What Is The Waterfall Model? Waterfall Model In A Nutshell

The waterfall model was first described by Herbert D. Benington in 1956 during a presentation about the software used in radar imaging during the Cold War. Since there were no knowledge-based, creative software development strategies at the time, the waterfall method became standard practice. The waterfall model is a linear and sequential project management framework. 

Understanding the waterfall model

Fourteen years later, American computer scientist Winston Walker Royce published the first formal diagram of the process which would later become known as the waterfall model. Royce suggested that Benington’s model was flawed because testing only happened at the end of the process. To address potential sources of failure and mitigate risk, he introduced five steps where progress flows from the top to the bottom like a waterfall.

As significant as the contributions of Bennington and Royce were, it is important to note that neither used the term waterfall to describe their work. That distinction goes to Bell and Thayer, who mentioned the term in a 1976 paper titled Software Requirements: Are They Really A Problem?

Despite the recent popularity of more iterative agile methods, the waterfall method is still relevant today – particularly for large internal projects that do not benefit from rapid customer feedback or the strict control of materials or distribution. Furthermore, the model is relatively easy to implement and manage and follows the same sequential steps for each project. With start and end points clearly defined, project risks, deadlines, and progress are easily communicated to the relevant stakeholders. 

The seven phases of the waterfall model

The number and indeed the nature of waterfall model phases varies according to the particular interpretation, business, or industry.

Regardless of the context, each phase in the model is completely dependent on the previous one and must be completed, reviewed, and approved before the next phase can begin.

The seven phases, with a particular focus on software development, include:

  1. Conception – the first phase starts with an idea and a baseline assessment of the project and its costs and benefits.
  2. Initiation – with the project defined, the objectives, purpose, scope, and deliverables must also be defined by assembling the project team.
  3. Requirement analysis – here, the team identifies project requirements and stakeholder expectations by gathering information from surveys, questionnaires, and brainstorming, among other methods. Before moving to the next phase, project requirements must be documented and distributed to each member of the team.
  4. System design – requirements are then analyzed and a system design is prepared, with many companies using a Gantt chart to create a schedule. Some businesses choose to divide system design into two phases: logical design and physical design. Logical design involves brainstorming possible solutions, while physical design involves transforming the brainstormed ideas into concrete specifications. While no coding should occur during software development, the team may establish hardware requirements or a programming language.
  5. Implementation – here, programmers use the requirements and specifications to create a functional product. Team members are assigned specific tasks which are monitored and tracked to avoid bottlenecks. Progress is also regularly reported to stakeholders. Lastly, code is typically written in small pieces in preparation for the next phase.
  6. Testing – the code is then tested methodically for errors before the product is delivered to the customer. User acceptance tests can be incorporated during this phase, where users try the product before it is released to the general public. During the latter stages of the testing phase, any freelance contractors are paid out and a project template is created for use in similar future projects. 
  7. Maintenance – in the final phase, customers report additional, real-world usage issues. Based on this feedback, the core project team works to solve problems and modify the software where necessary. Significant issues may force the team to return to phase three and repeat the process.

Key takeaways:

  • The waterfall model is a linear and sequential project management framework. The waterfall model concept was first described by Herbert D. Benington during a presentation about the software used in radar imaging.
  • The waterfall model is still relevant today and is particularly useful for large internal projects that do not benefit from rapid customer feedback or the strict control of materials.
  • The waterfall model is comprised of seven phases: conception, initiation, requirements analysis, system design, implementation, testing, and maintenance. Each phase must be completed, reviewed, and approved before the next phase can begin.

Other Time Management Frameworks

Lightning Decision Jam

The theory was developed by psychologist Edwin Locke who also has a background in motivation and leadership research. Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation provides a framework for setting effective and motivating goals. Locke was able to demonstrate that goal setting was linked to performance.


Timeboxing is a simple yet powerful time-management technique for improving productivity. Timeboxing describes the process of proactively scheduling a block of time to spend on a task in the future. It was first described by author James Martin in a book about agile software development.


A SMART goal is any goal with a carefully planned, concise, and trackable objective. Be such a goal needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Bringing structure and trackability to goal setting increases the chances goals will be achieved, and it helps align the organization around those goals.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique was created by Italian business consultant Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system where work is performed in 25-minute intervals.

Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool that helps businesses prioritize tasks based on their urgency and importance, named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States from 1953 to 1961, the matrix helps businesses and individuals differentiate between the urgent and important to prevent urgent things (seemingly useful in the short-term) cannibalize important things (critical for long-term success).

MoSCoW Method

Prioritization plays a crucial role in every business. In an ideal world, businesses have enough time and resources to complete every task within a project satisfactorily. The MoSCoW method is a task prioritization framework. It is most effective in situations where many tasks must be prioritized into an actionable to-do list. The framework is based on four main categories that give it the name: Must have (M), Should have (S), Could have (C), and Won’t have (W).

Action Priority Matrix

An action priority matrix is a productivity tool that helps businesses prioritize certain tasks and objectives over others. The matrix itself is represented by four quadrants on a typical cartesian graph. These quadrants are plotted against the effort required to complete a task (x-axis) and the impact (benefit) that each task brings once completed (y-axis). This matrix helps assess what projects need to be undertaken and the potential impact for each.

Read Next: Business AnalysisCompetitor Analysis, Continuous InnovationAgile MethodologyLean StartupBusiness Model InnovationProject Management.

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