Should You Use the Waterfall Approach to Project Management?

Should You Use the Waterfall Approach to Software Development Project Management?

Like any other management methodology, the waterfall methodology holds much importance and relevance in today’s contemporary business world. Research has shown that 95% of agile transformations were led by waterfall leadership, making it one of the most effective ways to get anything done.

If you’ve just started as a software development project manager or you’re a seasoned pro looking for better ways to ensure your project’s success, we are here to help you. Let’s explore ways to utilize the waterfall approach towards management and the pros and cons of it.

What Is The Waterfall Approach?

What Is The Waterfall Approach?

It is a linear method of project management that consists of a series or sequence of numerous phases.

One phase begins after the completion of the other, and there is no way to return to the previous phase. And the only way to revisit an earlier phase is if you start all the way over again at phase one. So each stage and step in this approach is followed by another to produce results. This is why it is named after a waterfall.

Used by software development, IT staffing, and construction industries, the waterfall method has been around in the custom software development world for decades. Assigned with various roles, all the team members have the same goal and linearly achieve it effortlessly (which differs slightly from agile and scrum project management methodologies).  This methodology works best for organizations that create long and detailed plans for specific projects.

How Does The Waterfall Approach Work?

How Does The Waterfall Approach Work?

The specific phases of a waterfall system can vary by the type of project and sources involved. But they more or less include the following stages:

Requirement Gathering

In the first phase, a project’s design needs, functions, and aims are carefully understood. Then, the requirements of the input and output are also clearly assessed. This should give the project manager a good understanding of what the software needs to do to fulfill those requirements.

System Design And Planning

After studying the project requirements in the first phase, a system design or wireframe mockup is created to fulfill those needs. In this stage, the software architecture is planned, diagrams are made, and the best-fit technology is integrated to help the project. This helps define the overall system architecture, so a software code is determined to fit the entire project design.

Execution & Testing

Using the process web design inputs, the system is created in small parts (units) to be combined in the next phase. Then, each aspect or unit is developed and analyzed to check if it functions correctly. This is known as Unit Testing. It is essential to check the software design for potential flaws and errors constantly.

That’s the only way to ensure that the code does what it is supposed to, or the entire waterfall process has to start from the beginning.


Once the system testing is complete, the product is released into the market to be purchased and used.


Certain modifications and alterations can be made to the system components to achieve improved performance for the user.

When displayed on a Gantt chart, these activities are depicted as a slope-like structure that slows down steadily like a waterfall. It is vital to follow proper planning when designing the project since every stage is affected by the other. If proper planning is not followed, it might delay a phase that can subsequently affect others.

Advantages of Waterfall Approach

Even though it has been around for some time now, the waterfall methodology continues to be widely chosen by manufacturing and software development companies. Here are several reasons why:

Effortlessly Reveals The End Goal

The waterfall approach makes the end goal very transparent right from the start. It also keeps teams from getting lost in small details as the project moves forward since the end goal remains the same. This way, the members can easily communicate and assist each other at every stage according to their positions.

Seamlessly Transfers Information

The waterfall methodology is well ordered, which makes it easier to transfer information at each stage. In addition, every stage involves a team of people with clear and defined roles, ensuring that there is no overlap from the previous phases and everyone knows what needs to be done.

Streamlined Work Flow

Every stage in the waterfall method is structured, and every step is clearly defined. Ultimately, no specific training is needed to follow the instructions.

Disadvantages Of The Waterfall Approach

One of the biggest drawbacks of this methodology is that it may be too old and outdated for your needs. Research has shown that waterfall leadership fails in 34% to 95% of the cases. Here are several reasons why it can be challenging to implement:

Difficult To Modify

If your team has followed all the steps carefully but wishes to make any changes to previous actions, it will be nearly impossible to do that. Each team member will have to put a substantial amount of work into making any changes.

If you are still considering this approach for project management, recheck your previous work before moving on towards the next step. Leave enough room for revision to save yourself the time and energy for fixing things all over again.

Hard To Test

The waterfall approach does not allow testing until step four of the project. This means that the team members cannot assess information at the end of each step. Since mistakes cannot be revealed until after step four, you may have to restart from step one if an error is detected.

Project managers and team members have to be careful to avoid any mistakes. Moreover, there is too much room for potential errors to remain hidden until the project reaches completion.

