Waterfall project management is a project management style that is highly structured in both planning and execution. The waterfall method aims to take stakeholder and customer needs gathered during the planning period, arrange them into a linear, sequential project plan of execution, and stick to the proposed plan as closely as possible.
Essentially, the idea is to adhere to clear, strict steps—each step must be totally complete before the project moves to the next, and you cannot return to previous steps.
Below we will examine the process of developing a waterfall project plan, whether this methodology is best for your organization, and what the benefits of deploying the waterfall methodology are.
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How does waterfall project management work?
Waterfall project management gets its name from its systematic approach to planning. Every task is sorted into a series of dependencies, each cascading into the next to create a “waterfall” that flows from the planning period to the eventual project completion.
Much of the waterfall model is built during the planning period, with the eventual goal of creating a plan that is so detailed and organized that it effectively automates the project management process once the project is officially kicked off. Broadly speaking, there are two phases that need to be executed to successfully implement the waterfall methodology.
The information gathering phase is the most important phase of the waterfall project management method. Project managers and their teams should begin by documenting all of the stakeholders, deliverables, deadlines, and resources relevant to the project at hand. This process must be incredibly thorough.
Because of the relatively strict demands of the waterfall method, it’s best to feel over-prepared by the end of this phase. The information gathered at this point will help determine dependencies and plot development checkpoints.
Once all relevant information has been obtained and organized, it’s time to move on to the project planning phase. First, establish the overall structure of the project, then determine a critical path (the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed to finish a project) and identify tasks that are dependent on the completion of other tasks.
These dependent tasks are then organized into a timeline reflecting the critical path. A separate timeline may be added to the waterfall displaying independent tasks that can be worked on without affecting the timeline laid out for dependent project tasks.
What are the benefits of waterfall project management?
The Waterfall methodology is built with a great deal of up-front planning, but what are the benefits of this heavy lifting? We count three major benefits to the Waterfall project planning process: reduced cognitive loads, clear expectations, and distinct deadlines.
Reduced cognitive loads
After you’ve created a timeline of dependencies and laid it out for the team, everyone should be on the same page, so you shouldn’t need constant check-ins or additional conversations about task assignments.
This gives teams more time to spend on their already understood tasks, while project managers oversee development in a more hands-off capacity. And stakeholders know the timeline and order of operations regardless of their proximity to the project.
With a strict timeline of events that must occur in a specific order, every stakeholder and team member knows exactly what’s ahead. The waterfall planning process can simplify relatively complex or dense projects, setting a clear, organized set of expectations, which grants team members the autonomy to simply move onto the next stage of a project once their current task has been completed.
Estimations of time are difficult when it comes to project management, but the granular nature of the waterfall model makes it much easier to project an accurate timeline. Because a detailed proposed timeline has been established up front, it’s much easier to calculate a realistic timeline using real data as the project moves along.
Who is waterfall project management best for?
The waterfall project management process is best for rigidly structured projects. The clear communication and expectations of the waterfall methodology reduce confusion and keep things relatively on track. But it only works for projects that can have those clear steps—anything that needs built-in flexibility for unexpected shifts or new ideas will need a different method.
Construction projects, for example, are almost entirely built around difficult-to-ignore dependencies. Framing must be done before detailing, and electrical wiring should be installed before the drywall goes up. These natural dependencies make it a great fit for waterfall’s planning and strict process. The same could be said for the fulfillment and logistics industries.
The waterfall method does create a process that is relatively simple to triage because every task and dependency is already laid out in an easily accessible document. But it can only accommodate minimal, absolutely necessary changes. Otherwise, the timeline would have to be completely redone, which could cost the team a lot of time and effort.
So again, if you deal with constant priority and task shifts, similar to a newsroom, you’ll need something much more flexible than the waterfall methodology.
Waterfall project management alternatives
The waterfall method is an excellent tool in many regards, but it is not the right project management solution for everyone. As we’ve mentioned, some projects require more flexibility or less planning up front. To that end, here are a few alternatives to the Waterfall methodology.
Agile is, as its name suggests, a more reactive approach to project development. Agile allows project managers to build loose, iterative plans that team members can customize to their task’s needs. Agile also values input over process, so projects that are likely to shift during development are better served by agile’s methodology.
Scrum works within the agile framework, so it’s a fairly iterative process. Scrum builds out chunks of work called “sprints” and assigns tasks to team members based on the expected time to completion of each. At the end of each sprint, project managers and their teams evaluate what was accomplished during the sprint, assign new tasks based on previous performance, and repeat this process until the deliverables cross the finish line. This approach combines the more rigid structure of waterfall planning with the iterative and responsive processes of agile.
Lean is a methodology that relies on a just-in-time delivery of resources. This fast-paced approach to production and delivery is usually deployed when resources are scarce or in flux. We see lean approaches to project development in places like the restaurant industry with ingredient delivery and staffing or in much more mechanical places like the grocery industry.
Start building a waterfall project plan
The waterfall project methodology is a well-established and respected methodology, ideal for projects that need and can accommodate rigid structure. If your projects need quick adjustments for product iterations or timely changes in your industry, waterfall most likely isn’t for you and your team. Consider how strict your project steps are before you settle on a methodology, and maybe try a small-scale project with waterfall to see how it would work with your team.
If you think the waterfall methodology is the right fit, many project management tools are built with waterfall timelines in mind. Project management software can ease planning, processes, and collaboration, so if you don’t yet have a project management tool, you can start by reviewing some of our favorites and go from there.
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