Project management methodologies (+ how to choose the right one)
Finishing a project isn’t as simple as going from point A to point B in a straight line. In real life, this metaphorical “line” can be a zig-zag, a wave, several interconnected lines, etc. This means that the project process can backtrack, suddenly speed up, stall — or go in a completely unexpected direction.
To cope with the nature of project management, many different methodologies, philosophies, and frameworks have been developed over the years. These have been received and used with varying levels of success — several have come up to the top in terms of widespread use and popularity.
This guide will give you some insight into the way project management methodologies are classified, offering examples for each provided category.
Next, we’ll go over a short review of the 15 most popular project management methodologies, citing their advantages and disadvantages.
And finally, we’ll provide the instructions on how you can pick the right methodology for you — using questions, examples, and a chart of prominent features of each of the 15 project management methodologies we reviewed.
What is a project management methodology?
In simple terms, a project management methodology (PMM) is the way you organize your approach to finishing projects. It’s a structured blueprint that directs your workflow, ordering the way you plan, manage, and execute a project.
The spectrum of different types of project management methodologies
There are varying levels of PMM complexity, and different ways of classifying them.
For example, PM World Today research suggests differentiating PM methodologies in order of specificity, going from general guidelines, to methodologies developed for specific projects. Here they are, Level 1 through Level 5:
- Level 1: Best practices, standards, and guidelines
- Level 2: Sector-specific methodology
- Level 3: Organization-specific, customized methodology
- Level 4: Project-specific methodology
- Level 5: Individualized methodology
We’ll take some time to explain what each of these entails.
Level 1: Best practices, standards, and guidelines
Though frequently called “methodologies”, authors of this study suggest that at Level 1, we’re talking about “encyclopedias” of best practices. At Level 1, there is a lack of the organizational or sector-specific features that would be necessary for us to call it a true methodology.
🔻 Example of a Level 1 methodology — Project Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
Level 2: Sector-specific methodology
The next level is the sector-specific methodologies. Project management methodologies have to adapt to specific industry requirements, rules, and regulations. For this purpose, Level 2 PMMs are built by picking out appropriate elements from Level 1 best practices, and applying them to the workflow of the sector in question.
🔻 Example of a Level 2 methodology — SCRUM.
Level 3: Organization-specific, customized methodology
Following up, we have Level 3 — a methodology specially customized for a specific organization. These methodologies are designed in a way that supports the nature and requirements of projects one particular organization deals with. They are attuned to the organization’s internal structure and strategy.
🔻 Example of a Level 3 methodology — Rational Unified Process (RUP).
Level 4: Project-specific methodology
At Level 4, we have a project management methodology adjusted to the needs of the particular types of projects an organization might pursue. A higher-level methodology is scaled-down to meet the needs of a project. It serves the purpose of helping a project team understand the scope of their work, as well as how the project fits in with the overall direction of the organization. Different branches of the company may require different approaches to work, which is also where the Level 4b methodology steps in.
🔻 Example of a Level 4 methodology — an adaptive methodology, one that can be applied to a set of similar projects.
Level 5: Individualized methodology
And finally, at the high end of the specificity spectrum, we have an individualized methodology — which caters to the needs of individual projects. Dealing with any given project, in any environment, requires handling a certain volume of complexity. This Level 5 type of project management methodology is developed to give all team members an efficient framework for how to fulfill their roles.
🔻 Example of Level 5 methodology — a project management methodology adjusted specifically for one company’s marketing team.
This categorization effectively resolves some of the confusion that arises from different project management approaches being deemed a “methodology”, “philosophy”, or a “framework” — by referring to all of these as methodologies, only with differing levels of specificity.
15 Popular project management methodologies
Here’s a good place to review some of the most popular project management methodologies — including their basic functionalities, key concepts, advantages, and disadvantages. The methodologies we will be looking at are:
- eXtreme Programming
- PRojects In Controlled Environments (PRINCE2)
- Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)
- Critical Path Method (CPM)
- Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM)
- Six Sigma
- Adaptive Project Framework (APF)
- Rapid Application Development (RAD)
⭐ Agile, in short: Collaborating with customers to continually deliver working software.
