where the customer may notice bugs, glitches, errors, and inadequate features that may hamper the performance or usability of the product. However, the maintenance phase may also feature in other industries where the product may not be properly installed or delivered or be covered under some warranty, guarantee, or annual maintenance plan.

Regardless, this stage particularly revolves around further refinement of the product so that the end-user is absolutely happy with it.

Advantages of waterfall project management

The advantages of the waterfall project management approach can be summarized in the following points:

1. Detailed and extensive documentation

Since there is no provision to go back once you kickstart the project, you will have to maintain detailed and comprehensive documentation right from the beginning. Plus, these documents would be approved and validated by all stakeholders. As such, all the decisions and modifications can be justified based on such a record.

2. Quicker briefing to teams

With extensive documentation comes the advantage of not having to go over the minutest details of the project while briefing your team. You can discuss the broad parameters and highlight key points while sharing the documents so that members can peruse the same and take action based on their roles.

3. Better low-level planning

The project planning at the initial stages, followed by thorough documentation, empowers team members to familiarize themselves with their roles and expectations tied to it. As such, they can use this knowledge to plan out their activities. Further, project managers can also assign priorities and allocate shared resources accordingly for maximum availability.

4. Simpler to understand

The waterfall model in project management is exceptionally simple – to understand and implement. The phases themselves are pretty self-explanatory and are logically arranged sequentially. Its simplicity makes it highly versatile and easy to implement (and templatize) regardless of the industry or area of application.

5. Clients have reasonable expectations

Whether it is the budget or timeline of the project or the features and specifications of the product, all details are deliberated upon with the stakeholders during the planning stage. As such, the customers are very well aware of what they can expect, while team members can water down the unrealistic ones and ground them in reality.

6. Clients are involved in the right amount

Even though the clients are made an active part of the project lifecycle, their role is limited to discussing requirements, occasional reviews, status meetings, and final approvals. As a result, they are involved just enough so that you can cater to their requirements and expectations but not to the point where you have to painfully coordinate with them at every point.

7. Measurable progress and outcomes

Since the waterfall methodology in project management is simple enough to be mapped into Gantt charts, it is easy to visualize progress. At the same time, it can also bring to light any bottlenecks that could be affecting your project development. Plus, with the benchmarks already in place, it is easy to also measure the outcomes of the project.

8. Effective project design

As the project design phase of the waterfall project management accounts for all the project requirements, the flow of the project would be quite smooth rather than working out solutions one feature at a time, which could compound later.

Limitations of waterfall Project Management

While the waterfall model in project management is beneficial, it also comes with its fair share of limitations given below:

1. Measure twice, cut once

We have emphasized how the flow of the waterfall project management approach is unidirectional. While it can be an advantage to some degree, but the inability to revisit past stages puts a lot of pressure on planning.

2. No room for error

Another major flaw with the waterfall model in project management is that you have absolutely no room for error, especially in the planning stages. As mentioned, the stakes are already very high as you cannot go back, and failing to account for everything in excruciating detail could add to the cost or worse, jeopardize the project’s success.

3. Deadline creep

Since the waterfall project phases are closely coupled, delays in any one stage can creep into the entire project and avalanche.

4. Quality assurance is too late

Activities like testing and verification should ideally feature at various checkpoints of the project development lifecycle. Failing to do so may make the problem too big to be addressed!

5. Absolute rigidity

One of the greatest criticisms of the waterfall model is that it is not flexible enough for clients to make reasonable changes to the project. At the same time, any unprecedented problem that crops up can also become difficult to tackle.

Who should use waterfall project management?

The waterfall methodology in project management is applicable for projects where:

  • Project scope, requirements, and budget are immutable
  • It is a one-off or short-term project that does not require further development or updates/upgrades
  • The customer has a crystal clear idea of what they want
  • It is possible to accurately estimate the work that needs to be done
  • You do not have to follow an iterative approach to project development
  • The project is innately low-risk, and the deadline is hard
  • The industry is static and not subject to overnight disruptions

Closing thoughts

The waterfall project management methodology has been highly effective in steering simple projects. It also enjoys widespread usage in certain industries, which can testify to its effectiveness. However, your ability to plan and implement the waterfall model strongly depends on the tools you have at hand. Project management tools like Nifty can ease your worries regardless of the methodology you use. So, give Nifty a try!

FAQs about waterfall project management

What are the benefits of using waterfall project management?

The benefits of waterfall project management include the following:

1. Backed by detailed and extensive documentation

2. Grants some autonomy to the teams to manage their tasks

3. Inspires hands-off project management

4. Simple to understand

5. Ensures everyone is on the same page

6. Progress is measurable

7. Project design is effective and repeatable

What are the differences between waterfall and Agile project management?

The primary difference between waterfall and Agile project management methodologies is that the former is linear and sequential while the latter is circular, iterative, and simultaneous. Further, agile is more flexible, open to change, and versatile.

What are the 5 stages of the waterfall project management model?

The five stages of waterfall project management include:

1. Requirements

2. Design

3. Implementation

4. Verification

5. Maintenance

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