6 Popular Project Management Methodologies and When to Use Them

Updated December 3, 2019

A project management methodology standardizes how teams work on projects. It functions like a roadmap, and if used properly, organizations stand to achieve greater project productivity.

Each project is unique. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to project management. The good news is that there are multiple ways to organize and manage your projects. The challenge is finding the methodology that best fits your project.

Below, we’ll discuss things to consider in the selection process, as well as six of the most popular project management methodologies and when to use them.

At a glance: 6 project management methodologies to try

  • Waterfall
  • Agile
  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • PRINCE2
  • PRiSM

What to consider before selecting a project management methodology

The right project management methodology plays a critical role in a team’s ability to deliver quality projects on time and within budget. When making your decision, keep the following pointers in mind.

1. Evaluate the project’s complexity

Is the project simple or complex? What will the final product look like? What steps are needed to get there? What is your project’s timeline and budget? What type of project is it?

A project with specific and unchanging requirements may do well with a structured approach like waterfall. On the other hand, projects with changing or unclear requirements can benefit from an iterative, cyclical approach. Agile is suitable for projects with hard timelines, while PRiSM works best for large-scale sustainable construction projects.

2. Consider the team members involved as well as their work setup and style

How do your teams like to work? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they ready to adopt a new methodology? Are they remote or collocated? How willing is the project owner to participate in the process?

Collaborative teams often thrive in an agile environment. If a big team is necessary to complete a project, a flexible methodology like scrum may work. For high-performing, disciplined teams, kanban can be a good choice.

Teams resistant to change can also benefit from less structured methodologies like kanban.

If the client or project owner is willing to participate in reviews and feedback sessions, use scrum or other agile frameworks. For clients who prefer a hands-off approach, Waterfall can work well. If the client frequently changes their mind, an agile approach is your best bet.

3. Consider your organization’s needs and the industry in which you operate

How big is your company? What does your track record of past projects look like? How flexible is your organization? What type of industry does your project fall under?

Certain methodologies favor large companies with stringent hierarchies, while others are better suited for smaller ones. Determine why past projects that adopted a certain methodology failed, then perhaps use a different approach for a similar project.

Certain industries have very specific requirements, such as construction, engineering, and public safety. Others follow strict regulatory guidelines. Such industries may do well with the traditional waterfall approach.

6 project management methodologies to utilize

Certain projects are best executed via a specific methodology. Aside from a deep understanding of project management basics, familiarity with the different methodologies can help you pick and choose the best approach for your projects and teams.

Here are six project management methodologies and when to best take advantage of them.

1. Waterfall

The waterfall project management process is a traditional approach that follows a sequence of predetermined stages.

Each stage must be fully complete before the next stage can begin. The method is called “waterfall” because work progress flows downward, just like a waterfall.

Prior to starting a project, all stakeholders come together to create extensive documentation that lists every project requirement imaginable. Going back and making changes to any finished activity is difficult and costly — e.g., once you’ve constructed a building, you can’t go back and make foundational changes to the lower floors — hence, the upfront plan must determine in detail the outcome of each phase of development.

A mistake in the requirements phase can mean the downfall of a project.

Benefits of waterfall:

The waterfall method may come across as rigid, inflexible, and laborious, especially during the initial planning stages, but it has inherent benefits:

  • The outcome is expected. Much of the success of the waterfall approach hinges on the project management plan. Stakeholders know what to expect in terms of timeline and budget. Clients can better manage their cash flow, while team members can better schedule their time, and even work on simultaneous projects if needed.
  • Extensive documentation limits turnover impact. With waterfall, you can’t afford to make any mistakes in the plan or return to a previous task once a phase has been completed, which is why thorough documentation is necessary. Should someone leave the team, the next team member should be able to simply read through the documentation in order to understand what’s going on.