According to the Agile manifesto, this is a “lightweight” project management methodology used in software development.
Agile is aimed at facilitating effective responses to change — instead of sticking to a rigid plan. The authors of this manifesto embrace the importance of modeling, documentation, and planning — but also recognize their limitations in turbulent situations.
Following the basic principle of “agility”, the authors cite the values that shape this methodology:
- Individuals and personal interactions > Processes and tools
- Working software > Comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration > Contract negotiation
- Responding to change > Following a plan
As for the specifics, all projects are done in separate iterations, all comprised of the following steps:
✅ Advantages of the Agile methodology
- It is adaptive to changing environments
- It is geared towards ensuring customer satisfaction
- It requires minimal documentation
- It reduces risks of development, such as unexpected cost
❌ Disadvantages of the Agile methodology
However, there are also disadvantages that hinder the success of Agile. Here are a few:
- Reliance on customer interactions
- Lack of documentation
- Constantly changing requirements that waste time and resources
- Providing more value to managers than to developers
⭐ Scrum, in short: Incremental and responsive process, oriented around monthly Sprints.
The creators of the Scrum methodology have defined it as an agile framework for software development.
As such, Scrum should be responsive to both the initial and the additional requirements that are presented during the development process.
The key elements of Scrum are as follows:
- SPRINT — a period of time (usually one month or less), during which a potentially releasable product is developed.
- SCRUM ARTIFACTS
- Product Backlog — a list of all the requirements the end product must meet, including their description, order, estimate, and value;
- Sprint Backlog — this is a list of working items meant to monitor the Sprint progress, also known as User Stories;
- Increment — version of a product after a Sprint, a step forward in the development process.
- THE SCRUM TEAM
- The Scrum Master — leader of the Scrum Team, responsible for the adherence to Scrum rules and values;
- The Product Owner — manages the Product Backlog, optimizes the work of the Development team;
- The Development Team — a cross-functional, self-organizing team of professionals that produces the Increment.
- SCRUM EVENTS
- Sprint planning — discussion around the objectives of the Sprint and Product Backlog items;
- The Daily Scrum — the Development Team synchronizes their activities in a 15-minute meeting;
- Sprint review — evaluation of what has been achieved by the Sprint;
- Sprint Retrospective — meeting between two Sprints, discussion around what can be improved in the work procedures.
✅ Advantages of the Scrum methodology
After analyzing data gathered from interviewing industry experts, this study showed what they perceived to be the advantages of Scrum:
- Reduced time to market
- Customer’s needs are better met
- Better learning opportunities
- Developers are more satisfied with the project end results
- A good development process transparency
- Increased collaboration
❌ Disadvantages of the Scrum methodology
And a word or two about some of the disadvantages of Scrum:
- Requires great discipline
- Does not scale well to large projects
- Implies “scope creep”, due to many iterations
- Not suited for mission-critical projects
⭐ Kanban, in short: Continuous, visual representation of task item data.
Kanban is a methodology first developed in the automotive industry, as a way of reducing waste and coping with planned and unplanned interruptions in the product development process. More recently, the Kanban approach has been adjusted for the needs of the software development industry.
The most notable feature of Kanban is how it organizes workflow in a visual manner, with the creation of what is known as a Kanban board. This tool organizes tasks by first assigning each one with its card, with the details of its execution. Then, the cards are put into several columns, each representing their level of completeness. This way, there is a continuous insight into task status, and how close the process is to finishing a deliverable product.
✅ Advantages of the Kanban methodology
When using Kanban in the field of software development, one study found the following advantages:
- A decrease in time needed for delivering the software
- Better quality software
- Improvements in team member coordination and communication
- Improvements in delivery consistency
- Fewer customer-reported deficits
❌ Disadvantages of the Kanban methodology
The same study that researched the advantages, also cited some of the shortcomings of Kanban:
- Not a standalone methodology — requires additional practices
- Hard to implement in existing company practices
- Requires specialized training
- Difficult to set task priority
⭐ Scrumban, in short: Just-in-time Kanban organization + Scrum iterations.
