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Originally published July 14, 2019. Updated with current & new info on April 25, 2022.
What are project management methodologies? A project management methodology is essentially a set of guiding principles and processes for managing a project. Your choice of methodology defines how you work and communicate.
So how do you choose a project management methodology?
What methodology you choose will depend on your team, project type, and project scope. Choosing project management methodologies (PMM) is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make as a project manager.
What methodology you pick will have a profound and ongoing impact on how you and your team works. Different project management methodologies have their own pros and cons for different project types. Some are geared for speed, some for comprehensiveness.
In this article, I’ll give you a complete overview of different PMMs and how to choose them.
On paper, PM methodologies are tool agnostic, i.e. you should be able to use any methodology regardless of what PM tool you use.
In reality, most project management tools are specialized to use a handful of methodologies. This will be a factor in what methodology you eventually choose to use.
The question now is: what are the different types of project management methodologies? What are their advantages and disadvantages? What kind of projects are they best suited for?
Below, I’ll take a look at 9 of the most popular project management methodologies.
The Waterfall methodology is the oldest methodology on this list. It was first outlined by Dr. Winston Royce in 1970 as a response to managing the increasingly complex nature of software development. Since then, it has become widely adopted, most prominently in the software industry.
The Waterfall methodology is sequential. It is also heavily requirements-focused. You need to have a crystal clear idea of what the project demands before proceeding further. There is no scope for correction once the project is underway.
The Waterfall method is divided into discrete stages. You start by collecting and analyzing requirements, designing the solution (and your approach), implementing the solution and fixing issues, if any.
Each stage in this process is self-contained; you wrap up one stage before moving onto another.
Graphically, you can represent it as follows:
The above is from a software development perspective. Individual stages would be different for creative project management, but the approach remains the same.
As Mike Wang, our Director of Training and Support, mentioned earlier:
“One of the driving factors behind waterfall management is that by investing time in the early stages of a project, managers ensure design needs and other requirements have been met—thus saving the time and effort generally associated with retroactively correcting problems”
Thus, the Waterfall method has several advantages, such as:
The Waterfall methodology is most commonly used in software development. It works best for the following project types:
Agile, another software development-focused PM methodology, emerged as a response to the failure of Waterfall method for managing complex projects. Although Agile PM ideas had been in use in the software industry for quite a while, it formally came into being in 2001 when several IT representatives released the "Agile Manifesto"
In approach and ideology, Agile is the opposite of the Waterfall method. As the name implies, this method favors a fast and flexible approach (here's one way to understand Agile as explained to kids). There is no top-heavy requirements-gathering. Rather, it is iterative with small incremental changes that respond to changing requirements.
Graphically, it can be represented as follows:
The flexibility of the Agile approach means that you can adapt it to different types of projects.
That said, this methodology works best for:
The Hybrid approach, as the name implies, is a combination of the Waterfall and Agile methodologies. It takes the best parts of both Waterfall and Agile and combines them in a flexible yet structured approach that can be used across different projects.
The Hybrid methodology focuses on gathering and analyzing requirements initially - a nod to the Waterfall method. From thereon, it takes the flexibility of Agile approach with an emphasis on rapid iterations.
By combining attributes of Waterfall and Agile, the Hybrid method (sometimes called "Structured Agile") gives you the best of both worlds.
The Hybrid approach is best-suited for projects that have middling requirements when compared to Agile and Waterfall, i.e. they require structure as well as flexibility.
Mostly, this would be medium-sized projects with moderately high complexity but fixed budgets. You would likely have an idea of the end product but you are also open to experimentation. You will need close collaboration, especially past the planning stage.
Lean project management focuses on maximizing efficiency by minimizing waste. It is inspired by the 1980s Lean manufacturing philosophy which holds that waste (the expenditure of resources on anything other than the creation of value for the end customer) should be eliminated.
LPM groups tasks into three types:
Value-Added: Tasks that advance the completion of the project and generate value for the customer (e.g., adding a roof to a hotel).
Enabler: Tasks which the customer isn’t paying for, but which are necessary for the project to be completed (e.g., project planning or quality testing).
Waste: Tasks that are unnecessary and which do not add value by advancing the completion of a deliverable (e.g., a team member attending a meeting at which they are not required).
Applying Lean principles to project management boils down to reducing the time required to complete projects. This is because the longer a project takes, the more money it will cost. Plus, missing the project deadline can cause a loss of benefits and attract financial penalties.
By eliminating wasteful activities so that more time can be spent on value-added tasks, LPM reduces the amount of time it takes to complete the project.
LPM is best for engaging team members and reducing staff turnover as everyone is encouraged to take the initiative and make continuous improvements. Using this method can give an organization a competitive advantage as it drives up quality and profits.
Scrum isn't a fully-featured project management methodology. Rather, it describes an approach to Agile management with a focus on project teams, short "sprints" and daily stand-up meetings.
