Telling the truth about SME life today

What Is Waterfall Methodology?

What Is Waterfall Methodology?

The waterfall methodology is a sequential design process used in project management and software development. It is one of the oldest and most straightforward approaches for moving a project through various phases from conception to completion. As a business owner or manager, understanding the waterfall methodology can help you effectively plan and execute projects in your company.

How the Waterfall Methodology Works

The waterfall methodology consists of a linear sequence of stages where the output from one stage becomes the input for the next. The stages do not overlap, and each stage must be completed fully before moving on to the next.

The stages commonly included in the waterfall methodology are:

Requirements Gathering

This initial stage focuses on defining the goals, scope, features and functionalities required for the project. The project team gathers requirements through discussions with stakeholders. The requirements are documented in detail at this stage.

System Design

The requirements specifications from the previous stage are used to create system design documents. These include system architecture diagrams, interface designs, and hardware and software requirements.


The designs and plans from the design phase are implemented in this stage. Coding and programming take place during implementation. Unit testing is done to check individual components.


In this phase, the entire system is rigorously tested for bugs and defects. Different levels of testing like system testing, integration testing, and user acceptance testing are carried out.


Once the product has cleared all testing, it is deployed and delivered to the client or end users. This may involve installation, configuration, user training, and support activities.


This ongoing stage involves evaluating and improving the system through updates, fixes and feature additions.

The sequence of stages in the waterfall model is strict. Each phase must be 100% complete before the next one can begin. Backtracking to a previous stage is very difficult and expensive.

Key Characteristics of Waterfall Methodology

Some important characteristics of the waterfall approach are:

  • Linear – The phases proceed linearly from start to finish, in a strictly ordered sequence.
  • Sequential – Each phase begins only when the previous one is completed. Phases do not overlap or iterate.
  • Inflexible – Once a phase is finished, it cannot be revisited or modified.
  • Document-driven – Each phase results in the production of detailed documents, which guide the next phase.
  • Milestone-focused – Reviews take place at the end of each phase to ensure it meets its goals before moving to the next milestone.
  • Process-oriented – The focus is on ensuring each phase adheres strictly to process requirements and specifications.

When Is Waterfall Methodology Used?

The waterfall methodology works well for projects where:

  • Requirements are clearly defined, fixed and unlikely to change.
  • The technology involved is established and understood.
  • The project has a strict budget, timeline and scope constraints.
  • High-risk or complex projects where phased testing is required.
  • Projects with external compliance requirements that demand extensive documentation.
  • Building product-focused hardware and embedded software systems.
  • In regulated industries like manufacturing, aviation, pharmaceuticals etc.

The linear nature makes the waterfall model easy to understand and manage. The phased progression helps break down large projects into smaller chunks. Its structured approach provides visibility into the overall progress of the project throughout each stage.

Pros and Cons of Waterfall Methodology


  • Simple to understand and implement
  • Works well for fixed and clearly defined requirements
  • Easy to manage with schedule and milestone focus
  • A phased approach improves quality through peer reviews
  • Documentation at each stage minimises knowledge transfer issues


  • No working software until late in the life cycle
  • Integration issues arise when moving from one phase to the next
  • Difficult to incorporate changing customer needs
  • Does not easily accommodate emerging technologies
  • The risk of failure is higher as testing happens towards the end

Common Situations Where Waterfall is Used

Here are some examples of projects where a waterfall methodology approach is commonly used:

  • Software or hardware development – For embedded systems, device drivers, cytometry systems etc. where requirements are predefined.
  • Construction engineering – Building construction projects, especially infrastructure projects like roads, bridges etc.
  • Manufacturing – For scheduling assembly line models, and designing industrial equipment.
  • Business requirement analysis – Defining business goals, and identifying all needed inputs, entities, activities, and outputs.
  • Data processing – Batch data processing, pipeline development, data warehouse design.
  • Business process automation – Automating manual business processes where requirements are already known.
  • Compliance initiatives – where audit controls are needed at each step.

Implementing Waterfall Methodology

Follow these best practices when implementing the waterfall methodology for your projects:

  • Begin with clear project goals, scope, timeline, cost estimates and quality expectations.
  • Keep requirement specifications as detailed as possible. Document them formally and get user signoffs.
  • Designs must fulfill requirements. Involve expert reviewers to validate design documents.
  • Formally test at multiple levels like unit, system, integration, performance, and security.
  • Use prototyping during design to prevent later rework. Simulations flag integration issues early.
  • Conduct peer reviews of project documents at each phase completion before moving forward.
  • Assign a project manager to coordinate activities and milestones between phases.
  • Use change control boards to assess proposed changes and impacts on schedule, cost, and resources.
  • Allocate some budget and time for unexpected delays, defects and risks.
  • Implement mechanisms for capturing lessons learned and post-project reviews.

Adopting these measures will help you execute waterfall projects successfully. Adjust the rigidity as needed – you can have some overlap between adjacent phases for large projects. This retains the waterfall structure while allowing some flexibility.

