When to Use Waterfall Model and When Not?


7 min read

When to Use Waterfall Model and When Not?

The Waterfall model has a lot of benefits that can greatly benefit some businesses. While it’s not a one-size-fits-all model, it certainly has its well-deserved place under the sun. Despite its simplicity, it has proven reliable over the long term.

What is a Waterfall Model?

Of all the project management models, Waterfall is the oldest and perhaps the most straightforward.

It follows a linear, step-by-step model that is both logical and intuitive. While we will talk about software development here, this model has been around much longer than that. The earliest building projects used a Waterfall methodology, although builders weren’t aware of the title. Waterfall uses a number of stages, each of which must be completed before starting the next one. The first stages concentrate on detailed planning. This includes looking at the requirements of the project, as well as creating the action plan and the design of the project. Waterfall then moves to the implementation, the actual coding before testing, QA, and feedback from client and end-users. The final stage is the release and, in certain cases, the management, support, and maintenance.

There are slightly different Waterfall variations, but the principles remain constant. Waterfall fall is still popular today in many industries and is seeing a resurgence of popularity in the IT field.

What are the alternatives to Waterfall?

The main project management “rival” to Waterfall is the Agile Methodology. We have already mentioned the difference between Agile and Waterfall.  Agile comes in many shapes and sizes, such as Kanban, Scrum, and Xtreme Programming. The difference is that Agile plans the project through stages that are broken down into separate work processes. Each process produces in itself a working piece of the overall puzzle. This means that, in theory, the project management is much more flexible and adaptable, even once the project has started. There is an overall vision, but this picture can change significantly from the original one.

The difference between an original version and a result, plus a potential scope creep, make the Waterfall method still relevant to this day, despite its flaws.

When is Waterfall the best option?

Rules & Regulations

Waterfall works well when there are fixed rules and regulations for the project. It means the requirements are usually also fixed. There are likely to be little or no changes made from the original plan. For this reason, Waterfall has been well and widely adopted in the fields of construction, healthcare, as well as software development. The scope and requirements are all well documented.

Established structured organization

In a very similar way to the external rules and regulations, Waterfall works very well when the internal organization is highly structured and organized. The step-by-step process lends itself perfectly to many businesses, as does the strong emphasis on detailed forward-planning. A business with well-defined roles between managers and employees and strong top-down leadership suits Waterfall.

Clear, fixed requirements, and stability

Waterfall doesn’t suit changes once the project is underway. For this reason, Waterfall works best when the requirements of the project are clear and well-defined from the start. These requirements should be unlikely to change in any significant way. The project can follow the original agreed plan without any distractions or serious additions.

Defined timelines

The focus on the initial detailed planning and the lack of potential changes along the way in the Waterfall model means this method should fit well with timelines and meet deadlines. It is based on predictable outcomes.

Budget limitations in place

Planning at the beginning makes for more predictable budgets and lower costs at the end of the day. Important stakeholders can calculate the expenses ahead of project execution, meaning both parties are aware of how much it will cost in the end.

Limited product owner involvement

In Waterfall, once the initial planning and requirements phase has been put in place, the product owner can leave the processes and implementation up to the team involved. Of course, the project owner can be more involved, especially at vital milestones and for reviews, approvals, and status meetings. However, involvement on a daily basis isn’t necessary.

Small teams with employees assigned to multiple projects

In Waterfall, good organization means that your employees can be working on numerous projects at the same time. The only workers you need on the project are the ones working on the actual active phase of development. Therefore, the ones not required can get on with other work and be more productive.

When is Waterfall NOT the best option?

In short, when the above factors aren’t in place,  then Waterfall might not be the perfect project management solution. You may need to go down a more Agile route.

If your project requires additional flexibility, or you are dealing with a client who doesn’t have a clear vision of what they want, you’d better stick with Agile, Kanban, or Scrum. It’s considered good practice to apply the Waterfall model with clients that you have worked with before, as one of the biggest risks of this model is the potential negative feedback at the end.

Last but not least – even if it sounds tempting to pick Waterfall if you’re about to face a complex project or you’re trying a new tech stack, you’d better avoid sacrificing your flexibility.

Waterfall Model use cases

We’ve already mentioned when and when not to use Waterfall. But let’s see when Waterfall is still preferred to the newer models.

  • Small agencies – small software agencies can benefit greatly from Waterfall, as it gives them “breathing” room.
  • Government works – it’s nearly impossible to find an Agile government project, as it might become a money pit. Since there is a fixed allocated budget more often than not, Waterfall is the only good option.
  • Small projects – if there isn’t a huge project on the line, agencies can save nerves, and clients can escape responsibility and daily communication that eats up time.
  • Working with trusted partners – some agencies work with the same clients for years and they know what to expect in advance. If that’s the case, applying the Waterfall model might be a great choice.
  • Following a pattern – regardless of size, if a project follows a pattern (for example, a standard accounting software), Waterfall can do the job perfectly.


It is fair to say that Waterfall has largely been overtaken by the more flexible Agile methods in more recent years. As far as software development is concerned. The claim that the linear approach lacks the more modern needs of flexibility and nimbleness, particularly in complex projects, is common. There is a trend for creative, cross-functional teams working together with an emphasis on the results and having something to show.

However, Waterfall still lives. Some businesses can see advantages in a simple, logical, carefully-planned approach without the risk of “agile chaos.” Where they can plan resources, predict timeframes and estimates, and get on with the work without a client’s constant input. Additionally, some employees enjoy the structured process too. Not all workers want the responsibility, freedom, and collaborative approach that Agile pushes.  Some are happy to be managed, to know what they have to do, by when, and with whom. Clients don’t necessarily wish to be involved so much. Many are happy to pass on the responsibility and wait for the final outcome.

And one of the biggest disadvantages of the Waterfall model is arguably its main competitive advantage – simplicity. To have an easy-to-understand workflow in such a dynamic world can sometimes be a major relief!

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stay on top of your communication game

Customer stories, tips, and our opinions on everything in between - all in one place