Using Waterfall Methodologies to Manage Creative Work

Traditional project management is most commonly known for using what’s called “waterfall” to approach work in phases. It’s a pretty common way of working, you start with an ask, then you work from the top phase down to complete the project. This approach works pretty well in a number of different fields where processes are repeated. It’s also easy to understand, you start with one step, then you go to the next when you are ready. 

We’ve used waterfall methodologies for decades, because it works, it’s not the most adaptable way of working, but when you have a lot of sets to get through with set deadlines it is a manageable way of working for most people.

At the core of the Waterfall methodology is the use of a detailed plan that is scheduled and executed sequentially till you get to your final delivery. Creative executions in traditional media where you worked towards a product launch date and a media plan complemented this way of working. Especially when you have short deadlines, and any missteps mean missing an important media date. The downside of Waterfall, is that if any one step gets held up (i.e. client approval or redo of a creative phase) it would wreck havoc on the big plan, forcing other phases to condense in time. 

Waterfall is built on dependencies — step A must be complete before step B can begin, and so on. This worked especially well in top-down cultures, like pharmaceutical advertising, where products had lengthy launch dates and required legal review for compliance.

Waterfall is also easy to teach, if you understand the creative phases of an agency, you can predict what you need to do in order to get to the next stage. In many ways, agency rituals were born out of this phased approach. The agency gets an RFP from a client, an agency response, the agency gets invited to pitch, the agency pitches 3 concepts, the agency wins, a contract gets negotiated, and so on.

As you can see, agency work can be pretty linear. Even digital agency’s can work in a linear format. 

The problem is, Waterfall has its limitations. The creative process (the way we think, or build on ideas) isn’t a very linear process. By default we got a bit lazy with out project management methodology thinking. Our whole way of billing clients became dependent on working in this fashion. Our staffs got a bit bloated in order to “manage the process.”

The biggest downside of waterfall came along when clients began to commodify the creative process and we went along for the ride. Client’s began to involve their procurement departments when negotiating, and they applied their manufacturing analysis of costs easily to the waterfall agency model. 

I’m not saying that switching to agile methods is going to make working with the evils of procurement any easier. What I am saying is that it is any easy way of thinking about and completing a project.

Waterfall is easily scopeable, when a client has a fixed cost and a fixed deliverable, we can work out what its going to cost because we know what resources we need to use and how long things are going to take.

If the client isn’t going to change the scope mid-stream, or the changes are manageable through a change request then waterfall is easy. It’s also easy to apply metrics to the profitability of the job, and find financial and project management software that is geared towards Waterfall.

The Waterfall methodology is best suited for projects that have a clear picture of the final product. It only works if clients don’t expect the opportunity to change the scope of the project after it has commenced and when the definition of the project, that detailed plan, is more important than adjusting a delivery date. Waterfall is also helpful when you have a lot of deliverables that depend on each other for completion (interdependencies). 

The Pros of working in Waterfall:

  • You can apply traditional project management thinking easily.
  • Works well for highly detailed projects.
  • When you need a lot of pre-planning to happen.
  • Limits client expectations, you get what you pay for.
  • Clear internal expectations for the team.
  • Set approvals, due-dates to work against.
  • Record-keeping and documentation is easy to manage.

The Cons of working in Waterfall:

  • Hard to switch what you are doing late in the game.
  • Earlier phases taking to much time impact the late phases
  • Results happen at the end of the project.
  • Testing happens late.
  • Very little room to change or address changes in the market.
  • Scopes work towards fixed requirements.

On a positive note, Waterfall can be adjusted so that phases work concurrently, and you can set specific deliverables and a way of working that clients get use to, limiting questioning when things go off the rails. The downside, like we said before is that the creative process (the way we think) doesn’t really gel with set deadlines.