Everything you need to know about waterfall project management

The waterfall method relies on a well-structured plan with clearly defined steps and processes. Here's how to use it like a pro.

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Project management processes are built through methodologies to fit various project types and sizes—and one of the most common methodologies is the waterfall project management.  

In many cases, your company will have an ideal methodology they use and adapt to run their projects through to completion. In other cases, it’s up to the project manager to determine what methods or combination of methods to use to manage their project and reach a successful outcome for their clients.

So, when should you use waterfall PM and how do you adapt it to your needs? You’ll always aim for delivering on time, within scope, and on budget, but how can you do all these with this project management method?

Let’s navigate deeper into waterfall—also known as “traditional” project management.

The basics of waterfall

The waterfall method relies on a well-structured plan with clearly defined steps and processes that unfold linearly—usually structured around five project phases: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure.

This popular method is employed across diverse industries, particularly for projects with predictable outcomes and minimal requirement changes. Waterfall project management allows for precise planning, resource allocation, and budget control.

However, the rigidity of traditional project management may not suit all projects, especially those with uncertain or evolving requirements. In such situations, more flexible methodologies like agile or hybrid approaches are better equipped to handle change and adapt to unexpected challenges.

Five common phases of waterfall project management

Let’s take a closer look at the phases of the traditional project management process:

Phase 1: Initiation

During the project initiation phase, you need to ensure that the project aligns with the organization's overall goals and objectives.

Phase 2: Planning

During the planning phase, also known as the planning and organizing phase, you'll be developing a well-thought-out plan for resources, budget, and activities. This is a crucial step in the project management process, and you won't achieve high-quality success without it!

When planning projects, taking a people-first approach is critical. See our complete guide to project planning to learn everything you need to know, from interviewing stakeholders to running kickoffs.

Phase 3: Execution

This phase involves executing the project plan and ensuring the project is completed on time and within budget. During the execution phase, you must be ready to handle any issues that arise and facilitate operations to keep the project moving forward.

Phase 4: Monitoring

Throughout the project, monitoring the progress and making necessary adjustments are essential. This helps ensure that the project is on track and that the objectives are met. You may often need to take actions to bring the project back on track if needed.

Phase 5: Closure

This is where you'll wrap up the project and evaluate its overall performance. A standard project closure checklist in your organization is a great way to ensure you don't miss anything in the closure phase and that the client and your company have everything they need to commit to closing.


Phase 0

There’s another phase that you may often have to go through regardless of which methodology you’re using: the project discovery phase. While not part of the official stages of the PM process, don’t skip it! Learn why in our guide to project discovery.


Eight elements of the waterfall methodology

Waterfall project management is a time-tested approach that provides a sturdy framework to build your project success. Let’s uncover some of the elements of this approach.

1. Strong foundation for planning

Planning is the heart and soul of your project. In order to run a project successfully for both the project team and stakeholders, you need to invest time and effort into comprehensive planning. Listen attentively to your stakeholders, meticulously capturing their needs and desires to help you define your project scope, objectives and requirements upfront. This process will be the foundation that everything else stems from.

2. Sequential phases

Like an actual waterfall, this methodology follows a sequential flow where each phase builds upon the previous one, ideally ensuring a smooth and organized progression leading to the completion of the project.

3. Detailed documentation

Waterfall requires clear and detailed documentation as a part of the systematic progression. Think of the documentation as a map of your project. It captures requirements, design specifications, test plans, and other essential project artifacts.

Documentation may seem tedious but, in my experience, it ensures clarity and alignment among the team and stakeholders.

4. Milestone tracking

Milestones are essential guideposts in a project that indicate the completion of a significant event, project phase, or deliverable. They provide structure and direction, helping everyone stay aligned and focused on achieving the project goals.

Work with your stakeholders and project team to set meaningful milestones to track progress, measure achievements and keep the project on the right path.

5. Risk management

As a project manager, you should always be identifying, tracking and building plans to mitigate risks. Waterfall’s progressive nature allows you to look ahead based on the planned deliverables and makes it somewhat easier than other methodologies to predict future uncertainties and navigate your way around them or adjust early on to a solution that compliments the risk.

6. Change management

With risk comes change and with change comes shifting that could throw your project steaming off course. Changes are carefully evaluated and managed through formal change control processes, helping maintain project scope and minimize disruptive modifications.

7. Testing and validation

Due to the upfront planning nature of this methodology, you can build in time and resources to test and validate deliverables against the requirements which is just another stepping stone to the success of the project goals.

8. Lessons learned

Lessons learned may be my favorite part of project management. I lean on these lessons learned to improve the way I plan, monitor and execute the next project. Embrace the wisdom that comes with experience by capturing and applying lessons learned from each project. Reflect on challenges, successes, and areas for improvement to make your next project run even smoother!