While it borrows the principles and processes from Agile, Scrum has its own specific methods and tactics for dealing with project management. As Mike put it earlier:
The Scrum approach places the project team front and center of the project. Often, there is no project manager. Instead, the team is expected to be self-organizing and self-managing. This makes it ideal for highly focused and skilled teams, but not so much for others.
Besides these, it has all the benefits of Agile - rapid iteration and regular stakeholder feedback.
The Scrum approach is best for highly experienced, disciplined and motivated project teams who can set their own priorities and understand project requirements clearly. It has all the flaws of Agile along with all its benefits. It works for large projects, but fails if the project team itself is very large.
In short: use Scrum if you're developing complex software and have an experienced team at your disposal.
Kanban is a visual agile project management framework developed by Japanese auto giant Toyota in the 1950s. At its core is a physical or digital Kanban (signboard), divided into three columns representing three stages of completion:
Project tasks, listed on real or virtual Kanban cards, are added to the board and moved from one column to the next as their status changes. The more urgent a task is, the higher its position will be in the first and second columns.
Kanban is best for teams who want to visualize a project from start to finish. This method will help you avoid workflow bottlenecks and prevent too many tasks from being in progress at the same time, which can overwhelm teams and cause morale to plummet.
Despite its name, Scrumban isn’t simply an amalgamation of the Scrum and Kanban project management methods. Though it was created with the intention of helping teams transition from Scrum to a flow method such as Kanban, today Scrumban exists as a standalone agile method based on Lean.
Like Scrum, Scrumban involves planning out chunks of work (sprints). These iterations must be completed within a set timeframe (typically two weeks).
Deploying the same visual methodology and task-focused work organization as Kanban, tasks are represented as cards that move through different stages across a board.
Instead of tasks being assigned, team members choose what they want to work on. Scrumban places a hard limit on how many tasks can be in progress simultaneously.
Scrumban is best for teams who need structure and flexibility. By limiting WIP, it cuts down on multi-tasking, helping teams to maintain productivity. Scrumban projects don’t necessarily need to have a deadline which makes this method a good choice for very long-term projects or projects with an ambiguous goal.
The above four project management methodologies emerged from software development. While you can certainly use them for non-software projects, there are better alternatives at your disposal.
One of the more popular alternatives is the Critical Path Method (CPM).
In the Critical Path Method, you categorize all activities needed to complete the project within a work breakdown structure. Then you map the projected duration of each activity and the dependencies between them.
This helps you map out activities that can be completed simultaneously, and what activities should be completed before others can start.
The Critical Path Method is best-suited for projects with interdependent parts. If you require tasks to be completed simultaneously, or for one task to end before another can begin, you'll want to use this methodology.
CPM finds a lot of application in complex, but repetitive activities such as industrial projects. It is less suited for a dynamic area such as creative project management.
Critical Chain PM is one of the newer project management methodologies out there. It was developed as an alternative to the Critical Path method with a focus on resource management.
With CCPM, you work backward from the end goal. You recognize the deliverables, then use past experience to map out the tasks required to complete the project. You also map out the interdependencies between resources and allocate them accordingly to each task.
This graph from TrackerSuite shows the difference between a traditional vs. a CCPM project schedule.
CCPM emphasizes resource utilization and minimizing lost productivity. It is heavily reliant on "monotasking", i.e. focusing on the task at hand and avoiding multitasking.
For resource-strapped project teams, CCPM can be a powerful methodology.
CCPM works best in environments where resources are devoted to a single project. If you have a dedicated team for a project, it works great. If your team is spread across several projects, you'll struggle with resource planning.
The resource-focused approach of CCPM is also ideal for resource-strapped project teams. If you find yourself constantly overworked or missing deadlines, the CCPM methodology might be for you.
Integrated Project Management (IPM) - sometimes also called "Integrated Project Delivery" - is a common project management methodology in creative industries. This methodology emphasizes sharing and standardization of processes across the organization.
The IPM approach came about as a response to the increasingly integrated nature of creative campaigns. You don't just produce a single ad; you integrate the ad with microsites, digital content, etc. Most creative projects are a piece of a larger campaign.
An integrated project has the following components:
By integrating processes across the organization, IPM gives project managers better insight into the project and access to the right resources.
This makes IPM particularly appropriate for creative agencies.
Requires extensive planning: With the IPM approach, you will have to plan extensively upfront and ensure that all processes are well-integrated. This increases your burden significantly and can lead to delays.
Large agencies with diverse teams and processes benefit the most from Integrated Project Management. It works best for complex creative projects where you need resources from multiple teams and departments to interface with each other.
PRiSM (Projects integration Sustainable Methods) is a project management methodology developed by Green Project Management (GPM) Global.
As hinted by the creator's name, the PRiSM approach focuses on accounting for and minimizing adverse environmental impacts of the project. It is different from traditional methodologies in that it extends beyond the end of the project. Instead, it factors in the entire lifecycle of the project post-delivery to maximize sustainability.
