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The waterfall project management process is linear and involves completing planning and meetings upfront to determine the scope, requirements, and risks.

For digital project managers, spending weeks or months planning a project that might span years is less common. Most of the time, the digital world moves much faster, but there is still a time and a place for using waterfall project management.

What Is Waterfall Project Management?

Waterfall project management is a linear project management methodology that moves through distinct phases of work. The next phase of work is dependent on the previous phase, so only one project phase can be worked on at a time.

The project plan in a waterfall project is mapped out in great detail, with milestones along the way.

The 5 Phases Of Waterfall Project Management

When you use a waterfall method for managing projects, you take your work through five distinct phases (this is also often known as the project life cycle).

1. Project Initiation

The project initiation phase consists of gathering all of the project requirements. You’ll work to understand the business value of undertaking this work and map out the goals of the project.

Then, you'll write the project charter. This outlines the deliverables that will be in scope for this particular project. You'll also identify the stakeholders for your project and create a stakeholder register. Stakeholders are anyone who is impacted by the project and/or who will care about the project’s progress and success.

The end result of your project initiation phase should be buy-in from your project stakeholders. Without buy-in, you shouldn’t move into project planning.

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2. Project Planning

You’ll put together a plan for each step of your project. If initiation is the what and the why, planning is the how—how all that work will get done and by whom.

  • Create your work breakdown structure and put your project plan into your project management software
  • Establish the critical path or the shortest path through your project tasks that need to be completed sequentially (not to be confused with the critical chain).
  • Use a Gantt chart to visualize when the work will be done and where tasks will overlap with each other (i.e. dependencies)
  • Assign the work. Each person on the project team should have a clear understanding of their role in the project and what tasks will be in their area of responsibility. 
  • Work with the team to put together a timeline and assign due dates. While the project timeline may shift a little over the course of the project, come up with an anticipated completion date for your project.
  • Discuss the possible risks the team might encounter over the course of the project and brainstorm ways to mitigate these risks before they become issues that could impact your ability to complete your project. Track risks in your risk management software.

3. Project Execution

The project execution phase is where the rubber hits the road, as they say. This is go time for your project. During project execution, you’ll hold your official project kickoff and start working through your project tasks.

The beginning of the project might be the biggest challenge for the project team, especially if they have not worked together before. Team members will be learning how to work together and figuring out how to execute the project tasks simultaneously.

4. Project Monitoring & Controlling 

As the development team is executing the project work, you will keep a watchful eye on a number of things to ensure the project stays on track

These may include:

  • If the work is being completed on time
  • How much of the budget has been spent, and has anything come in over/under budget?
  • Are project goals being attained?
  • How is the progress against any metrics we set during project initiation or planning?
  • Is the project being completed at an acceptable level of quality?

If things start to get off track, work with the project team and your stakeholders to adjust your project plan. If the budget is being spent too quickly, try to secure additional funds. If new tasks or requests are being added, ensure change orders are written and accepted.

5. Project Closing

During project closing, make sure every part of the project is complete and hold a post-mortem or retrospective to memorialize lessons learned on this project.

Take the time to celebrate everyone’s hard work and think about what went well on the project and what could have been improved or what they would like to do differently in the next project.

Take notes and archive them along with any final deliverables or artifacts (like the work breakdown structure and final budget) that might help when initiating future projects.

3 Use Cases For Waterfall Project Management

Waterfall project management works best for projects that have well-defined deliverables and constraints as well as fixed budgets and timelines. 

If you think your project scope still has a lot of unknowns or is subject to change, waterfall is probably not the project management approach you want to use. Waterfall works best for the following types of projects:

Construction Projects

Construction lends itself well to waterfall because a strict process helps ensure the safety of everyone working on the project or using the finished product.

This is because plans for buildings need to be signed off on by engineers and often government agencies before they can begin. Plans are not subject to change along the way, and a sequential plan can easily be followed.

Construction projects are sometimes referred to as capital projects. Read more about capital project management here.

Website Design and Build Projects

Website design and build projects might use waterfall or one of many agile methods. Waterfall works well when needs are well-defined.

If you have an exact sitemap and style guide you need to use, it’s easy to plan out the phases and when each page will be ready for review and approval. You can also select your target launch date with a high level of confidence.

Software with specific functionality

If your team is building software with specific functionality and a well-defined set of requirements, the waterfall model might be the right choice. Examples of this might be a CRM system, HR software, or any type of compliance tool.

These will have an initial set of requirements, and the work can be scheduled and completed in a linear fashion. A Gantt chart showing the timeline and when stakeholders will receive status updates and/or need to be available for user acceptance testing will get everyone aligned with your plan.

Benefits of Waterfall Project Management

  1. Scoping and planning happen upfront: In a waterfall project, all of the scoping and planning happen upfront, and there is less room for ambiguity or changes as the project progresses. Team members should have a clear understanding of who is going to do what and when they will do it.
  2. A clear plan and objectives: The project team and stakeholders have a shared understanding of the plan. If new ideas come up during the project, they can either be held for a new project or another phase of the work, or the project manager can initiate a change order. This keeps the project running smoothly and helps ensure project objectives are met.

Drawbacks of Waterfall Project Management

  1. Rigid structure makes change complicated: It can be challenging to make changes along the way on waterfall projects. As technology advances quickly or user needs change, the project is not going to be as flexible as it would be if you were using one of the agile methodologies (ex. Scrum or Kanban) or another methodology that allows for scoping work iteratively.
  2. The work may take longer to get done: Since the waterfall approach means initiation and planning is done upfront, it may take longer to get to a completed project or usable product. With agile, the agile team releases usable work more frequently, whereas, in waterfall project management, the team waits until everything is ready to release work.

Agile Vs Waterfall Project Management

The main difference between agile and waterfall is that agile focuses on iteration and adaptability. You can change your plan to accommodate new requirements and feedback along the way. The waterfall project management methodology, as we've seen, follows a linear plan from project start to finish.

In agile project management, work is spelled out in a backlog and completed in time boxed sprints. The sprints produce a workable product called an increment, and customer feedback is provided each sprint, usually in a demo.

What's Next?

Want to debate the relative merits of waterfall and various agile approaches? Join DPM Membership and get access to the conversation in Slack with 100s of other digital project managers! You'll also get access to 100+ templates for important project documents like project plans, risk registers, and statements of work.

Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.