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How relevant are waterfall project management methodologies in today’s modern project environment?


Abstract and Figures

This paper argues that waterfall project management methodologies are as relevant and applicable as agile methodologies, that it forms a cornerstone for understanding project management, and that they play a crucial role as an option in the modern project manager’s array of approaches when managing a project. This position is supported by a concise review of the evolution of the waterfall approach over the past decade, the rise of Agile and its associate pressure on the relevance of Waterfall, the evolving role of the modern project manager and the relevance of the PMBOK® as a guide to informing the modern project manager. The paper concludes with a review of the most current emerging trends and a short summary of findings.
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Position Paper:
How relevant are waterfall project
management methodologies in today’s
modern project environment?
(Partial requirement toward Master of Project Management, Charles Sturt University)
24 April 2017
Table of Contents
Introduction ......................................................................................................................................................... 1
The evolution of the traditional waterfall approach over the past decade ........................................................ 1
The rise of Agile and its associated pressure on the relevance of Waterfall ...................................................... 2
The evolving role of the modern project manager ............................................................................................. 3
The relevance of the PMBOK® as a guide to informing the modern project manager ....................................... 4
Emerging trends .................................................................................................................................................. 5
Conclusion ........................................................................................................................................................... 5
References ........................................................................................................................................................... 6
More than twenty years ago Cusumano and Smith produced a working paper titled Beyond the Waterfall:
Software Development at Microsoft’ where they described the now software giant’s view of traditional
waterfall project management methodology as ‘inadequate because it required too much structure’ (1995, p.
5). A short six years thereafter, the declaration of the ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’ in 2001
amplified, among others, the value of ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ (Beck et al, 2001),
officially ushering in the era of agile software development. Serrador and Pinto (2015, p. 1042) believe that it
is by addressing specific challenges that stem from dealing with fast changing and fluid environments that
agile methods have become increasingly popular in technology projects, to the point where the question begs:
“How relevant are waterfall project management methodologies in today’s modern project environment?”
Project management can (and should) apply to any project regardless of industry, type or size. This paper will
argue that waterfall project management methodologies are as relevant and applicable as agile
methodologies, that it forms a cornerstone for understanding project management, and that they play a
crucial role as an option in the modern project manager’s array of approaches when managing a project. (The
scope of this paper is not limited to any specific type of project or industry, and it refers to project management
in its entirety, unless specifically mentioned.)
The evolution of the traditional waterfall approach over the past decade
In 2004, the third edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)
described the project life cycle of a typical project to have phases that ‘are generally sequential and are usually
defined by some form of technical information transfer or technical component handoff’ (2004, p. 20) and
software development projects were specifically included (2004, p. 22) in this description of a traditional
waterfall life cycle. The pressure exerted by the then relatively recent publication of the agile manifesto on
this view is only visible in the acknowledgement that phases can and often do overlap as an example of ‘fast
tracking’ (2004, p. 20).
The rapid adoption of an agile approach to project management in especially the technology sectors leading
up to 2008 saw the PMBOK® Guide acknowledge this requirement of projects in ‘largely undefined, uncertain,
or rapidly changing environments’ to allow for an iterative phase-to-phase relationship in which phases are
planned one at a time, and the next phase is only planned for while work is progressing on the current phase
(2008, p. 22). One could argue that the PMBOK® Guide at this stage still supported a view that an agile
approach could somehow be considered a variant of the traditional waterfall life cycle.
In 2013, the PMBOK® Guide confirmed that the traditional waterfall project life cycle, referred to as ‘predictive
life cycles’ or ‘fully plan-driven’, is relevant and applicable to all projects where the project scope and the time
and cost associated in delivering that scope are determined and relatively stable at the earliest possible
opportunity (2013, p. 44). Predictive life cycles (traditional waterfall) are well suited where both the goal of
the project and the solution to the problem addressed by the project are known and clear (Wysocki, 2009, p.
301), as is the case with most infrastructure and construction projects, for example. (An email from the Project
Management Institute on 21 April 2017 stated that roughly 25,000 of PMI’s global community of over 450,000
members are working in the construction industry (Why do project managers become PMI members?, 2017,
p. 1) that is more than 5.5%.)
The above notion is further supported by the fact that the 2013 edition of the PMBOK® Guide clearly
distinguishes between predictive, iterative and incremental, and adaptive life cycles (2013, pp. 44-46). This is
an indication that the traditional waterfall approach is now considered to be a specific type of project life cycle
as opposed to being a ‘catch all’ that could not possibly meet the requirements of the entire modern project
Izak Wilhelmus van der Merwe Page 2 of 7
It can subsequently be argued that this view would support an opportunity to inject a new wave of research
and development that can focus more on a pure form of applying a predictive life cycle to a specific type of
project or project group.
