When to Use Different Project Management Methodologies

Compare Project Management Methodologies

Project management can be unnerving. Managing timelines, billing procedures, and capacity planning is hard enough. Managing unknown variables can be next to impossible. Fortunately, there are many project management methodologies available to organize a process and make your project plan a reality.

In this article we discuss pros, cons, and best uses for different project management methodologies — including tips for overcoming common limitations. Our goal is to help you select the right tool to deliver projects on time and budget.

The Six Primary Project Management Methodologies

There are six families of project management methodologies. They range from a simple series of tasks, with boxes to check and deadlines to meet, to dynamic processes that incorporate elements of philosophy. Each has different advantages and disadvantages and the one thats best for you and your project today will change over time.

  1. Sequential Methodologies create predictable approaches that views projects as a sequence of tasks.
  2. Agile Methodologies start project quickly and deliver results as soon as possible.
  3. Earned Value Methodologies focus on objectively measuring progress — not just hours worked.
  4. Process Methodologies focus on analyzing work to find the most efficient ways to do individual tasks, and avoid defects.
  5. Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRISM) help you complete projects while minimizing environmental impact.
  6. The Benefits Realization Method empathizes customer satisfaction instead of just an exchange for goods or services.

Sequential Methodologies:

These methods include: Waterfall, Critical Path Method, and Critical Chain Project Management. The goal is to view projects as a sequence of tasks with steps either following another or branching off based on circumstance. The result is a rigid approach that produces reliable timelines and budgets. However, these methods don’t adjust well to changes in client priorities, project delays, and unforeseen events.

Use sequential methods when building physical objects, and implementing well documented plans that have been refined through iteration. However, they aren’t suited well for a dynamic environment where small disruptions to the established sequence can throw off the whole project.

#1 Waterfall Method — Most Common

Best for: Building physical products, or products with a lot of interdependencies.

Pros: You can visualize each step from start to finish, and is useful for setting a budget and timeline.

Cons: This planning method is very fragile. Waterfall planning doesn’t adjust well to changes in the team, project scope, or client priorities. Each step and interdependence has to be recalculated.

This methodology is originated in the automotive industry. It views a project as a series of downward steps. It divides the project into discrete steps, with the completion of one step triggering the next step, with no overlap and no circling back.

#2 Critical Path Method (CPM)

Best for: Predictable but complex projects. Transactional projects that you repeat over and over with little interdependency on the outside world.

Pros: You can visualize each step from start to finish, and is useful for setting a budget and timeline.

Cons: This planning method is very fragile. Waterfall planning doesn’t adjust well to change.

Critical Path Method help project managers prioritize tasks to complete projects as quickly as possible. In project management, a critical path is the sequence of tasks that add up to the longest duration. The critical path determines how long a project will take.

To use CPM you need the following inputs:

  • A list of all activities required to complete a project
  • The dependencies between the activities
  • The Estimated time (duration) each activity will take to complete

These inputs are then used to determine which tasks are “critical”, and which tasks have “total float”. Total float means that they can be completed at any time without making the project longer.

You can use a gantt chart to visualize critical tasks, interdependencies, and float tasks.

Example Gantt Chart

The more tasks that can be completed in parallel the faster the project can be completed.

Parellel Gantt Chart Example

Create your own with Bric’s Free Gantt Chart Maker.

#3 Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM)

Critical Chain vs Critical Path. A project’s critical path is the longest series of dependent tasks. A critical chain modifies a critical path to remove resource conflicts. If there are no resource conflicts the critical path and critical chain are identical.

Best for. Synchronizing efforts between people, time, and resources. This method focuses on “getting on the same page” so the right people are doing the right thing at the right time. This is extremely effective for predictable but complex projects. It also works for transactional projects that you repeat over and over with little interdependency on the outside world.

Pros. Emphases resources such as people, equipment, and physical space required to complete the task.

Cons. Correct timing is absolutely vital to the success of this methodology. Aggressive timelines and tight resource requirements can easily turn the critical chain into a row of dominos if one critical step is missed.

This is a hybrid approach that combines the critical path method with capacity planning. The first step is to identify the critical chain. The critical chain is the longest series of tasks that must be completed in a sequence. The second step is assigning resources to the highest-priority tasks first.

