Chapter 3: Project management methodologies

There are many project management methodologies and frameworks out there, designed to assist with different types of projects. But how do you know which one is best for your efforts? 

In this section, we’ll walk through the most popular PM methodologies, and share advice for how to choose the best method to fit your needs.

Waterfall or traditional project management

Waterfall or traditional project management is based on a defined set of tasks that are completed sequentially to produce a final deliverable. This method of PM is simple and predictable, but not very flexible. 

Waterfall project management is ideal for projects with a single, large deliverable, like a building. While it’s less useful for projects that require a lot of flexibility, are subject to change, or require multiple, dependent tasks to be completed in tandem, like software development. 

The main benefits of Waterfall are tight planning and organization, and a high degree of control over each project task and the greater project schedule. That said, using Waterfall can make it difficult to adapt to unexpected events or changes to project scope, which can result in added time, resources, and cost.

Teams often use a Gantt chart, a visual timeline tool that maps out project tasks in succession, in Waterfall-managed projects. Learn more about Gantt charts in Chapter 9.

To learn more about the phases and pros and cons of Waterfall, visit our in-depth guide to creating and using a Waterfall chart.

The Agile family

The Agile family is a category of project management methodologies that prioritizes flexibility and continuous improvement over rigid, sequential processes. There are many popular methodologies within Agile, and we’ve dug into each below.

Agile project management

In Agile project management, teams complete smaller, incremental tasks, and then continually review, refine, and iterate based on feedback and demands of the end users.

Agile project management was formalized in 2001 by a group of software developers intent on finding a more collaborative, flexible method to complete projects. The group documented their ideas in the Manifesto for Agile Development, which lays out the following four values:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Agile PM prioritizes a collaborative relationship between the end user and the project team. The customer sets the project objectives, but the deliverables are subject to change as the team incrementally executes each project task. In Agile, each development feature is called a user story, which reflects how the end user will interact with it. 

Agile project management was initially intended for software development, but is now commonly used across a variety of industries and types of projects. Learn more about the Agile process and how to implement it by reading our comprehensive guide to Agile PM

Pros and cons of Agile project management

Agile is a good fit for projects that require a high degree of flexibility and are likely to shift as the project progresses. The top benefits of Agile include the following:

  • Less upfront planning
  • Increased open communication
  • Continual feedback
  • Flexible objectives 

When used effectively, Agile also often leads to speedier delivery.

However, there are some tradeoffs to this flexible approach: 

  • Lack of concrete delivery date, which can lead to scope creep 
  • A high degree of dedication and flexibility from the project team


Is Agile right for you?

Remember, Agile isn’t for everyone. The methodology is likely not right for your team if any of the following apply to you:

  • Your project is not very urgent.
  • Your client’s expectations don’t support Agile (e.g., they want to give final approval at every stage of the project, or incremental delivery isn’t appropriate for the project specs). 
  • You or your client’s organization requires detailed documentation at every stage.
  • Your current processes are not set up for a more flexible approach.
  • Your team or organization doesn’t currently use Agile, and implementing it would be too costly or time consuming.

In the following sections, we’ll go over other methodologies that fall within the Agile family.

Scrum

Scrum, the most popular Agile methodology, involves smaller teams that complete tasks in short, time-bound periods, called sprints, in order to incrementally work through pieces of a larger project or release.

Scrum typically leads to greater responsiveness in customer relationships, lower costs of development, increased job satisfaction, and more immediate returns. Scrum is a fluid practice that takes many moving parts, teams, and goals into consideration as the project progresses. 

Scrum teams also engage in four regular meetings, or ceremonies, which provide structure to each sprint: 

  • Sprint planning: At this meeting, the product is presented and everyone on the Scrum team voices any concerns and feedback. The team designates priorities and estimates the timeline.
  • Daily stand-up: The Scrum team meets daily during the sprint to debrief with the team, establish a daily plan, and voice any concerns so the team can address them together.
  • Sprint review: Held at the end of each sprint, this meeting is a review of the working product and gives stakeholders transparency into what the team accomplished during the sprint.
  • Sprint retrospective: The sprint retrospective is a meeting that occurs after each sprint to discuss team performance and establish ways to improve future efforts.

Each Scrum team has designated members who own specific pieces of the process. These roles include the following:

  • Product owner: Possesses a thorough understanding of the product’s business value and serves as the middleman who communicates the stakeholder needs to the development team and writes and prioritizes user stories.
  • Development team: Performs the technical development of the product and is responsible for the analysis, design, code writing, testing, and technical communication based on the user stories provided by the product owner.
  • Scrum Master: Assists in the progress of the Scrum team by working hand-in-hand with the product owner and the development team to streamline work and eliminate distractions. 

As with Agile, Scrum is popular in software development, but it can also be deployed successfully across marketing, design, and other creative projects. Learn more by reading our guide to implementing Scrum with the right tools.