Does Not Involve The Client

This methodology does not focus much on the end-user and acts solely as an internal process. As a result, it helps teams move faster and work efficiently throughout the entire project. The waterfall method is a great approach to improve the team’s performance in the software world, but on a practical level, keeping clients uninformed of their project details is very risky.

When To Use The Waterfall Approach?

If your project has a fixed budget with only a few requirements, you can use this method. In this case, the project won’t need further development, and you won’t have to go over each step and repeatedly make changes.

Furthermore, the waterfall method is a safe option if the project is not a high priority, and you can use your creativity to complete it. Make sure you use this method only for projects that do not require software updates like those in web applications.

When Not To Use The Waterfall Approach?

If you do not know what your final product will look like, avoid using this method. The end goal needs to be planned right at the beginning of the project. If you have no idea about your output, it’s not worth the risk to use the waterfall approach.

If your task is exceptionally tricky and requires constant feedback from the client, do not risk it with the waterfall approach since it’ll be impossible for you to make revisions. Speak to your client in detail about the project before starting it. It is crucial to know whether they are rigid about what they need. If you feel that the client is unsure about their project, do not risk it with the waterfall approach. The client might not like the output and can ask for specific revisions.

Is The Agile Approach Better?

71% of companies are adopting Agile in 2021.

An agile project management methodology is a sequential approach towards project management that delivers the work in small increments with a massive room for revisions and changes. Approximately 71% of organizations all around the world are known to use the Agile approach in 2021.

While waterfall has well-defined goals and instructions, the agile approach is pretty flexible and includes several sets of principles where projects are continuously developed and tested side by side. Moreover, the agile approach adapts and executes projects according to their demands. On the contrary, waterfall focuses on a pre-planned strategy with the fully defined requirements before the project even starts.

With agile, the expectations evolve along the way, usually because the client is involved with the project and can check and demand changes from the get-go. As a result, the team members are constantly reviewing and testing the project information, making revisions along the way without compromising the project parts that were approved.

This flexibility and rigidity result in better collaboration, teamwork, and self-organization, boosting the overall dedication towards the project’s goals. Alongside this, the agile method also comes with a couple of disadvantages. Since the approach is very flexible, it can cause delayed submissions if revisions occur more often. If a project is constantly altered, it can extend the budget and timeline.

Moreover, since the deadlines are not fixed, and the project calls in for constant extensions, team members may lose motivation and focus after revising the task repeatedly. This usually happens when a new project is assigned before the previous one is even completed.

The Right Project Management Methodology For You

A project with multiple timelines and accounts for changes and client feedback works great with the agile methodology. However, these projects require extensive collaborative measures within teams where they cross-check everything before moving on to the next step.

If a client does not provide clear instructions about a specific project, you have to get the hang of what they need as the project moves along. This is usually because their work is constantly sent to them for feedback. In addition, the agile method allows the client to participate in the project at any stage where they can ask for updates accordingly.

Using the waterfall method may be better if your project has well-defined requirements and does not follow complex protocols. In this method, the project is planned right from the beginning with fewer revisions and changes as the project moves along. But to ensure this, the work must be rechecked before moving on to the next step.

Additionally, if the project is well-defined, there is no need to involve the client along the way. This method makes more sense for projects with fixed prices and timelines. You can use it to stay vigilant, deliver the work timely, and reduce the risks of late delivery or cost overruns.

Take time to consider what project management method is well suited for your project. Then, talk to your client, note down all the requirements, and make a questionnaire to determine their needs.

If the client does not place unnecessary demands and you feel like putting your creativity to the test, use the agile method to guide you throughout the process. On the contrary, if you think the client is pretty strict and straightforward with their needs, use the waterfall approach to structure the project.

So the answer solely depends on the nature of the project, the culture of the organization, and the approach adopted by project managers to complete specific tasks.

Are you working as a project manager doing remote software development? Share what method your organization uses to manage workload and fulfill the unique needs of your team members.

Ryan is the VP of Operations for He brings over a decade of experience in managing custom website and software development projects for clients small and large, managing internal and external teams on meeting and exceeding client expectations--delivering projects on-time and within budget requirements. Ryan is based in El Paso, Texas.
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Ryan Nead