Alternatives to Waterfall Methodology

While waterfall methodology follows a sequential, linear approach, a variety of alternative methodologies have emerged that offer more adaptive, iterative processes:

Alternatives have evolved to overcome challenges with the traditional waterfall approach:

  • Agile – Iterative approach with continuous customer feedback and incremental deliveries.
  • Scrum – Iterative cycles of fixed time periods called sprints.
  • Lean – Focus on optimising flow and rapid delivery with minimum waste.
  • DevOps – Increased collaboration between development and operations teams.
  • Hybrid – Combining aspects of the waterfall with iterative models.

Agile Methodology

Agile is centred around iterative delivery with continuous input and feedback from customers and stakeholders. It values responding to change and frequent inspection. Agile methods like Scrum and Kanban have short development cycles called sprints for incremental delivery of working features. This allows for incorporating evolving requirements flexibly. Agile offers higher transparency through daily standups, retrospectives, and demos.

Lean Methodology

Lean software development focuses on optimising the flow of value to customers while eliminating waste at each stage. It provides rapid, efficient delivery by removing non-essential process steps, focusing on quality and preventing rework. Concepts like small batch sizes, continuous improvement (kaizen), fast feedback loops, and effective teamwork help enhance flow.

DevOps Methodology

DevOps looks to improve collaboration between software development and IT operations teams. It combines the tasks of building, testing and releasing software into one process enabling faster deployment. Practices like continuous integration, monitoring, and automation help take ideas rapidly from inception to deployment.

Hybrid Methodologies

Hybrid models blend aspects of different methodologies. Mixing waterfall planning and documentation with iterative agile development sprints provides structure while allowing flexibility. Critical chain project management applies waterfall milestones to buffered agile iterations. Choosing practices from various methods can balance different project needs.

To get the best approach for your business it’s key to understand alternative options beyond the waterfall methodology so you have more tools to pick the right approach per the problem context and business environment. Building a nimble, adaptive methodology combining proven concepts from different models can be highly effective for successfully managing modern projects.

Adopting Waterfall for Your Business

The waterfall methodology, when used appropriately, provides a structured way to manage projects in a business environment.

Here are some recommendations on applying it to your needs:

  • Use waterfall for well-defined projects and leave flexibility for complex, uncertain ones.
  • Combining waterfall planning with agile sprints can ensure documentation without overheads.
  • Customise the linear phases and fit them into your business context.
  • Enable feedback loops and prototyping within the phases for clarity.
  • Identify risks early, define mitigations, and allocate contingency time/funds.
  • Focus on formal peer reviews for quality and knowledge sharing.
  • Automate repetitive processes for each phase to improve efficiency.
  • Retain cross-functional teams across the lifecycle to maintain continuity.

Adapting rather than adopting the waterfall methodology wholesale can make it work better for small businesses. With the right use cases and practices, it can be tailored to help effectively deliver projects and bring discipline to development efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions About Waterfall Methodology

What are the core principles of waterfall methodology?

The core principles of waterfall include linear sequential phases, with no overlap or iteration between phases. It focuses on extensive planning, documentation, reviews, testing and strict change control.

Why is it called waterfall methodology?

The waterfall name comes from the cascading flow from one phase to the next, like a waterfall from the top streaming downwards.

Is the waterfall methodology still used today?

Yes, waterfall methodology is still very much in use today. It works well for projects with fixed, clear requirements and where documentation and formal testing are important. It is used in software development as well as sectors like manufacturing, construction and embedded systems.

What are some project examples that use waterfall?

Waterfall methodology is a good fit for projects like enterprise reporting systems, engineering and infrastructure projects, financial data processing pipelines, industrial control systems and medical device software.

How can waterfall methodology be adapted for small businesses?

Small businesses can adopt a hybrid waterfall approach with some agile overlapping stages for flexibility. Documentation can be simplified, and mid-phase feedback loops are encouraged. Continual teams and automation also help adapt the waterfall.

What is the disadvantage of the waterfall methodology?

Disadvantages include high risk and lack of working software until the late stages. Also, since it is difficult to revisit previous phases, changing requirements can lead to failure. Integration issues may arise while transitioning between phases.

When is waterfall methodology inappropriate to use?

Waterfall is not suitable for complex, unpredictable projects with vaguely defined or rapidly changing requirements. It is also unfit for cutting-edge products with emerging, fast-evolving technologies involved.

How can business owners simplify waterfall for internal projects?

Business owners can simplify the waterfall by focusing only on essential documentation, keeping phases overlapping, getting regular user feedback, and having a cross-functional project team staying involved through all stages.

What are the alternatives to the waterfall methodology?

Some alternatives to waterfall include agile development, Scrum methodology, Lean software development, DevOps approach, as well as hybrid models that combine waterfall with iterative processes.

How can waterfall methodology be combined with agile?

Waterfall planning stages can provide the framework, within which agile sprints are carried out for development and testing. The requirements and design stages help define the product roadmap and backlogs for agile delivery.

In Summary

The waterfall methodology is a sequential, linear approach to managing projects that originated in the manufacturing and construction industries. It breaks a project into distinct stages that are completed in a predetermined order.

Understanding what waterfall methodology entails, both its advantages and disadvantages, allows business owners and managers to determine the right approach for their specific project and team. With its stage-wise progression and formal controls, the waterfall methodology, when used judiciously, can set up projects for success.



Related Stories

More From

Most Read


If you enjoyed this article,
why not join our newsletter?

We promise only quality content, tailored to suit what our readers like to see!