Waterfall Roadmap: Explanation and Guide
Waterfall roadmaps help you plan out your product development in a linear, sequential way. Here’s what they are and how to make one.
Waterfall roadmaps have one of the most creative names in the product roadmapping world, especially given they’re so straightforward. They’re literally just a sequential plan for what you’re going to build in order.
Waterfall roadmaps have fallen out of favour as software development has moved towards more agile frameworks.
Still, it can be useful in the right circumstances.
In this article, I’ll describe what waterfall roadmaps are, their pros, cons, and how to best make one.
Waterfall roadmaps TL;DR
Waterfall roadmaps are product development planning documents that follow a sequential approach, with progress flowing from one phase to the next.
Pros of waterfall roadmaps include clear planning, defined phases, and a structured approach that suits projects with fixed scopes and timelines.
Cons of waterfall roadmaps include limited flexibility, challenges in adapting to changing priorities, and a lack of opportunity for iteration and feedback.
While effective for certain projects, the rigidity of waterfall roadmaps may not be suitable for those requiring adaptability and continuous improvement.
What is a waterfall roadmap?
Waterfall roadmaps are planning tools that follow the traditional sequential approach to product development. The name "waterfall" is used to reflect how progress flows steadily downward, moving from one phase to the next in a linear fashion. Appropriately, in a waterfall roadmap, features, tasks, and milestones occur in a logical, sequential order.
Key features of waterfall roadmaps include:
Sequential phases. Waterfall roadmaps typically consist of distinct phases, such as requirements gathering, design, development, testing, and deployment. Each phase has its set of tasks and deliverables, and progress moves from one phase to the next in a predetermined order.
Linear progression. Tasks and activities within each phase are completed before moving on to the next phase. There is little room for iteration or revisiting previous phases once they are completed.
Fixed scope and timeline. Waterfall roadmaps often assume a fixed scope and predetermined timeline. The scope and requirements of the project are defined upfront, and any changes to the scope are generally discouraged or require a formal change management process.
Emphasis on planning. Waterfall roadmaps are typically built on top of thorough planning and documentation. Detailed requirements, designs, and project plans are established in advance to guide the project's execution.
Limited flexibility. Waterfall roadmaps offer limited flexibility for changing priorities or responding to unexpected challenges. Once a priority is chosen, it’s hard to substitute in new features or initiatives.
Visual representation. Waterfall roadmaps are often presented visually, using timeline charts or Gantt charts, to represent the sequential order of tasks and phases.
Examples of a waterfall roadmap
What does a waterfall roadmap look like? Here are some examples.
Example 1: Waterfall product roadmap
Here’s an example of a waterfall roadmap. You can see that each step in the product development process leads into the other linearly.
An example of a waterfall roadmap. Source.
Example 2: Waterfall product roadmap in Savio
Here’s another example of a waterfall roadmap, this time built in Savio. This one is structured as a Kanban-style board, but it fits the waterfall structure because each feature is approached sequentially.
Here’s another waterfall roadmap example built in Savio. Notice that it also displays customer feedback data, like the number of feature requests and cumulative MRR.
Get started: Try Savio roadmaps for free
Is a waterfall roadmap right for you?
Waterfall roadmaps can be useful, but they may not be right for every team. Here are some things to consider when deciding whether to use one.
Here are some pros of waterfall roadmaps:
Clear planning. Waterfall roadmaps emphasize thorough planning and documentation. This helps stakeholders understand the project scope, objectives, and dependencies, leading to a clear and well-defined roadmap.
Defined phases. The sequential nature of waterfall roadmaps ensures that tasks and activities are organized into distinct phases. This structure provides a clear roadmap for project teams, allowing them to focus on one phase at a time.
Structured approach. Waterfall roadmaps offer a structured approach to project management. Each phase is completed before moving on to the next, promoting a logical flow of work and reducing the risk of overlapping tasks.
Deadline-oriented. Waterfall roadmaps are effective when the project has a well-defined scope and predetermined timelines. They are particularly useful for projects with fixed deliverables or regulatory requirements that must be met within specific timeframes.
Stakeholder communication. Waterfall roadmaps can be valuable communication tools for stakeholders. The clear phases and milestones make it easier to update stakeholders on progress and manage their expectations.
While waterfall roadmaps can be useful to some teams, they also have some significant disadvantages:
Limited flexibility. Waterfall roadmaps lack flexibility and adaptability. Once a phase is completed, it is challenging to make changes or incorporate new requirements without disrupting the planned progression. This rigidity can hinder responsiveness to changing needs or market conditions.
