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Agile basics

Waterfall methodology

by Simon Buehring
Learn what the waterfall methodology is, its background, principles, stages, benefits, limitations, and when it is best applied.
Waterfall Methodology | Waterfall Approach | agileKRC

Introduction to the waterfall methodology

In the world of project management and software development, the waterfall methodology is one of the oldest and most traditional models for managing complex projects. Its structured linear approach, which flows downwards through distinct phases like a waterfall, gives it its name.

This article aims to shed light on what the waterfall methodology is, its background, principles, stages, benefits, limitations, and when it is best applied.

Historical context of the waterfall model

The concept of the waterfall model was first introduced in a paper published in 1970 by Winston W. Royce, though he never actually used the term ‘waterfall’. The model he depicted included clear sequential stages, which later became synonymous with the waterfall methodology.

Originally conceived in the context of manufacturing and construction, which are highly sequential by nature, the model was quickly adopted by the software development industry. Since then, it has become a cornerstone of project management strategies, particularly in fields where changes are difficult or costly to implement once the project is underway.

Features of waterfall project management

At its heart, the waterfall methodology is underpinned by several core principles that delineate its structured approach:

Sequential design

The process is strictly linear, with each phase needing to be fully completed before the next begins. This sequential design reduces overlap and feedback loops between phases, creating clear-cut stages.

Detailed documentation

Documentation is heavily emphasized in the waterfall methodology. Each phase typically requires comprehensive documentation before proceeding, ensuring that every detail is recorded and approved.

Upfront planning

The waterfall model relies on extensive planning at the beginning of the project. All requirements and solutions are determined upfront, with little room for deviation once the project is initiated.

Design transferability

Given the thorough documentation and predefined stages, the project’s design and logic can be transferred between teams with relative ease, facilitating clear handovers.

Phases of the waterfall development process

A typical waterfall project is divided into the following sequential stages:


The first stage involves gathering and documenting all the system requirements. These become the foundation upon which the entire project is built.


Once the requirements are laid out, the project moves into the design phase, where the system’s architecture and specifications are created.


Developers then take the design documents and translate them into actual code, building the system’s features in accordance with the design.


Following implementation, the system is tested for defects and deviations from the requirements. This phase aims to ensure that the product meets all set criteria before deployment.


After verification, the product is delivered to the client. Maintenance then begins, covering any necessary updates, repairs, and patches.

Advantages of using the waterfall methodology

The waterfall methodology is renowned for several key advantages that make it suitable for certain types of projects:


With its linear approach, the waterfall model offers a high level of predictability in terms of budget, timeline, and resource allocation.


The clear separation of stages imposes discipline on team members and project managers, ensuring that each phase receives the necessary focus and is thoroughly reviewed before moving on.

Simplified management

The structure of the waterfall model makes it relatively simple to manage, as it reduces uncertainty and the need to revisit earlier phases.

Limitations of the waterfall model

While the waterfall methodology has its strengths, it also possesses some notable limitations:


Once a stage has been completed, it is often difficult and costly to go back and make changes. This inflexibility can be problematic if project requirements evolve.

Assumption of perfect input

The waterfall model assumes that all requirements can be gathered accurately at the beginning of the project, which is rarely the case in complex or innovative projects where requirements may change.

Late testing

Since testing occurs late in the process, any discovered issues can be expensive to fix, as they may require revisiting and revising earlier stages.

Ideal use cases for the waterfall methodology

Despite its limitations, the waterfall model is particularly well-suited to projects where:

  • Requirements are well-understood and unlikely to change.
  • The project is relatively simple or similar to past projects.
  • High-quality documentation is essential.
  • The regulatory environment dictates a sequential approach.

Industries like construction, aerospace, and defence frequently use the waterfall methodology due to these characteristics.


The waterfall methodology remains a popular project management tool, especially in industries and projects where change is minimal, and predictability is paramount. Its disciplined, linear approach is both a strength and a weakness, depending on the project’s nature and environment.

While it has been partially eclipsed by more flexible methodologies like Agile, particularly in software development, the waterfall model still holds significant value and is the best choice for certain types of projects. Understanding when and how to use the waterfall methodology effectively can be the key to a project’s success.

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