What is a waterfall project?

By Charlotte Björsjö

What is a waterfall project?

A while ago I wrote a post about agile project management. In this post you will learn more about another project method called the waterfall method.

What is the waterfall method? 

Waterfall method is a sequential process that builds the project as a flow downwards (like a waterfall) through all the phases. The idea is that every phase should be done and approved before proceeding to the next phase. The model comes primarily from the construction industry where every task must be completed before the next phase can begin. I.e., it’s difficult to add the roof before the floor and walls are in place :-) 

The method is often used for other industries and projects as well. I will share my insights on how to apply it on online- and digital projects.

Phases of the method

The following phases are normally part of the waterfall method, but may vary slightly depending on type of project.

  • Specification
  • Design
  • Development
  • Integration
  • Test and termination
  • Installation
  • Maintenance


Strengths of the waterfall method—why should I choose it?

  • Cost control

    As a client of a waterfall project you have full cost control and before each phase starts you can take a decision to continue or exit. Usually the provider gives a fixed price for each phase.

  • Good project overview

    Both the project team and the client can easily understand and get a clear overview of the project and all deliveries.

  • Quality assurance

    The delivery in each phase is always tested and quality assured, which usually feels safe for the client, before moving in to the next phase.

  • Clear specification of the scope

    A specification is usually created to make it 100% clear what is included and not in the project.

Weaknesses of the waterfall method—why should I avoid it?

  • Inflexible

    The project is not open to changes, so any changes are an additional order (additional cost and time might be needed) which can lead to frustration for both the project team and the client. 

  • Need of a clear specification

    A specification needs to be created. This is, as I explained above on one hand something positive, but could on the other hand be seen as something negative, since it sets a high demand on both the client and supplier. It forces the project team to anticipate everything—which is usually impossible. 

  • Risk to postpone problems
    The waterfall method often leads to postponing quality problems, which creates an increased risk of a delivery with flaws and increased cost compared with an iterative method.

  • Lack of dialogue

    The project is not fully transparent to the client because the project group work with their tasks until they are ready for presentation and/or delivery. The project manager is handling the dialogue within the project group and with the client.

The waterfall method in comparison with an agile way of working

The waterfall method puts much time and importance to the planning of the project, with a goal to follow this plan strictly. This is both a strength and a weakness of the method, since it leads to fulfilment of all task on time, but without the ability to make any changes along the way if new needs occur.

That is a big difference if you compare it with an agile method that puts little emphasis on planning and precise deadlines and greater emphasis on the delivery of business value.

It’s not possible for us at Zooma to work 100% with the waterfall method, since almost all project is changing and we need to be dynamic and adapt to the project requirements and business value. The most common is that we work in a combined agile and waterfall method, in which the agile method is the predominant approach. 

What is your experience of working according to the waterfall project process?

Talk to an expert 

Charlotte Björsjö
Charlotte has been a project manager since 2014. She gets excited about Kanban and loves Trello.
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