When you should use waterfall

The project management principles espoused by the waterfall method are simple and easily understandable. The rigidity of the process makes it easy to manage, but it’s a method best used in very specific scenarios, such as:

  • Your project has fixed requirements, budget, and scope. Think one-off projects that don’t need further development, or a project with stiff regulatory requirements with not enough room for changes. If all you have is a general idea of the deliverable, or the product is for an industry with fast-changing standards and needs, the waterfall method is not the right fit.
  • You’ve done a similar project before. You have the team and tools in place. You know your budget and timeline. You have mastery of the technologies to use, including project management software.
  • Your organization follows strict project management steps. Waterfall is a suitable choice if your company requires that your project follow a specific set of steps and introducing a more adaptive project management process isn’t possible.

2. Agile

The agile project management approach means projects are completed in small sections or phases called iterations. An iteration is a single cycle, and each one is reviewed by stakeholders. The insights gained during the evaluation will determine the next steps of the process.

With agile, project requirements can change, and user and client engagement are a necessary part of the process. Teams work in short bursts with the goal of producing frequent product releases, which allows them to better respond to changing needs and expectations. Testing is done throughout the project’s life cycle, rather than only at the end, as is normally done in the traditional waterfall method.

Agile is used in many different areas of business, such as software development, education, construction, and marketing.

Benefits of agile:

Agile brings to project management many compelling benefits, including:

  • Agile increases speed to market. Working in fixed, time-boxed schedules allows teams to quickly and frequently release new product features.
  • Agile lets teams tackle issues as they arise. Project management teams can quickly respond to changing specifications, and quality issues are detected and resolved before they become full-blown problems.

When you should use agile

Agile can be used in a variety of situations, but most notably in the following scenarios:

  • Projects with unclear requirements or deliverables. To get started with the agile method, you don’t need to have clear deliverable requirements. The product evolves as a result of constant client and customer feedback.
  • It works best for highly complex and unique projects. Large, transformative projects can be difficult to manage, especially if it’s an IT project in a rapidly changing landscape. Agile produces quality results in less time. Customers are happier, and stakeholders enjoy a transparent process unavailable in siloed approaches.

3. Scrum

Scrum falls under the broader agile project management category and follows a lightweight, iterative framework designed to simplify complex projects. Scrum projects are completed in sprints, which are short, boxed time periods when teams work to deliver a specific amount of results. After each sprint, the product is tested and critiqued by the stakeholders involved, and the results of the assessment dictate the next steps of the process.

Although generally used in software development, scrum is effective even for non-software projects. Scrum processes are cyclical in nature, meaning they repeat every few weeks.

Benefits of scrum

Because scrum is an agile methodology, projects with changing requirements can greatly benefit from it. Other advantages include:

  • Scrum projects are high quality and user friendly. Product iterations are reviewed and evaluated after every sprint. Teams closely communicate with clients and customers and plan next-step processes based on feedback and user stories, resulting in quality projects with features that address the needs of real users.
  • Scrum yields a faster return on investment. New features are added in increments, which means a usable product can be released to the market much sooner than planned.

When you should use scrum

There are several possible scenarios in which scrum is the best project management choice, such as:

  • When testing is necessary. Use scrum if testing and user feedback are necessary to verify market characteristics you want included in the next product iteration.
  • When the product owner can participate. The product owner is, among other things, both the voice of the customer and the product manager. He or she owns the product and is responsible for its success. Product owners serve as mediator between development teams and end users and are expected to steer the project in the right direction.

4. Kanban

Also an agile methodology, kanban is a simple process improvement approach that allows teams to manage, organize, and visualize their project goals and workflow through a visual kanban board. (“Kanban” is a Japanese word that means “signboard” or “billboard.”) The system was originally used in the manufacturing industry, but it has since become popular in other business areas, including IT and software development.

At its simplest form, a kanban board has three columns, usually marked “requested,” “in progress,” and “done.” Other columns can be added to correspond to your workflow. Each task you add to your kanban board appears on a “card” (think of them as sticky notes you stick to a whiteboard), which you then advance from one column to the next as the tasks are completed.

Kanban aims to limit projects in progress and move a task from the “requested” stage to the “done” stage in the least amount of time.