Combining some of the features of Kanban and Scrum, we get — Scrumban. This is an approach to project management that involves adapting Kanban concepts, such as a visual representation of task progression and its flexibility, to a Scrum framework.
This works by splitting long-term development plans into more manageable “buckets”, which are then sorted according to priority. The more imminent a task becomes, the better defined it gets and more attention is paid to it. The work-in-progress tasks are limited, allowing the development process to become more streamlined.
✅ Advantages of the Scrumban methodology
Here are some of the advantages of Scrumban, as cited in this research piece:
- Decisions are made when they are needed
- A short lead time
- Emphasis on continuous improvement
- Minimized waste of time and resources
❌ Disadvantages of the Scrumban methodology
And here are a few disadvantages of Scrumban:
- No best practices defined
- Difficult to track individual accomplishments
- Gives managers less control over the project
⭐ Kaizen, in short: Continuous improvement to organizations, involving all team members.
What Agile is to Scrum — Kaizen is to Lean.
Kaizen is a Japanese term that means “change for the better” or “continuous improvement”.
Essentially, it is the philosophy of continuously improving operations involving all employees.
While not a project management methodology per se, Kaizen is an important business philosophy that influenced the creation of the Lean PMM and Kanban — as well as some other modern project management methodologies.
The five S of Kaizen — its key principles — are the following:
- Seiri — Sort Out and prioritize tasks;
- Seition — Straighten and organize items and documents;
- Seiso — Shine the workplace, keep it clean;
- Seiketsu – Seiketsu — Standardize rules and policies;
- Shitsuke — Self-Discipline, adhere to the rules.
✅ Advantages of the Kaizen methodology
Some of the proven benefits of implementing the Kaizen philosophy include:
- More efficient production
- Reduction in resource waste
- Reduction in the cost of production
- Cost reduction
❌ Disadvantages of the Kaizen methodology
A few disadvantages that may come to mind with the Kaizen approach:
- Possible increase in employee burnout
- Low job satisfaction
- Difficulty with implementation into existing systems
- Implementation requires extensive staff training
⭐ Lean, in short: Careful planning in order to avoid reworking steps and unnecessary expenses.
Based on the business philosophy Toyota developed in the wake of World War II, Lean prioritizes careful planning and consideration of each step of the project production process. The Lean methodology posits that ensuring customer satisfaction from the start of production is one of the key elements of a successful business.
To successfully ensure customer satisfaction, lean methodology follows these steps:
- Identifying value
- Mapping the value stream
- Creating flow
- Establishing pull
- Seeking perfection
✅ Advantages of the Lean methodology
We can summarize some of the most defining advantages of Lean here:
- Customer satisfaction ensured from the get-go
- Improved brand loyalty
- Time saved because you don’t have to go back and change the product
- Real-time market response
- Fast return on investments
- The risk of failing significantly reduced
❌ Disadvantages of the Lean methodology
As with any other methodology, there are also downsides to Lean. Here are some:
- Little “buffer” room, errors can have devastating consequences
- Inconsistent delivery
- Employee dissatisfaction due to expecting perfection
⭐ Waterfall, in short: Each step of the project process needs to be completed before continuing to the next one.
Waterfall is the classic approach to project management, used extensively up until the 80s.
It followed a basic structure of one part of the project process leading (cascading) into another — thus the waterfall imagery.
The basic nature of this methodology is not flexible, as it relies on all previous steps being completed perfectly, before going onto the next one. This also means that sudden changes are not anticipated, and can only be fixed once the project process is over, and another one is started from the beginning.
The steps of the project process are:
- Establishing the requirements
- Designing the product
- Implementing the design
- Verifying the success of implementation
- Maintenance of the finished product
✅ Advantages of the Waterfall methodology
- Great for simple projects
- Simple and well-defined steps
- Easy to implement
❌ Disadvantages of the Waterfall methodology
The disadvantages of Waterfall are some of the following:
- Not a good choice for complex projects
- No feedback during the process
8. eXtreme Programming
⭐ eXtreme Programming, in short: Taking all the pros of traditional approaches to the extreme.
eXtreme Programming is a methodology designed to improve software quality, while staying responsive to changes in customer requirements.