Figure 1 The changing view of the project life cycle in different editions of the PMBOK® Guide. (Project Management Institute, 2004,
pp. 20,22) (2008, p. 22) (2013, pp. 44-46)
The rise of Agile and its associated pressure on the relevance of Waterfall
Serrador and Pinto cited Koontz who, in 1958, stated that ‘no effective manager makes a plan and then
proceeds to put it into effect regardless of what events occur’ and they agree with Hällgren and Maaninen-
Olsson that deviations in project plans are inevitable and should be addressed in methodologies that enable
the resolution of deviations instead of increasing sophisticated initial planning (2015, p. 1041).
Strode and Huff explained how agile methods have emerged in the 1990’s as ‘a reaction against existing
“heavyweight”’ approaches to software and systems development project management methodologies, and
how agile methods offered a contrasting “lightweight” method designed for supporting ‘flexible, rapid, and
effective development under conditions of change, uncertainty, and time pressure’ (2015, p. 66). Serrador
and Pinto furthermore cite Lindvall to confirm the increased popularity of agile methods in especially
technology projects due to their ability to ‘directly address the challenges so often confronted in dealing with
dynamic projects in changing environments (2015, p. 1042).
Initially, agile approaches were considered only successful when applied to small projects, but Fewell uses
several case studies to recommend the application of agile to large projects by following several best practices
like, for example, decomposing such projects into collections of small teams (2013).
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Considering the abovementioned rise of Agile as a preferred methodology there would be a substantial
amount of pressure on the relevance of Waterfall if only one method would be required as an exclusive
alternative to the other. It would therefore make sense to evaluate whether an exclusive approach is being
suggested in the PMBOK® Guide (2013).
Alvarez-Dionisi acknowledges that there are several software development methodologies, but confirms that
most companies consider only two kinds of methodologies, namely agile (lightweight) and traditional
(heavyweight) (2016, p. 40) and continues a discussion on the different identified agile frameworks as listed
in Table 1. He also confirms that even though the agile manifesto targets software projects, his paper applied
agile to both software and non-software project environments (2016, p. 49).
Table 1 Examples of Agile Frameworks (Alvarez-Dionisi, 2016, pp. 42-44)
Dynamic System Development Method
Adaptive Software Development
Crystal Family of Methodologies
Open Source Software Development
Feature Driven Development
Agile Modelling
Rational Unified Process
Pragmatic Programming
The fifth edition of the PMBOK® Guide (2013, pp. 44-46) supports three life cycle types, namely predictive,
iterative and incremental, and adaptive life cycles, but accepting that adaptive life cycles are considered a
special category of iterative and incremental methods (2013, p. 46), the PMBOK® Guide concurs with the idea
that there are conceptually only two kinds of methodologies: agile and traditional (waterfall). Agile is the
preferred method when confronted by a fluid and ‘rapidly changing environment, when requirements and
scope are difficult to define in advance’ and when the work can be arranged in small value adding incremental
improvements (2013, p. 46), while the traditional method is preferred when ‘the product to be delivered is
well understood, there is a substantial base of industry practice’ or where the product needs to be produced
in full in order to produce value to the stakeholders (2013, p. 45).
One can thus reason that the emphasis has shifted away from an argument about “which methodology is right
and which is wrong” towards the consideration of “which methodology is right for which project, including
hybrid approaches that span both methods, effectively removing the pressure on the relevance of Waterfall
as an exclusive option only.
The evolving role of the modern project manager
Dalcher (2016, p. 22) emphasises the importance of project management in the modern organisation when
stating that many organisations are recognising project management as a key competence in that it provides
the discipline and framework needed to assist them in transforming their operations and service performance.
It is considered core to delivering change in the form of achieved desired outcomes with associated benefits.
According to Görög, academics and practitioners agree that organisations use projects to implement beneficial
changes implied in their strategic objectives. He argues that the current turbulent operational environment
requires a strategic approach to projects, which in turn implies the implementation of a portfolio of projects
and programs (2016, p. 1658). This is confirmed by Midler et al who consider the drivers of innovation in
organisations to be the same drivers that support the growing application of project structures for an
increasingly broad spectrum of activities, and they claim that ‘innovation activities are almost always
conducted within a project framework’ (2016, p. 3).
The alignment between strategic benefit management, innovation management and project management is
extended to include general management by Leybourne et al in a paper to answer the question “Is project
Izak Wilhelmus van der Merwe Page 4 of 7
management the new management 2.0?” (2012). They refer to McDonald who identified six forces that are
responsible for ‘redefining the future of modern management’, and confirm strong and robust correlations
between these forces and project management. Their paper shows how these forces are inherent in ‘the
project management way of doing business’ and by considering them as a whole, shed some light on a possible
change in perception of project management in the future. Most significantly, they identified the following
overarching themes: Flexibility in dealing with personnel, globalization, the rise of values, and change.
Leybourne et al also express the need for project managers to develop management approaches based on
trust, commitment, and the development of a cadre of motivated individuals and team members’ and
continue to suggest that there is a clear trend away from “command and control” toward the creation of a
climate where individuals and teams can apply self-control over work design and achieving agreed
deliverables. They consider project management to be more about managing behaviours than managing
process (2012).