#4 The Big Five Process Groups

Also, referred to as the PMI/PMBOK Method. These project management methodologies are generally embraced by mainstream project managers. These methods break project into its core components and plans for the systematic accomplishment of smaller tasks. While vague, it is designed to allow flexibility. This is both its strength and its weakness.

It views a project’s components as

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Controlling
  5. Closing phase

These Big Five processes can be as detailed or as broad as needed, requiring the project manager to flesh out the idea within these parameters. This is regarded as an industry standard and can be easily used with other methodologies mentions on this page.

Note: Some project managers view PMBOK not as a methodology but a set of standards and conventions for managing projects. That is exactly what a mythology is.

Best for. This methodology provides a common language across projects. Whether building a house, designing software, or writing policy, every project is going to feature some version of these processes.

Pros. Allows for the project manager to determine the scope and pace of the project. This centralized decision making can most directly translate the PM vision into reality.

Cons. Centralized decision making associated with this methodology risks making the PM the single point of failure. Personnel outside the direct management team create the inputs but may not have enough influence on the process to take initiative as problems arise.

Overcoming Limitations: Sequential methodologies go beyond the science of project management. Selecting the appropriate methodology means comparing the needs of the project with the required inputs of the method. Using a sequential method for a fluid project may be ineffective since the requirements for initiation, progress, and completion may not account for revisiting previous activities or adjustments in the context of creation.

How to Estimate Task Lengths for Sequential Projects

Project managers often create estimates using most-likely durations or even highly padded estimates. However, buffers can create problems. You need a method of estimating delays. Otherwise hidden buffers, obscure the project’s safety margin, and make it impossible to relocate safety margin from task to task.

  • Padded estimates can’t be identified
  • Buffers can promote bad work habits — procrastination, scope creep, subconsciously slowly pace
  • Padding adds up and can result is significant delays to the project delivery.

The ideal task estimate is based on a 50/50 chance of being completed on time. This eliminates buffers and prevents work from filling the time provided. The following three assumptions should be made when creating task estimates:

  • Everyone will have what they need to work on the task
  • Nothing unforeseen will delay the project
  • Work is focused without interruptions or multi-tasking.

Next distribute your pooled safety margin into:

  1. project buffer that protects your critical path tasks against delays. Usually this is 50% of your critical chain duration.
  2. Feeder buffers protect non-critical tasks that feed into the critical path. Usually set at 50% of the duration of the chain of tasks feeding critical tasks.

When aggregated the buffers might seem like a lot. However, practice shows aggregated buffers calculated in this manner are typically less than hidden padding on individual tasks.

Agile Methodologies

As the name implies, these approaches intend to quickly take up a project, process it, and get results. These methods are more than just a process to completing a task. They establish a set of values. The Agile Family of project management seeks to go beyond the simple inputs and outputs of the traditional methods. Instead, this family seeks a dynamic relationship with the customer in addition to contract execution

The client lays out an end product or state and the project manager works out the details. This family includes methods such as:

  1. Scrum uses short, intense bursts of work where the project manager clears all obstacles to work.
  2. Kanban creates visual cues to determine production issues.
  3. Adaptive Project Framework creates a loose set of goals and functions is determined and constantly evaluated.

Best for. These methods are great creating new products or services but may be too loose for creating physical products for consumers. This may be particularly useful for consulting work, where teams may show up on sight, seek to gain the maximum information in the minimum time with the least obstacles.

Pros. This methodology seeks to gain a breadth of knowledge rapidly. This approach allows for unique and collaborative results as the clients goal, intent and end-state serve as the baseline. This framework allows creative professionals to solve the problem however they see fit.

Cons. The freewheeling style of project management requires clear communication and reliable teamwork. You need teamwork. Without teamwork critical information can be lost or miscommunicated. New team members risk becoming lost in the minutia as projects are assumed rapidly, processed, and archived.

Overcoming Limitations: The key to succeeding in this is team building. A common professional language, culture, and set of experience help the project manager walk the line between organized chaos and ineffective thrashing. Thorough preparations prior to engaging the client directly help guide the discussion and ensure the most amount of information in the least amount of time.

Managing Change

Change is key to agile methods. Agile methods acknowledge that change is inevitable in a project. It creates a way to plan for and embrace change. The degree of impact can range from slight delays to time frames to different budgets to different end products. This project management process is also more akin to a philosophy than a purely work activity. Some famous examples of this include Event Change Methodology in addition to Extreme Project Management.

