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Which IT Project Methodology? Waterfall – why and why not?


In a recent 'flyover' of IT Project Methodologies, I promised that I would return to each individually and assess their advantages and disadvantages. In this, the first in a series of posts, let's take a look at Waterfall. 

Waterfall. What Is It, When Should You Use It?

1970 was quite a year for firsts! The first jumbo jet to land in Britain, a Boeing 747, touched down at Heathrow Airport; the first Glastonbury Festival was held, as the Worthy Farm Pop Festival; eighteen years olds were allowed to vote in a UK General Election for the first time; and in a paper by Dr. Winston W. Royce, the phases of the Waterfall methodology were first formally published (although, like Glastonbury, it wasn't immediately called that!)

The Waterfall method has been the go-to approach for Project Teams throughout much of my career, but I am noticing that it is becoming less popular as teams opt for more agile models. It is, however, still relevant today and can bring you massive benefits.

Here’s what I wrote in my flyover post ...

Waterfall is among the "old faithful" methodologies, one that many Project Managers consider their default setting.

When Is It Most Effective? When your larger IT Project has crucial milestones and deadlines, and when tasks can be clearly defined & sequenced. Also useful for tame projects, i.e. projects that you've done before and expect to proceed in exactly the same way with no surprises.

A good non-IT comparison is house building! So, in house building, you to need to dig foundations and build walls before you “top off “. Also, you design the whole thing – from end to end - it would be a disaster if you didn’t know whether you were building a bungalow, house or an apartment.

What Is It? As the name suggests, Waterfall is a sequential methodology which progresses your project in a single downward direction that typically delivers at the end. Documentation is key to Waterfall success, the measure of this is often when a project manager leaves - how easily can his successor pick up the project? It is a fairly inflexible process but perfect, if your project doesn't need to be agile (if it does, I can think of at least one better alternative).   

I asked some IT Project contacts for their thoughts ...

What Advocates of Waterfall say

ORGANISATION - It forces you to be organised. "Waterfall methodology forces discipline on you and your project. If you struggle with structure, waterfall is the best model for nagging you into line."

GREAT FOR LESS STABLE TEAMS - It's great for more fluid teams. "Our projects team members come and go, the structured documenting that waterfall requires is ideal for incoming staff so that they can hit the ground running.

EASIER TO FOLLOW - Following on from the above, everyone knows just where in the life cycle of the project they are - at every stage. This allows project managers to be more organised and to keep the process flowing.   

MILES AHEAD FOR MILESTONES - Perfect for milestone and deadline driven projects. The linear structure of waterfall lends itself to projects and teams that are suited to ‘milestone led working’ due to the ease with which "a timeline for the whole project can be drawn and easily marked into stages. This adds clarity to the project that makes communication and understanding across the team fairly easy."

EARLY CHANGES - Great for projects which benefit from (or have a need for) design alterations early on in the process. Changes can easily be accommodated early on in the lifecycle (although, admittedly, it gets harder further on).

BETTER QUALITY OUTCOMES - Waterfall often delivers a better end product. Each stage of the waterfall process is effectively spent debugging, you don't move on until the stage you are working on is acceptable so if you follow that logically to the end conclusion you should finish up with a product that is perfect.

LESS NEED FOR MICROMANAGEMENT - The 'rules' of Waterfall sort of look after a lot of your management needs - you don't move on until you've completed each step. "It actually saves me time managing in the project because the rules are well established and understood which allows me time to work on the project, taking a helicopter view of the project rather than getting bogged down in little details.” 

What Waterfall's Detractors Say

CHANGES ARE DIFFICULT – Although it may accommodate early stage changes, because Waterfall is a set of sequential steps, once you have moved on, alterations to previous elements of the project are harder than with more agile solutions. Not impossible! We joke that one PM friend is so adept at swimming back upstream using waterfall he must have been a salmon in a previous life. The truth is that he has adapted Waterfall so it is almost a hybrid of Waterfall and Agile and the key is an awareness of how a retrospective change to a previous stage will affect successive stages and making a judgement call based upon that. Also, any changes that are made have to meticulously documented.

TRADITIONALLY, LATE TESTING MEANS ERRORS ARE FOUND LESS QUICKLY - Some Waterfall users, following a traditional template, say that late testing of a project means that problems are found later and are therefore harder to put right. The workaround for this, as hinted earlier, is to test at every stage before moving on.

LESS TRANSPARENT FOR STAKEHOLDERS - Waterfall is a bit of a closed shop! Waterfall is great for keeping your team up to date but those using it tend not to share progress with clients and stakeholders. One PM put it like this, "If you're building a house, when does it start to look like the house your client is imagining? Not when you dig the foundations, not when you lay the first bricks, it isn't until the late stages, when the roof goes on or you hang the doors and windows that it finally becomes a house. It's the same with Waterfall IT Projects, there's no point sharing meaningful information about your project until close to delivery, to do otherwise is like taking a builder showing their client the holes they've dug for the foundations and asking, 'What do you think of your house?' - waste of time."

The Waterfall methodology has attracted lovers and haters since day one. The fact that almost 50 years on we are still using it and other new methodologies have emerged over time to address its flaws suggests that it as relevant today as it ever was. Waterfall can be the perfect Project Management framework, it lends itself well to hybrid approaches and if you have a smaller team or your project is not prone to scope change it is probably the most effective process.

Like with actual waterfalls, if you get it right you have a lovely water feature that Ground Force’s Charlie Dimmock would have been proud off; get it wrong and you can have a messy flood on your hands. The more competent you are, the better the result you’ll get! As always, the Project Management Service market is geared to help with any capability gaps that you have.

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