Ask Yourself: Is Waterfall the Best Method for Your Project?

It is widely accepted that the Waterfall method of software development is outdated, considering the complex and ever-changing nature of modern projects. I am cognizant of this fact, as well as the fact that this method was predominant in the 1990s.

I believe that the Agile approach is the most beneficial when it comes to software programming. Its focus on simplicity and efficiency is highly commendable, and I have seen excellent results when a competent Scrum Master is at the helm. Therefore, I do not feel the need to draw comparisons or criticize Agile.

Agile was developed in response to the Waterfall approach, which was widely seen as the definitive method for software development. This was because project managers were not taking into account the fact that the Waterfall approach was only suitable for addressing particular situations.

At the time, Waterfall was an effective way of introducing structure to the otherwise chaotic process of developing large-scale software. Whilst it wasn’t a perfect solution, it worked well enough to become the standard process for some time. Even after all these years, Waterfall remains a popular approach.

A recent poll conducted by the Project Management Institute highlighted that, in 2023, 37% of completed projects utilized Waterfall as their preferred project management technique. When combined with the 20% of projects that employed hybrid techniques, it is clear that nearly half of the projects studied made use of Waterfall in some capacity, demonstrating it is far from being a fading technology.

The query then arises as to whether it is advisable to follow the conventional approach and utilize the Waterfall method. To phrase it differently, if the answer was straightforward then we would not be in this position.

Explaining Waterfall Methodologies

Waterfall is a method for developing software that follows a sequential and discrete process. This process begins with the gathering of requirements and culminates with the delivery of the project and its subsequent upkeep. The team must adhere to a set of predetermined stages to ensure successful completion.

The stages form a sequence which must be followed in a specific order, similar to the flow of a waterfall, and as such we refer to this process as sequential. It is not possible to bypass, circumvent or rush through this process.

In a discrete process, each step is independent and must be completed before the next can begin. Testing cannot be initiated until the system design and development are finalized.

While there is some variance, the following phases are common to most Waterfall structures:

Collecting needs: The team undertakes research to gain an in-depth understanding of the project’s context, including the features to be included, the data types to be utilized and the deployment settings.

System Design: The group decides on a course of action and makes strategic choices, such which technology will be deployed.

Implementation: The team begins working on the project based on their design decisions.

Testing: The team runs a prototype of the product and checks for flaws or problems.

Delivery/deployment: The project is completed and handed over to the customer.

Maintenance: Users who encounter issues may contact the team for assistance, and any reported issues will be addressed.

It is important to remember that whilst there is a certain level of rigidity to the process, there is some room for flexibility. For instance, the team may need to return to the system design phase to re-evaluate their approach, or continue on the project in the implementation phase if any mistakes are discovered during testing. We should strive to minimize the amount of retracing required.

Structures that use water fall methods and you

It is important to gain an understanding of the advantages of Waterfall and the types of problems it is most successful in solving before determining if it is the correct solution for you.

Although the rigid structure of waterfall approaches may be difficult for developers to work with, it can be more easily understood by customers and colleagues from other areas. For example, a budget can be more easily justified when there is a clear end point and timeframe.

Therefore, the Waterfall approach is often more appealing for those outside of the project who need to secure external funding, gain approval from other divisions, or consider potential unforeseen impacts in other areas. It appears more efficient and its objectives are easier to explain.

Waterfall frameworks encourage teams to stick to the initial plan by ensuring that requirements are identified at the start of the process and remain consistent throughout.

Having a concentrated approach can be highly advantageous for smaller projects and teams. This ultimately leads to projects being completed in a timelier manner and developers avoiding investing time and resources into superfluous features. If the team is small and the projects are regular, Waterfall could be the most suitable structure.

It is to be expected that Waterfall, with its rigorous structure, places a strong emphasis on clear communication throughout the entire process.

The well-documented procedures facilitate communication between the various groups involved in the different stages of development. Furthermore, new members of the team can use the records to quickly gain an understanding of the project.

Waterfall offers a helpful foundation for communication whether you anticipate a change in your team composition or wind up adding new members.

It can be challenging to predict how a team will interact, which means that new teams often struggle to form strong connections and work together efficiently. At the start of a project, structured frameworks such as Waterfall can be beneficial in helping to establish working practices and facilitate teamwork.

Moreover, not all project managers are equipped to handle the additional administrative tasks that come with an Agile approach. Agile takes a different approach to project management than is typically seen.

Unless your manager has a good understanding of agile or your team has a project manager who is not from a software development background, Waterfall could be a simpler technique to learn and manage for someone who is new to the process.

It is not reasonable to assume that one approach can be used to address all potential issues; every project is unique and therefore requires an individualized solution.

Careful consideration should be taken when selecting the correct software development technique in order to diagnose the issue at hand effectively, regardless of its popularity.

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