Best for. This is helpful in the software world where change is the only constant. As new technologies emerge, markets shift, and personnel turnover, project managers embracing this methodology anticipate these changes and adapt.

Pros. Due to this focus on change makes this an ideal method for projects with tight deadlines and quick turn around. In these short time frames it is easy to account for the effects of change and solve the problem with minimal disruption to the task.

Cons. It may be too messy for longer term projects where time is a known factor. As change occurs over longer timeframes it becomes more difficult to forecast the effects on the end state.

Overcoming Limitations: Matching this methodology to “turn and burn” projects gives it a dynamism that makes it unique to the project method family. Forward-leaning, quick thinking leadership is the key to this methodology’s success since he or she must know when and how to embrace change before it disrupts these tight deadlines.

Earned Value Methodologies

This project management methodology seeks to create an objective measure of progress by comparing the scope, time, and cost of a project. It forecasts the best path and then compares progress to this baseline.

Best for. This works best for projects with clearly-defined deliverables, budgets, and timeframes. This allows the PM to determine how the team is performing against this baseline.

Pros. You can visualize and track performance easily. This allows for easy client updates. This method also makes the project into an objective process that can be charted linearly. Success, failure, or delay can be quickly determined.

Cons. This methods focus on objectivity may lose the context in which delays happen. Since every project is subject to change, it could be easy for things beyond the control of the PM (budget cuts, unexpectedly shortened timelines) may not be easily reflected in performance.

Overcoming Limitations: It is important that the PM know his or her abilities. Promising too much, too quickly may create an unreasonable performance expectation that cannot be achieved. Promising based on reasonable assumptions and past performance creates the optimal use of this methodology.

Process Methodologies

This project management methodology goes beyond individual projects. It sees work as a group of processes and finds the most efficient way to do them. Six Sigma is a popular process method. It uses statistical analysis to find and eliminate inefficiencies, known as “zero defects”. This is often combined with the Lean school of project management, which seeks to eliminate waste, inefficiencies and bottlenecks, essentially doing more with less.  Lean Six Sigma is the combination of these methods. These methods are useful for processes like manufacturing, which have clear, objective outcomes but may be less useful for more creative efforts like web design or customer service.

Best for. This project management methodology is great for consultants, who seek to provide their customers with the most efficient use of equipment, time and resources. These methods can streamlines production to increase safety and minimize waste.

Pros. The focus on efficiency ensure the proper application creates savings for clients. Process methods are a very effective tool in the project management field. Companies around the world hire project managers with Six Sigma experience.

Cons. The focus on mechanical efficiency isn’t useful for creative professionals or jobs requiring critical thinking.  These skills require long time frames to develop products like ad campaigns, book reviews, or commercial jingles.

Overcoming Limitations: Though these methods may not be ideal in themselves, the philosophy behind it may be a useful leadership tool to bring about more productivity from individuals needing longer time frames for creative endeavors.

Some Other Methodologies

These methods are the most varied and nuanced. Some of them are very specific to individual organizations. Others border on the philosophical. However, they share the same goal: managing employees’ work. For example, Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRISM, no relation) is a style of project management that seeks to reduce impact on the environment. This is Green PM!

A similar example is Benefits Realization method. This method puts customer satisfaction at the center of project rather than viewing it as a static exchange of money for goods or services. The pros and cons of these methods are too specific for the broader project management community but as a result can serve as a jumping off point readers of this article.

Best for. Companies with very specific mission sets, client demands, or cultural specifications. A good example would be companies that value minimal environmental impact or require fair trade products.

Pros. Specific, niche companies may select companies based on specific practices valued within the organization. They may also be willing to pay more for keeping in line with core values.

Cons. This specificity may be unprofitable or uninteresting to main stream companies interested in familiar methods and proven approaches. People can view these methods as risky or untested.

Overcoming Limitations: A good project manager knows the audience. These methodologies may work well with some clients, but are more likely to fail with others. It is up to the PM to make the case for unorthodox methods but it is up to the client to decide how much is too much.

Bric and Project Management Methodologies

In conclusion, with so many aspects of a project to consider it is critical to go in with a plan. However, project plans aren’t enough. They need organization for execution and monitoring through to completion. At Bric, we have the project planning software and know how to take your methodology, your personnel, capacity, billing, timelines and anything else and organize. From inspiration to exhibition Bric has the information management to keep you on track.

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