Challenges in changing priorities. Waterfall roadmaps assume fixed priorities from the outset. Shifting priorities or changing requirements during the course of the project can be difficult to accommodate, potentially leading to delays or rework.
Lack of iteration and feedback. Waterfall roadmaps follow a linear progression, with little opportunity for iteration or feedback loops. This can result in limited opportunities to incorporate lessons learned or make improvements based on early results or stakeholder feedback.
Delayed risk identification. Risks and issues may only surface in the later stages of a project, making it challenging to address them early on. The linear nature of waterfall roadmaps may delay the identification and mitigation of potential risks until it is too late to make significant adjustments.
Longer time-to-market. Waterfall roadmaps can result in longer time-to-market compared to more iterative approaches. The sequential nature of the roadmap means that each phase must be completed before proceeding to the next, potentially lengthening product timelines.
It's important to carefully consider these cons when deciding on the most appropriate roadmap approach for a project. Depending on the project's characteristics and requirements, alternative methodologies such as Agile or hybrid approaches may be better suited to address these limitations.
When to use a waterfall approach and roadmap
While waterfall roadmaps have some limitations, there are specific situations where they can be suitable and effective. Here are some scenarios where using a waterfall roadmap may make sense:
Well-defined and stable requirements. If the product has well-defined and stable requirements upfront, with minimal expected changes throughout the development process, the waterfall approach can work well. This is common in projects where the scope is clear and agreed upon from the beginning.
Predictable and repeatable processes. When product development follows established processes and practices with predictable outcomes, the waterfall approach can be effective. This is often the case in industries with strict regulations or standards where a systematic and controlled development process is required.
Client or stakeholder preference. In some cases, clients or stakeholders may have a strong preference for a waterfall approach due to familiarity or specific contractual requirements. If your exec team is more comfortable with a sequential and phased development process, adopting a waterfall roadmap can help meet their expectations.
Even in these situations, organizations may still adopt hybrid approaches or incorporate elements of agility to address certain limitations of the waterfall model, such as building feedback and flexibility into the development process.
How to make a waterfall roadmap
Creating a waterfall roadmap involves several steps to ensure a systematic and organized approach. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you create one:
(For more detailed advice and tips, check out our How to Create a Roadmap article.
Step 1: Define the project scope and objectives
Clearly articulate the scope and objectives of the project and the product vision. Understand the desired outcome and what needs to be achieved.
Step 2: Break down the product development into phases
Identify the major features, phases, or stages required to complete the project. These phases should follow a sequential order, with each phase or feature building upon the completion of the previous one.
Step 3: Determine deliverables and milestones
Define the specific deliverables and milestones for each phase. These could be tangible outputs, key documents, or significant achievements that mark the progress and completion of a phase.
Step 4: Establish dependencies
Identify dependencies between phases and deliverables. Determine which tasks or deliverables are reliant on the completion of previous tasks or milestones.
Step 5: Assign resources and timelines
Allocate resources, such as team members, equipment, or materials, to each phase. Establish estimated timelines for completing each phase and associated deliverables. Consider the availability of resources and any constraints that may impact the project schedule.
Step 5: Document your roadmap
Use a tool or platform that allows you to visually represent your roadmap. This could be a specialized product roadmapping software tool like Savio, or something simpler like a spreadsheet or diagram in Google Sheets or Excel.
How you make the roadmap is not so important. What’s important is that it’s easy to understand and accessible to stakeholders.
Step 6: Communicate and iterate
Regularly communicate progress, milestones, and any changes to stakeholders throughout the project. Although the waterfall approach is sequential, it's still important to engage stakeholders and provide updates to maintain transparency and manage expectations.
Get started: Begin your waterfall roadmap in Savio—try it for free.
Remember that the waterfall approach is based on upfront planning and sequential execution of phases. However, it's crucial to remain flexible and adapt to unforeseen circumstances or changes that may arise during the project. Regularly assess the project's progress and evaluate if adjustments are needed to the roadmap to ensure its success.
Other roadmap types to consider
Not yet decided on waterfall roadmaps? Here are some of the alternatives you can choose instead.
Roadmap types by what information is displayed
Roadmap types by workflow framework
Roadmap type by design style
Kareem is a co-founder at Savio. He's been prioritizing customer feedback professionally since 2001. He likes tea and tea snacks, and dislikes refraining from eating lots of tea snacks.
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