The Advantages of waterfall project management

There are a lot of advantages to waterfall project management. For example, waterfall methods:

  1. Provide clear direction: With its sequential structure, waterfall provides a clear direction for the project, guiding teams through well-defined phases and milestones.
  2. Offer a high level of predictability: Waterfall brings a sense of predictability to the project, allowing for better planning, resource allocation, and timeline estimation.
  3. Give clarity to stakeholders: Waterfall facilitates strong stakeholder engagement and alignment by clearly defining requirements and objectives upfront, reducing the chances of misunderstandings or miscommunication.
  4. Improve client satisfaction: The methodical and transparent nature of waterfall often leads to higher client satisfaction, as it allows stakeholders to have clear visibility into project progress and deliverables.
  5. Increase accountability: The phased nature of waterfall enhances accountability, as each phase has well-defined deliverables and milestones, making it easier to track progress and identify responsible parties.
  6. Promote collaboration and coordination: Waterfall promotes collaboration and coordination among team members, as each phase builds upon the work of the previous phase, fostering a sense of collective ownership.
  7. Enable efficient resource utilization: With its structured approach, waterfall enables efficient resource utilization by providing a clear framework for resource allocation and task sequencing.
  8. Provide lessons for continuous improvement: Yes, I’m mentioning this one again. I find it so valuable! Waterfall projects provide valuable lessons for continuous improvement, enabling teams to refine processes, enhance efficiency, and optimize future projects.

When to use agile instead

Agile vs waterfall is an age-old question. Agile project management has become a dynamic and adaptable method that prioritizes speed and flexibility. Its goal is to deliver value quickly by dividing work into smaller, iterative components called sprints. This iterative process accommodates shifting requirements and enables the frequent incorporation of stakeholder feedback, ensuring the project remains aligned with client needs. The collaborative nature of the agile methodology also encourages cross-functional teams to work closely together, fostering continuous improvement and adaptability.

This approach is particularly well-suited for projects with evolving requirements or rapidly changing environments.

So how do you know it suits a project better than waterfall?

To be able to determine what methodology you want to use, you need to have first-hand knowledge about each. In my opinion, having experience running all types of methodologies will give you the confidence to be able to choose, adapt and combine them. Then, you’ll be more able to work for the needs of your client and the stakeholder goals of the project.

Building an experience will be much easier if you deliberately and strategically use lessons learned to build your abilities to be flexible with a methodology or to decide the best for you. Learn by doing. And when I say “doing”, I mean failing at times, determining what went wrong and continuously having the motivation to learn more.

Of course, the agile and waterfall methods aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Here’s how you could try a hybrid approach of project management methodologies.

How to streamline the waterfall project process

Now that we have tackled the basics of waterfall project management, you might be a little intimidated by what seems like a lot of work to plan and execute. Even taking all the advantages into account it still may feel like a daunting amount of work to run a successful project.

Lucky for us there are tools like Float to help us optimize and automate the way we project manage.


Did you know?

While Float primarily focuses on project planning and resource management, it can be a valuable tool throughout the various phases of the waterfall methodology. It helps in visualizing the project timeline, managing resource allocations, and maintaining project schedules, ensuring that the project progresses smoothly and stays on track.


Let’s take a look at how a tool like Float can assist in your project success in a less manual way:

  1. Start with a project template: Due to the predictability of waterfall, you can set up a baseline project timeline with phases and flows in the tool. This lowers the amount of work upfront to spin up a project plan and helps you better compare estimates vs. actuals later.
  2. Add milestones & tasks: Tasks represent specific activities or actions required to complete a phase, while milestones mark significant points of achievement or completion. Enter these tasks (or as we call them more accurately "allocations") and milestones into Float, assigning them to the appropriate team members.
  3. Resource allocation: Float is a robust resource forecasting and scheduling tool. It enables you to forecast resources you need based on actuals data. Checking team availability and assigning them to tasks within your project plan is a great way to ensure everyone knows exactly what they are working on.
  4. Establish dependencies: One of the best features of planning tools is the ability to assign task or milestone dependencies. Waterfall’s sequential nature craves dependencies, and Float makes this possible to set up in the planning stage so that it is easy to visually see what they are and add or remove them right within your project plan.
  5. Set task durations: Estimate the duration for each task based on historical data, expert judgment, or team input. Enter these durations in Float to create a realistic timeline for your project. Consider the dependencies and resource availability when estimating task durations.
  6. Reporting features: Take advantage of Float’s reporting features to generate visual reports and track project progress. Monitor resource utilization, task completion rates, and milestone achievements to gain insights into project performance. Use these reports to inform decision-making and make adjustments as needed



Set your projects up for success with Float

Want an effective tool to help you in the planning stage of your projects? Use Float to plan project work, manage capacity, and assign the right people to the right job, every time.

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Chase the Waterfall

So now that you know about the basics, advantages and ways to optimize using a tool like Float, you can go ahead and chase that waterfall. Enjoy the beauty of that sequentially flowing Gantt chart and start planning your next project through the waterfall framework.