To embrace this new and challenging role, no project manager can afford to lock themselves into a single life
cycle methodology. The modern project manager needs to be skilled in the principles of both traditional
waterfall and agile methodologies with a strong ability to adapt between and adopt either, including any
combination of hybrid approaches, as required by the type of project they are faced with.
The relevance of the PMBOK® as a guide to informing the modern project
As previously illustrated, the PMBOK® Guide 5th edition (2013) shows that both traditional (waterfall) and agile
project life cycle methodologies are included in the array of possible approaches to a specific project. The
remainder of this section will largely focus on the addition of a tenth knowledge area, Project Stakeholder
Management (2013, pp. 391-415) to inform the increased emphasis on team and stakeholder interaction as
part of the role of the modern project manager, as discussed above.
In addition to the changes in the project management role above, Deguire confirms that modern trends like
the client-centric approach to project management contributed to the inclusion of Stakeholder Management
(2014). (Note: He makes a clear distinction between shareholders and stakeholders and believes the strong
legacy from the shareholder approach has been detrimental to stakeholder engagement.)
Deguire explains that the word ‘engagement’ means ‘more than simple communication’, that it implies an
‘emotional bond’ or ‘attachment’ both internal and external stakeholders experience during ‘repeated,
ongoing (preferably positive) interactions within the business’ (2014). The PMBOK® Guide supports this
thinking and informs that, apart from identifying the stakeholders, Project Stakeholder Management is about
analysing stakeholder expectations and developing ways to effectively engage them in project decisions and
execution. It is about continuous communication with stakeholders and attempting to understand their needs
and expectations. Above all, stakeholder satisfaction should be considered a key project objective (2013, p.
According to Deguire, the knowledge and skills required for enhancing stakeholder engagement were
previously considered those of organisational psychologists and he explains how stakeholder management,
and in particular stakeholder engagement, has progressively become more emphasised and integrated into
different editions of the PMBOK® Guide to the point where the latest edition includes a new knowledge area
entirely dedicated to the topic (2013). The processes associated with Project Stakeholder Management as
depicted in the PMBOK® Guide (2013, pp. 393-415) provide a relevant and very applicable guide to assist the
project manager in navigating this challenging new aspect of modern project management.
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Emerging trends
As previously stated, this paper argues that traditional waterfall project management methodologies are as
relevant as agile methods, and has also mentioned that a hybrid approach could be applicable depending on
the project in question. This section will continue to analyse some emerging trends regarding the success of
agile and hybrid approaches.
Despite the hype surrounding agile methodologies, there has not been many large-scale, empirical studies to
support the claim that Agile methods can improve the chances of project success (Serrador & Pinto, 2015, p.
1040). Serrador and Pinto used a data sample of 1002 international and multi-industrial projects to test the
effect of Agile use on efficiency and overall stakeholder satisfaction against organisational goals and found
that Agile methods did indeed have a positive impact on both dimensions. Their findings also suggest that
agile methods were more successful in high technology, healthcare and professional service projects (2015, p.
Conforto and Amaral performed an empirical analysis of a hybrid approach combining agile project
management and stage-gate model to managing a technology project (2016, p. 1) and they found that this
hybrid approach not only succeeded, but also contributed positively to factors like information accuracy,
commitment and leadership (2016, p. 12). In addition, they added that some ‘critical factors or potential
enablers cannot be overestimated’. These enablers refer specifically to the analysis and understanding of
characteristics specific to the organisation, project and team and they believe these would play a significant
role in the success of a project.
Finally, Singhto and Phakdee produced a report on their study in combining Scrum and Waterfall
methodologies to develop a set of Software as a Service solutions (2016, p. 1). Their findings and experiences
were overwhelmingly positive and they found that the waterfall method allowed for early issue identification
due to its linear approach, while the Scrum method was more flexible, allowing for an enhanced customer
(stakeholder) engagement experience (2016, p. 6). The combination of these methods seemed to combine
the best of both worlds.
In conclusion, the above references in the context of the rest of this paper, support the notion that waterfall,
agile and hybrid methodologies are equally relevant in today’s modern project environment, and can be
equally successful when applied to specific projects that are better suited to align with and require the
strengths that each approach will bring to that project. It is very important that each project needs to be
analysed early in the process to ensure the best approach is chosen and applied. The required analysis should
include a range of project characteristics, but also those relative to the organisation, project team and other
stakeholders related to the project. When considering how the project methodology should be chosen or
designed for a specific project, Špundak concludes that ‘the challenge is to define which project characteristics
are important for that decision’ (2014, p. 946). Further study might aim to provide some guidance relating to
the analysis that needs to be applied to enable the choice of and design of the best methodology.
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Manifesto for Agile Software Development
  • Beck
Beck et al. (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Retrieved April 2017, from