Similar to other agile methodologies, it is focused on shorter cycles of development — which introduces points at which a customer can provide feedback and update requirements.
The name of this methodology comes from the idea that beneficial elements of traditional software engineering are taken to the extreme.
- Code reviews taken to the extreme become pair programming
- Unit testing turns into testing all code
- Features are not programmed until they are specifically needed
- Frequent communication between programmers and customers
✅ Advantages of the eXtreme Programming methodology
According to this study, the advantages of implementing this methodology include:
- Frequent unit testing
- Continuous integration
- An emphasis placed on simplicity
- Developers play an important role in deciding the prime factors that go into the project
- Focus on the customer
❌ Disadvantages of the eXtreme Programming methodology
On the other hand, some of the disadvantages of eXtreme Programming include the following:
- Pair programming is not everyone’s cup of tea
- Design is put off until the last minute, due to frequent refactoring
- Not enough time is set aside for planning
9. Projects In Controlled Environments (PRINCE2)
⭐ PRINCE2, in short: A highly structured, all-encompassing approach to project management.
PRINCE2 is short for Projects IN Controlled Environments, and it is a methodology first developed for the needs of managing computer projects. Later expanded to apply to other types of projects, this methodology is based around seven main themes. They are:
- The existence of a business case
- Quality in project environment
- Risk management
- Change control
- Progress tracking
Additionally, there are the following seven basic principles:
- Continuous updates to the business case
- Learning from experience
- Defining roles and responsibilities
- Splitting the project process into stages
- Establishing the limits of delegated responsibilities
- Focusing on products
- Adapting to the environment
The implementation of PRINCE2 requires in-depth knowledge of all of these elements.
✅ Advantages of the PRINCE2 methodology
Important advantages of the PRINCE2 methodology are the following:
- Existence of official certification
- All aspects of the product development process are addressed
- Easily scalable
- Complementary to PMBOK
❌ Disadvantages of the PRINCE2 methodology
And as for the disadvantages of PRINCE2, here we note some:
- Focus on structure, providing few practical tools and techniques
- Requires plenty of experience for efficient implementation
- Doesn’t pay too much attention to the human element
10. Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)
⭐ PMBOK, in short: The standard for project management best practices.
Developed by the Project Management Institute, PMBOK is short for Project Management Body of Knowledge. It is the international standard of best practices in project management. PMBOK is a descriptive methodology, which details specific tools and techniques for project management. Certain parts of PMBOK overlap with PRINCE2 and these two can be used in tandem.
PMBOK relies on 5 groups of processes, including:
- Initiating the processes
- Planning the processes
- Controlling the processes
- Executing the processes
- Closing the processes
✅ Advantages of the PMBOK methodology
Notable advantages of PMBOK include:
- It is a recognized standard for project management best practices
- It helps companies standardize processes
- Each step is well-documented
- It is a straightforward methodology
❌ Disadvantages of the PMBOK methodology
There are no official major disadvantages to PMBOK — other than having to adjust it to the project size.
11. Critical Path Method (CPM)
⭐ CPM, in short: Calculate the critical path that leads to project completion in the most efficient way.
The Critical Path Method (CPM) is a methodology that focuses on building a model that predicts the longest path the project activities can take from start to finish. It then works in retrospect to define the “critical” paths the activities can take without making the project longer — or even reducing its length.
For the most part, this methodology is useful for visually representing the most efficient order in which tasks can be executed.
✅ Advantages of the Critical Path Method
The key advantages of the Critical Path Method are the following:
- It can identify tasks that run parallel to each other
- It helps identify critical steps in the development process
- It gives a practical, visual model of the process
- It has widespread use
❌ Disadvantages of the Critical Path Method
On the other hand, we also have some disadvantages to the Critical Path Method:
- Does not cover staff scheduling
- Hard to estimate time necessary to complete tasks
- The critical path is not always clear
- Gets complicated for bigger projects
12. Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM)
⭐ CCPM, in short: Manage resources by predicting interruptions and uncertainties.
In Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM), the emphasis is put on planning and managing the resources that go into accomplishing project goals. This methodology is based on calculating the resources needed to keep the people, the equipment, the physical space, and other requirements in the best shape possible to complete the project.
The task of efficiently calculating the necessary resources requires flexibility, and CCPM accomplishes this by introducing three types of buffers:
- Project Buffers — extra time added in to preserve the project completion date
- Feeding Buffers — added to non-critical chains, so that delays don’t affect the critical chains
- Resource Buffers — inserted into the critical chain to make sure necessary resources are available when needed
✅ Advantages of the Critical Chain Project Management methodology
Among the commonly cited advantages of Critical Chain Project Management, we have:
- Reduces project duration
- Improves reliability when it comes to delivery dates
- Notices threats to early delivery
❌ Disadvantages of the Critical Chain Project Management methodology
Some of the issues often encountered when employing the Critical Chain Project Management methodology are:
- Inaccurate calculations for time needed to finish tasks
- Starting the task late as the allotted time frame allows it
- May lead to multitasking
13. Six Sigma
⭐ Six Sigma, in short: Using data to prevent manufacturing defects.
Developed for the purposes of improving business processes, Six Sigma is a methodology that prioritizes the use of statistical data to prevent development defects. It is a combination of tools businesses can use to make improvements to their development cycles.
The six elements that comprise this model are:
- Define the project end goal
- Measure data relevant to the development process
- Analyze the data to establish causal relationships
- Improve the current process
- Control the improved process to prevent defects
✅ Advantages of the Six Sigma methodology
Frequently mentioned pros of Six Sigma include:
- Improved product quality
- Optimized internal company processes
- Improved rates of customer satisfaction
- Easy solutions to identify potential problems
❌ Disadvantages of the Six Sigma methodology
To follow up, some of the disadvantages of Six Sigma might be that:
- It is time-consuming
- It requires a lot of data
- It can quickly get expensive
14. Adaptive Project Framework (APF)
⭐ APF, in short: Flexible phases in the project development cycle.
The Adaptive Project Framework (APF) is another methodology focused on “expecting the unexpected” in the software development process. Also known as Adaptive Project Management, this process is organized into 5 phases, each of which is designed in a way that facilitates a flexible approach to the project.
These 5 phases are:
- Project Scope
- Cycle Plan
- Cycle Completion
- Client Checkpoint
- Final Review
✅ Advantages of the Adaptive Project Framework methodology
Here are some of the advantages of Adaptive Project Framework:
- Helps define the steps to achieving a goal
- Can be adapted to individual projects
- Involves flexible processes
- Makes room for assessments and feedback
❌ Disadvantages of the APF methodology
And, here we list some of the disadvantages of Adaptive Project Framework:
- Can cause project delays
- Increases project costs
- Can lead to “scope creep”
15. Rapid Application Development (RAD)
⭐ RAD, in short: Focused on ongoing application development
First developed in the 80s for the needs of the growing software development industry, Rapid Application Development (RAD) is a methodology that emphasizes ongoing product development. Instead of being caught up in following a strict plan, RAD is an agile methodology that proposes the following stages of all development processes:
- Designing a loose set of requirements
- Building a prototype
- Collecting feedback from clients and end-users
- Testing the product
- Optimizing the implementation
✅ Advantages of the Rapid Application Development methodology
The advantages of the Rapid Application Development model are some of the following:
- Adaptable to change
- Reduces risks
- Includes prototyping, which reduces defects
- Increases productivity
❌ Disadvantages of the Rapid Application Development methodology
As for the disadvantages of Rapid Application Development, some of those are noted here:
- Cannot be used in small projects
- Not easily scalable
- Hard to track progress without documentation
- Requires highly trained and experienced developers
How to choose the right project management methodology
Choosing the right project management methodology is a matter of first evaluating your goal and what you can work with to achieve this — and then referring to known applications of several PMMs and choosing the one most suited to your needs.