Benefits of kanban

Kanban is a simple but solid way to organize work. It can be used on an individual or team level. Benefits include:

  • Everyone knows what’s going on. A well-organized kanban board allows members to visualize, at a glance, what’s going on — specifically, which tasks have been completed, which are on track to meet deadlines, or which haven’t been started yet.
  • Teams can immediately pinpoint bottlenecks. Because of the visual nature of kanban, you can see right away which projects are behind schedule. This allows you to bring in reinforcements, if available or applicable, or move tasks around and reorganize priorities in a timely fashion.

When you should use kanban

Kanban ensures teams have enough work on their plates but are not too overwhelmed to jeopardize process continuity or product quality. It’s ideal for the following scenarios:

  • Your team has numerous incoming work requests. Kanban works best for small pieces of work, fixes, or enhancements. It focuses on continuous work delivery by helping teams (or individuals) visualize specific work states and reduce idle time.
  • Your team has a low appetite for process change. Kanban doesn’t have many rules and, therefore, can be easier to adopt compared to other methods. However, it takes a mature, disciplined team to make the most of it. In-progress limits can easily be ignored, which, in turn, can negatively affect your workflow.

5. PRINCE2

Originally developed by the U.K. government as a standard for IT projects, PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) has since become a generic, process-based approach to project management. It’s both a project management methodology and practitioner certification program.

Now adopted in different parts of the world, PRINCE2 uses a framework that includes a controlled and organized plan for the different stages of the project life cycle. The plan covers every activity necessary from start to finish. That’s not to say PRINCE2 falls strictly under the traditional waterfall category. Although PRINCE2 requires upfront documentation just like waterfall, you can choose which of the seven principles, seven processes, or seven roles to apply or omit, depending on the needs of your project.

PRINCE2 can be used for projects of all sizes in various sectors, including oil and gas, housing, construction, IT, banking, engineering, marketing, and more.

Benefits of PRINCE2

PRINCE2’s adoption rates are increasing, and for good reason. Below are just some of the benefits:

  • PRINCE2 is flexible. Although it requires initial planning and documentation, it can be customized to fit all project types and sizes from all industries and marketplaces.
  • It has a fundamentally strong foundation. PRINCE2 is based on real-world project management experience and best practices from experienced professionals around the world, in both the public and private sectors.

When you should use PRINCE2

PRINCE2 can work in practically any scenario. However, consider the following as you look at it more closely:

  • It’s best for government projects with very specific requirements, timelines, and budgets. PRINCE2 emphasizes structure and control as well as explicitly defined roles and responsibilities. These are characteristics that work well with rigid government requirements and timelines.
  • It’s more commonly used in the EMEA region. PRINCE2 has gained a significant following in various regions of the world, but if you’re in the U.K. or Europe, you’ll find that it’s largely the preferred methodology.

6. PRiSM

PRiSM (PRojects integrating Sustainable Methods) is a principles-based methodology that integrates environmental sustainability into project management. It’s a holistic approach to project management and looks at the total asset life cycle instead of just project runtime.

PRiSM’s objective is to minimize environmental, economic, and social risks. It’s the ideal choice if you want your processes to be ecologically friendly. PRiSM is a standalone method but can be implemented with other project management techniques such as agile or PRINCE2.

Benefits of PRiSM

Projects with a focus on sustainability and corporate responsibility can benefit immensely from PRiSM:

  • Projects are eco-friendly. PRiSM provides a comprehensive framework that lets you build green projects.
  • Project benefits go beyond the environment. Aside from a project’s impact on the environment, PRiSM also considers labor values, human rights, and anti-corruption responsibilities.

When you should use PRiSM

  • Your organization’s value system includes social responsibility. PRiSM is an excellent choice for large-scale projects with significant environmental and social impact. Project areas include architecture, landscape, public infrastructure, energy, and real estate development.

Picking the right methodology for your situation

There is no one way to approach project management, and finding the right project management methodology is essential for success. When making your decision, remember to take into account the scope of your project as well as the needs of your team; a good project management methodology will make the work easier for your team, not more difficult.

We’ve outlined the most commonly used project management methods above, which we hope can help you determine the best method for you, your team, and your project.

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