Kanban

Kanban is an Agile framework that prioritizes continuous improvement, an ongoing effort to improve a product or service incrementally. Kanban teams complete work items based on team capacity and manage resources using a visual kanban board that shows task status.

Kanban originated in Japan in the 1940s. Based on what he had seen in supermarkets, Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno implemented a supply-and-demand method on the factory floor, which greatly improved the company’s inventory management. 

Teams at Toyota created a visual cue (a kanban, which translates to “visual sign” or “card”) to communicate that they were ready to “pull,” or take on, more tasks or materials to complete their work. This approach enabled workers to only take on new tasks when they had capacity for them, which reduced excess work in progress (WIP). This style of work is now known as the just-in-time (JIT) approach.

How to use a kanban board

The Kanban methodology centers on the kanban board, which is either a physical or digital “board” that includes three columns (or lanes): to-do, doing, and done. Team members move cards, representing individual tasks, to different columns as a way to track task status. This provides a quick view of how items are progressing and ensures teams have adequate capacity to take on new work.

In recent years, teams have moved to online, digital kanban boards, which helps distributed teams collaborate on projects and gain real-time visibility into the work getting done. You can learn more about setting up a Kanban board with our guide

Pros and cons of Kanban

Overall, Kanban is great for teams that have many incoming requests, short work cycles, and flexibility with resources and scheduling. However, Kanban can be difficult for teams that work on many interconnected, dependent tasks, or have tight deadlines to adhere to. 

To learn more about implementing kanban from the ground up, read our complete guide for newbies.

Critical path method

Critical path method (CPM) is a technique for estimating the total duration of a project by identifying the order in which you must complete all project tasks, and then mapping out your sequenced tasks, called dependencies.

CPM follows the basic steps below:

  1. Identify all project tasks.
  2. Identify dependencies among tasks.
  3. Map out the tasks, as well as their dependencies, to create a network diagram that shows how tasks relate to one another. 
    Network diagram chart
  4. Estimate the duration of each task. 
  5. Add up the durations to calculate the total duration of your project. 
  6. Identify the critical path, which is the pathway made up of tasks essential to complete the project.
    Network diagram with critical path
     
  7. Update the critical path as the project progresses to compare estimated vs. actual timelines.

CPM helps teams reduce project timelines by identifying and scheduling the most important tasks and then scheduling other tasks to happen in parallel. CPM also helps with project planning, as you can easily reference estimated vs. actual project schedules and more accurately estimate how long each task will take on future projects.

Learn more about the steps and advantages of the method with our beginner’s guide to the CPM.

The change management methodologies

Change management is an umbrella term for techniques that help individuals, teams, and organizations implement new processes or achieve organizational change. In this section, we’ll cover event chain and extreme project management. 

To learn more, visit our essential guide to change management, or find free change management templates.

Event Chain methodology

In event chain methodology, you identify tasks (events) and their relationships (event chains) in order to properly allocate resources and assess and reduce project risk. 

The goal of event chain is to estimate the amount of time and resources you need to complete a project. This method follows some of the same steps as the critical path method — you also break down activities into smaller tasks and outline their dependencies and durations. But, in event chain, you do so to create a realistic timeline and budget, rather than to simply better manage the tasks (and task order).

Event chain can also serve as a modeling technique to create more conservative scheduling estimates, which ultimately improves performance by building in time to address unforeseen risks.

This methodology is often used in change management efforts to eliminate the need to overhaul projects, which can be extremely time consuming and resource-heavy.

Extreme project management

Extreme project management (XP or XPM) is used to manage a massive amount of change in a short period of time. XPM is ideal for fast-paced, complex projects that can handle a trial-and-error approach to successfully pull off the effort.

Think of XPM as the opposite of Waterfall methodology. As opposed to valuing a linear, planned project development process, XPM allows you to change your project plan, budget, and the final deliverable as requirements shift. In XPM, the onus is on the project team to self-correct and shift as necessary. 

Extreme project management works well for projects with a high-degree of uncertainty, but is less useful for projects with a clear-cut timeline, budget, and scope.

The process-based methodologies

Process-based methodologies approach work as a collection of processes, rather than a strict methodology that you apply to a single project. These approaches are sometimes used as part of a larger business process management (BPM) strategy.

Lean

Lean is an approach aimed at maximizing value while minimizing waste. When deployed properly, Lean helps to identify and eliminate bottlenecks, delays, and other inefficiencies in order to deliver value faster.

Lean originated in manufacturing in the 1950s, but it has evolved over time and is used today across industries. As laid out in the book Lean Thinking, Lean involves the following five core principles and activities:

  1. Define value: Identify the value of each product or service in the eyes of the customer. 
  2. Map the value stream: Map out the process (aka value stream) and identify areas of waste, in terms of  resources, time, or redundancy.
  3. Create flow: Create a flow plan that eliminates the waste you identified. 
  4. Employ a pull system: Progress through the plan only as the customer has new needs. Doing so will prevent you from taking on too much at once, or creating a bottleneck at any stage of the process. 
  5. Pursue perfection: Using the idea of continuous improvement, aim to eliminate as much waste as possible from your process. 