Here's an overview of how activities are organized in PRiSM:
The PRiSM approach is very pertinent for modern projects where environmental costs and sustainability are key success criteria. For large projects where reducing energy consumption, managing waste and minimizing environmental impact is critical, PRiSM offers a viable project management ideology.
PRiSM is unsuitable for projects where environmental impact is not a concern (such as software or creative projects).
Success with the PRiSM approach also requires every part of the project team - including outside contractors and stakeholders - to be onboard with the sustainability principle - a hard ask in most organizations.
PRiSM is mostly suited for large and complex real estate and industrial projects where sustainability is a key concern.
PRINCE2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments) is the official project management methodology of the UK government (which means that most UK government projects use it). You can even get a PRINCE2 certification to make working as a project manager in the UK easier.
PRINCE2 is based on 7 principles, 7 themes and 7 processes. The 7 PRINCE2 principles, for instance, are:
Wikipedia has a great introductory article on this methodology. I suggest you start there if you're interested in PRINCE2.
Running a PRINCE2 project requires extensive documentation. Additionally, one of the guiding principles of PRINCE2 is to "Learn from experience". This focus on documentation and past experience can help reduce risk.
The disadvantage of PRINCE2's extensive documentation is that changes can be hard to accommodate. If the requirements change, you have to redo the documentation and re-allocate resources, which can hamper project pace.
This methodology is best-suited for large and complex projects with fixed requirements. If you're in the UK, you'll likely want to know the PRINCE2 methodology. It is widely used in the country and is a requirement for government projects.
Developed in the 1980s by Motorola, Six Sigma is a data-driven quality-control management method focused on understanding customers’ requirements and eliminating waste and defects (anything that doesn’t meet customers’ expectations).
Statistical analysis is used to identify problems and determine their cause, and processes are improved through decisions based on data.
This quality management process is monitored by a team with Six Sigma expertise. Inspired by the martial arts, Six Sigma uses belts to designate different levels of methodological mastery.
Within Six Sigma are two five-step methodologies: DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) which focuses on incrementally improving existing processes, and DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) which focuses on optimizing new products or processes to Six Sigma standards.
While Six Sigma can be a useful tool for small to medium-sized businesses seeking to reduce waste, it brings the greatest benefit to large-scale companies that continuously produce the same products or deliver the same services.
There are several other PMMs besides these, such as Crystal, Feature Driven Development (FDD), Dynamic Systems Development (DSDM) and Rational Unified Process (RUP).
For the most part, however, you’ll choose from one of the methodologies described above.
From the above section, it is clear that different PM methodologies are better suited for different projects. You wouldn’t want to use PRiSM for a software project, just as you wouldn’t want to use Agile for a big real-estate development.
When you’re picking PM methodologies, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Focus on gathering initial requirements. If the requirements suggest that you need a large and diverse team, pick a methodology that supports flexibility.
Similarly, if you have a clear idea of the end result, pick a more structured methodology such as Waterfall. If the end result is vague (common in case of in-house projects), pick an iterative methodology like Agile.
Some other things to consider when evaluating the project are:
Your project management methodology is essentially a blueprint for the project. It tells your team what to create and when to create it.
For this to happen, however, your team should be able to read the blueprint itself.
In other words, if your team isn't familiar with the project management methodology of your choice, you will struggle to get results. You will have to devote time to learning the methodology (which some of your team members might be resistant to), leading to delays.
Also consider your team composition. Identify its strengths and weaknesses. If the team thrives on collaboration, you can pick a less structured approach like Agile. If the team is highly motivated and disciplined, a SCRUM approach can work well. If you have limited resources, pick a resource-efficient approach like CCPM.
Here are a few things to consider when evaluating your team:
Essentially, pick a methodology that fits your team, instead of forcing your team to fit the methodology.
How your company is organized, its culture and its past records will have a big impact on your choice of project management methodology. Some methodologies only work with large organizations with established hierarchies. Others are more suitable for smaller, leaner outfits.
For instance, if your past records show that all your Agile projects have been delayed AND poorly received, it's a good idea to avoid this methodology in the future.
A few things you should consider when evaluating your organization are:
When choosing a PM methodology, factor in:
Given the importance of stakeholders in the project’s success, keeping their requirements in mind will make for happier stakeholders and more successful projects.
Project management tools are seldom methodology-agnostic. They are usually designed to work well with a specific methodology.
Hence, the software tools you have existing access to and expertise in will impact your choice.
To do this:
Ideally, the methodology you choose should work with your existing toolset. If you have to buy new tools, you will not only have to spend more but will also lose critical time in retraining your team.
Doing this in-depth evaluation will help you choose a methodology that aligns with your goals, your team’s capabilities, and your stakeholder’s requirements perfectly.
As a project manager, you have several project management methodologies to choose from. Each of these methodologies has its own strengths and weaknesses. Picking the right one will make running your project faster, smoother and more efficient.
Pick from one of the several methodologies listed above. Then evaluate your project, team, organization, stakeholders and existing tools to pick methodology that aligns with your strengths and requirements.
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