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When I started my project management career, I was managing large complex projects in a corporate environment. The process was very linear and involved a lot of planning and meetings upfront to determine the scope and write project plans that could span months or even years. Stakeholder feedback could delay project starts by weeks or even months. 

The average project life cycle for these types of projects could be as long as two years (?!) and the methodology we used to wrangle such a large body of work was waterfall project management, which up until the 6th edition of PMI’s PMBOK, was the primary methodology taught. The PMBOK and the PMP exam now also include some agile methodology.

As a digital project manager, the idea of spending weeks or months planning and having a project that might span years is less common. You might still see this when it comes to custom software applications or really large websites, but most of the time, the digital world moves much faster.

The iterative nature of other methodologies like Scrum, agile, Kanban, and XP are much more appealing in this world. But there is still a time and a place for using waterfall project management. Let’s look at this project management approach in more detail and where it might come in handy.

What Is Waterfall Project Management?

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

The project plan in a waterfall project is mapped out in great detail, with some 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.

You might even bring in someone like a business analyst to help create a requirements document (or at least start considering what might go into one).

Once you have this understanding, you will write the project charter. The charter will be your north star for the project and outline the deliverables that will be in scope for this particular project.

You will also identify all of the stakeholders for your project and create the stakeholder register. Remember that stakeholders are anyone who is impacted by the project and/or anyone who will care about the project’s progress and success.

Not all stakeholders have to be fully involved in the day-to-day project. Some may be simply consulted or kept informed along the way.

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

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2. Project Planning

You know the old saying, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and that’s why project planning has its own phase in a waterfall project. In this next phase, you’ll put together a plan for each step of your project. If initiation is the what and the why, planning is the how—as in how all that work will get done and by whom.

At this point, you’ll be creating your work breakdown structure and getting your project plan put into your project management software

You’ll also want to establish the critical path or the most direct route through your project. In your project, there will be some tasks that can be completed concurrently while others need to be completed sequentially. The shortest path through these sequential tasks is known as the critical path (not to be confused with the critical chain).

The most popular method for looking at waterfall project plans and timelines is a Gantt chart. This layout will help you to demonstrate better when the work will be done and where tasks will overlap with each other. Some project management tools also allow you to draw in dependencies between the tasks visually.

Now that you have your project plan, it’s time to 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. 

You can also work with the team to put together a timeline and assign due dates to these tasks. While the timeline may shift a little over the course of the project, during this phase, you’ll want to have an anticipated completion date for your project.

The final step of the planning phase involves discussing the possible risks the team might encounter over the course of the project and brainstorming ways to mitigate these risks before they become issues that could impact your ability to complete your project.

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 

Marking off tasks as they’re completed is only one part of monitoring and controlling your project. In this phase (as the team is executing the project work), you, as the project manager, will be keeping 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 anything is starting to come off track, you want to try to correct the situation as quickly as possible. This will mean working with the project team and your stakeholders to adjust your project plan. 

If the budget is being spent too quickly, you may need to see if it’s possible to secure additional funds. If new tasks or requests for new features are being added to the project plan, you’ll want to ensure change orders are written and accepted and change management plans are being followed.

5. Project Closing

The final phase in the waterfall process is the project closing. In this phase, we make sure every part of the project is complete and hold a post-mortem or retrospective to memorialize lessons learned on this project.

The team should take the time to celebrate everyone’s hard work and think about what went well on the project that they’d like to repeat in future projects and what could have been improved or what they would like to do differently in the next project.

As the project manager, it’s important to 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.

Agile Vs Waterfall Project Management

While there are many project management methodologies, agile project management and waterfall project management are probably among the most popular (and most often broken down for parts in hybrid project methodologies). While waterfall has been around since the 1970s, the agile approach came into being in 2000.

The reason agile came to be was that a group of technologists was frustrated by the long lead time needed for waterfall projects. Since waterfall requires each phase to be completed sequentially, if there was a change in requirements or the level of the effort was estimated incorrectly, the teams were not able to pivot with ease.

The development process for a waterfall project could be held up for weeks or months while project initiation and planning took place. The team would need to gather (and get approval on) all requirements, functionality, scope, and budget before even kicking off any development work.

As the internet and advances in technology were beginning to demand shorter development cycles and faster releases, a waterfall approach was causing frustration for the group. They got together to create the Agile Manifesto and Agile principles, which started to gain popularity in 2001.

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.

This allows development teams to take an iterative approach to their workflows and get working software (or another type of product) into the hands of users much more quickly.

Read more about the differences between agile and waterfall here.

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, as a project manager, you think your project scope still has a lot of unknowns or is subject to changes along the way, waterfall is probably not the methodology you want to use to manage your projects. So what does this look like in practice? Waterfall works best for the following types of projects:

Construction Projects

For the safety of everyone working on the building project or potentially using the finished product, construction lends itself well to a waterfall process. 

This is because, generally, plans for buildings need to be signed off on by engineers and potentially government agencies before they can begin. This means plans are not subject to much 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 can be completed using a waterfall or agile method. Waterfall works well for this type of project when the 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 and communicate that to your stakeholders.

This type of project may not be one-and-done, as a post-launch maintenance phase may need to be scoped to include updating any plugins or back-end needs as well as scoping time to add any new functionality, content, or pages to the site.

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 for your team. 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. Having a Gantt chart to show the timeline and when stakeholders will have status updates and/or need to be available for user acceptance testing will help you ensure everyone is aligned with your plan.

2 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: Because the project is so linear, the project team and all of the stakeholders should have a shared understanding of the project plan and objectives. If new ideas come up during the project, they can either be held for a new project, or another phase of the currently scoped work, or the project manager can initiate a change order. This will keep the project running smoothly and help ensure the project objectives are met.

2 Drawbacks of Waterfall Project Management

  1. Rigid structure makes change complicated: In a software development project that is being completed using waterfall methodology, it can be challenging to make changes along the way. As technology advances quickly or user needs change, the project is not going to be as flexible as if you were using agile or another methodology that allows for work to be scoped more iteratively.
  2. The work may take longer to get done: Since waterfall projects need to have initiation and planning done upfront, it may take longer to get to a completed project or usable product. With a methodology like agile, usable work is released more frequently, whereas, in waterfall project management, the team waits until everything is ready to release work.

Deciding When To Use Waterfall In Your Own Work

Now that you have a solid understanding of how waterfall project management works and what types of projects work best in this framework, you might be ready to put it into practice in your own projects. 

As we’ve explored, while it’s a time-tested way to manage project work, it’s not always the best way. It’s up to you to think critically about the projects you manage and if they’re best suited to be run using waterfall project management.

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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.

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