Visit our comprehensive guide to Lean project management to learn more about different types of Lean methodologies and the best tools for implementing Lean.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology that aims to improve quality across projects. Six Sigma takes a statistical approach to measuring and eliminating bugs or defects in project deliverables and raising quality standards.

The basic steps in Six Sigma include finding defects, identifying and eliminating their cause(s), and optimizing processes to increase reliability and accuracy going forward. 

Building off the Lean principle of pursuing perfection, Six Sigma aims to eliminate all opportunities for defects by using data-driven improvement cycles to achieve its goal. 

There are two main Six Sigma methodologies:

  • DMAIC: This stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, control, and is intended to help you improve existing processes.
  • DMADV: This stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, verify, and is best for when creating new processes or products.

There is no single, formal certification body for Six Sigma, but many organizations offer training so teams can learn to implement the practice in their organization. Read our article on Six Sigma belts and certifications to learn more. 

Six Sigma works well for teams who are interested in implementing data-driven ways to reduce defects and optimize business processes, but is less ideal for those looking for a strict set of steps to follow.

Read our in-depth guide to all things Six Sigma to learn more.

Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma is a hybrid approach to process improvement that combines the Lean principle of no waste and the Six Sigma principle of no defects to improve quality across processes, projects, and products.

Lean Six Sigma offers the following benefits:

  • Increased cost savings due to fewer bugs or defects
  • Improved quality
  • Time savings due to fewer process issues
  • Improved data-driven decision making
  • Continuous process improvement throughout the organization

While Lean Six Sigma originated in manufacturing, a variety of industries can deploy it to reap benefits. The most common use cases include healthcare, construction, design, and government.

Other project management methodologies

Below, you’ll find details on a few more project management methodologies that are gaining traction in the modern PM world.

PRINCE2

PRINCE2, or Projects in Controlled Environments, is a project management methodology that focuses on defining and delivering work against precise requirements. As opposed to Agile PM, PRINCE2 emphasizes intense planning and documentation of work items.

PRINCE2 is a hybrid methodology initially used for information technology (IT) projects to help reduce cost and time overruns. Now, it’s deployed across many different industries. 

This approach works well for projects with a clearly defined goal. However, if you need more flexibility, or don’t have time to properly plan and document work, Agile methods might be a better option.

 

PRiSM

PRiSM, or Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods, is a modern project management methodology that values sustainability over all else. The goal of PRiSM projects is to reduce the environmental impact of a project and drive meaningful social impact.

The PRiSM model is based on the following six principles: 

  1. Commitment and accountability 
  2. Ethical decision making 
  3. Integration and transparency 
  4. Principal and values-based deployments 
  5. Social and ecological equity 
  6. Economic prosperity

Implementing PRiSM is a long term mindset shift that puts sustainability and equity at the center of all processes and projects and aims to maximize value for all involved.

Why you should choose a PM methodology for your organization

Choosing an organization-wide project management method ensures teams have a consistent guideline for how to manage each aspect of their projects, like resources, budget, communication, timeline, and more.

Of course, some teams and projects require different levels of planning, flexibility, and documentation. And, it can be overwhelming to choose one “perfect” approach when there are so many options out there.

But, by assessing the types of projects that you typically take on — as well as your existing processes — you can identify the most effective methodology for you.

In some cases, organizations may select multiple project management types to meet the requirements of different projects and teams.

How to choose the best PM methodology for you

To identify the right project management methodology, first consider the details of your project. Then, assess your existing systems and processes. Look at both what you need as well as what you already have in place to select the best method.

Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your project needs:

Project basics

  • What is the project’s focus?
  • What industry are you in?
  • How complex is the project?
  • Is the project scalable?
     

Flexibility

  • How flexible are your timeline, budget, and deliverables?
  • How much planning do you need to do beforehand?


Budget

  • What is your allotted budget, and how flexible is it?
  • What resources do you have, and what additional resources do you need to obtain?


Timeline

  • How flexible is your timeline?
  • Are there set start and end dates?
  • Does your project have key milestones or a critical path?


Roles and responsibilities

  • How many people or teams are working together on this project?
  • How specialized is the work?
  • What is the level of customer and stakeholder involvement?

After you’ve worked through the project-related questions, follow these steps to identify which methodology aligns best:

  1. Outline the main variables, like timeline, resources, and budget, that will drive the project.
  2. Consider how the methodology you choose will impact these variables, such as how a more flexible approach might affect a hard-and-fast deadline.
  3. Weigh the pros and cons of each methodology against the needs of your project. Think both about which will be the best fit and which will be least disruptive to your current processes.
  4. Collaborate with other team members to get input.
  5. Roll out the methodology to the team. This includes educating everyone on the new processes and setting up the necessary tools and documentation systems.
  6. Apply the methodology to the project and monitor it for success.

Here’s a simplified cheat sheet you can use to identify which methodology will work for your next project:

How to choose the right PM methodology