In line with that, here’s how you can choose the right project management methodology for your project. It’s all about what you want to accomplish with the PMM. To understand this, you’ll need to evaluate your goals — by asking a series of 4 questions aimed at evaluating your needs, resources, team members, and the allotted time frame for finishing the project.
Question #1: What are our goals for this project?
This is the most important question, around which you can organize your approach to the project. If you’re trying to put a rocket into space, you probably won’t put “office decorations” at the top of your list of priorities. So, in other words — define clear goals for your project.
🔻 Example of asking about project goals:
Mikayla leads a team of four software engineers as the Scrum Master. She organizes a meeting with clients and developers, to discuss questions about project goals, resources, and deadlines. The first and most important question she asks is:
“What should our goal be?”
In conversations with developers, who help determine what is possible and what needs to be adjusted, clients come to present their goal for the project — to build a ski gear e-commerce app.
Question #2: What resources are available?
Once you’ve established what needs to be done, it’s time to look at what resources you can get your hands on to do what needs to be done. This includes the approved budget for the realization of your project, the logistics of putting the project into development and distribution, as well as the number and profile of the team members needed.
🔻 Example of asking about available resources:
After defining the main purpose of the project, Mikayla follows up by asking the clients:
“What resources are you willing to provide?”
And when the clients respond, she asks her team members:
“What resources do we bring to the table?”
The following discussion provides appropriate answers, and the team can note down the total resources that will be available for the duration of the project.
Question #3: What deadlines are we working with?
This question is also very important — do you have a deadline?
If you do, how strict is it?
Is it just a vague notion of “we need to get this done at some point”, or are there dates and hours involved?
Usually, vague and ill-defined deadlines lead to little to no work being done. Or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, deadlines that are too tight and expectations of perfection burn out employees. To counter this — several project management methodologies suggest having a set deadline, but allowing “buffer” room for mistakes.
🔻 Example of asking about deadlines:
Having finished the part of the discussion that dealt with resources and project goals, Mikayla decides to ask the clients:
“When do you expect this app to launch? If unexpected delays occur, will this affect you greatly?”
The clients go on to say when they expect the app to be completed, but note that the date is not set in stone, and can be pushed back if need be.
Question #4: How many team members do we have and how can they contribute?
We could extend the previous question into asking how many team members do you have?
And, how can they contribute to the project?
What are their areas of expertise and level of experience?
Once you have a good understanding of their profiles, you can assign each team member with an appropriate role.
🔻 Example of asking about team member contributions:
With all prerequisites set, Mikayla first asks her team members:
“In what way would you like to contribute to this project?”
And when she gets the answers, she decides if these contributions are appropriate, and whether someone can take on additional responsibilities, or relay some to other team members.
When you’ve answered all of these questions, you can assess the methodologies we listed in the previous segment, to see which one fits your needs the best.
🔻 Example of choosing a methodology:
Having collected all the necessary information by asking this set of questions, Mikayla goes on to choose the methodology the team will use for this project.
In this case, she decides that the most appropriate methodology would be — Scrumban.
She finds that Scruman is a perfect fit for effective communication in her team and it is also the methodology her team is used to.
The use of Kanban boards has proved to be very effective, so this element also aligns well with her team’s project development process.
In addition, a big plus is that the customers love the team’s ability to provide early deliverables.
In conclusion: Choose a PMM that fits the needs of your project
There is a true abundance of project management methodologies in the world today. Many of them are based around similar concepts, like branches with a common root.
There are also those that have a completely unique approach.
When choosing the right methodology, what it comes down to is making sure that its features are compatible with the type of project you wish to complete.
This requires you to first have a clear understanding of your requirements, and then to inform yourself about the pros and cons of different approaches.
This guide was written in hopes of making the latter task a bit easier — by providing a basic overview of some of the more popular project management methodologies you can choose from right now.
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