Understanding the Different Project Management Methodologies

With countless project management methodologies, you may struggle to decide which one to follow for your next project, especially as they all claim to be the best.

In this guide, we’ll explain the difference between agile, waterfall, and lean frameworks and how popular project management methodologies like PRINCE2, scrum, and Kanban fit within them.

You’ll learn what each one is good for (and what they aren’t good for), who uses them, and everything in between to help you choose the right project management methodology for your team.

Key Takeaways

  • Waterfall project management methodologies, such as PRINCE2, are best suited for predictable projects with clearly defined outcomes, requiring accurate planning and estimations.
  • Agile methodologies are best for flexible projects, where requirements are less defined, and stakeholders are happy to exchange long-term plans for faster iteration.
  • Lean methodologies, such as Kanban, work best when combined with other agile or waterfall methodologies to improve processes, increase efficiency, and reduce waste.

What is a Project Management Methodology?

A project management methodology is a set of principles, rules, and processes for planning, coordinating, and completing a project.

The terms “methodology” and “framework” are often used interchangeably, but in the case of project management, there’s an important distinction.

  • Framework: The overall philosophy of the management approach, such as agile, lean, or waterfall.
  • Methodology: The set of instructions for implementing the framework. For example, scrum is a popular agile methodology, and PRINCE2 is a well-known waterfall methodology.

Each project management methodology offers a different approach to dealing with common project problems such as delayed timelines, budget overspends, and miscommunication.

Think of a methodology as a project “recipe” that defines the resources, timings, and processes you should follow to deliver the desired results.

So, in the same way that chefs offer various approaches to making the perfect cupcake, project management methodologies all provide different ways of achieving the same project goals.

Project Methodologies Overview

Here’s a table overview comparing the different project management methodologies for project managers:

Name Best for Used by Pros Cons
PRINCE2 Structured, predictable projects with large teams. Construction, manufacturing, and government sectors. Easy to budget, plan, and communicate. Inflexible, requiring detailed documentation upfront.
Critical Path Method Clarifying essential requirements in complex projects. Government and large corporations. Quick and easy to implement. Helps identify key tasks but doesn’t manage their delivery.
Scrum Projects with flexible requirements and timelines. Technology and software businesses. Widely adopted and effective with small teams. Requires a highly skilled product owner.
XP Poorly defined requirements in highly technical projects. Advanced software engineering teams. Low overheads, rapid iteration. Requires highly skilled engineers and risks wasted effort.
Kanban Visualizing project progress and identifying bottlenecks. Most agile teams. Widely adopted, plus quick and easy to implement. Long-term planning is difficult.
Six Sigma Improving the efficiency of repeatable processes. Automotive, aerospace, and electronics companies. Comprehensive training and guidance. Steep learning curve.
SAFe Managing agile processes in enterprise organizations. Large enterprises. Longer-term visibility of agile projects. Introduces additional management overheads.
LeSS Growing teams already familiar with scrum. Large enterprises. Re-uses established processes with no additional overheads. Poor dependency management.

Common Project Management Frameworks

The three main project management frameworks are waterfall, lean, and agile. We’ll now examine their differences, highlight the most common and best project management methodologies, and explore some hybrid frameworks that have emerged in recent years.

Waterfall Project Management

This framework gets its name because it resembles the flow of water cascading down a waterfall. The project follows a predetermined order, with each phase leading to the next.

Crucially, the next phase can’t begin until the previous one is completed. This rigid approach is commonly used in manufacturing and construction projects.

This is because the building processes must be completed in a specific order. It’s no good fitting the windows of a house if the walls aren’t built first, for example.

The focus on planning, organization, and control makes it ideal for government projects, too.

Core Principles

The waterfall project management methodology includes the following steps:

1. Requirements Gathering2. Design3. Implementation4. Verification or Testing5. Delivery or Deployment6. Maintenance

This is the project’s initial phase. The team conducts interviews, brainstorms ideas, and defines the deliverables. The information is made readily accessible for regular referral.

The team designs and proposes a solution to meet the project’s requirements. It may go through several iterations until everybody agrees, but nothing gets built until the design is approved.

The team can now begin building to the design specifications. This stage is typically broken down into phases or milestones to help keep the project on track, but nothing deviates from the agreed designs.

The delivered solution or product is tested against the requirements, the design, and for any defects. This is the highest-risk stage of the process—if any new requirements are identified, the project must start again.

The final product is delivered to the customer or user. This may be as simple as handing over some keys, or it may involve further legal processes or technical tasks, such as moving the product to a production environment.

Following the launch, there’s usually an agreed phase of ongoing maintenance or support for what’s been delivered.

Prospros

  • Easy to plan budgets and estimate timelines
  • Effortless to communicate progress to stakeholders
  • Great predictability and visibility for customers

Conscons

  • High risk of uncovering problems later on

The waterfall methodology is best suited to predictable projects that have been successfully delivered before, such as in business transformation or construction, with experienced teams who can accurately plan and estimate time and budget requirements.

Common Waterfall Methodologies

The waterfall method is dominated by two main approaches: PRINCE2 and the critical path methodology:

PRINCE2

PRINCE2

PRINCE2 is one of the most widely used waterfall project management methodologies. It was originally based on a 1989 UK government approach to managing IT projects.

It has since grown to apply to any type of project and boasts over a million certified professionals worldwide. PRINCE2 is a highly opinionated methodology with seven principles, themes, and processes.

Combined, they help project managers deliver successful project outcomes.

These principles are designed to establish the standards of good practice for project success:

  1. Continued business justification: Projects must make good business sense.
  2. Learn from experience: Teams shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes.
  3. Define roles: Everyone should know their own and others’ responsibilities.
  4. Manage by stages: Break difficult tasks down into smaller components.
  5. Manage by exception: Management interference should be kept to a minimum.
  6. Focus on products: Always keep the end goal in mind, not just completing each stage.
  7. Tailor to the environment: Adapt the methodology to suit the needs of the project.

The project management themes are defined at the start of the project life cycle and indicate the key knowledge areas:

  1. Business case: Why the project is worthwhile and achievable.
  2. Organization: The roles and responsibilities of everyone in the team.
  3. Quality: How quality will be measured.
  4. Plans: How targets will be achieved with a focus on timescale, cost, quality, and benefits.
  5. Risk: Identify, assess, and control uncertainties during the project.
  6. Change: How to handle and agree on change requests before they’re implemented.
  7. Progress: How to track the performance of the proposed plan.

The processes break down the stages of a project, with each one approved by the board:

  1. Starting up a project: Defining the purpose, the project brief, and the project team.
  2. Initiating a project: Outlining how to manage time, cost, quality, project scope, and risks.
  3. Directing a project: Defining the boundaries the team can operate in.
  4. Controlling a stage: Assigning and coordinating the work and communicating updates.
  5. Managing product delivery: Delivering the required work.
  6. Managing stage boundaries: Gain approval to move on to the next phase.
  7. Closing a project: Hand over to the customer and complete project evaluations.

Prospros

  • Provides a solution to any project management challenge
  • Easy to move projects between teams or teams between projects
  • Highly compatible with online project management software

Conscons

  • Too inflexible to account for changes in circumstances
  • Experienced project managers may find it overly restrictive
  • Requires initial documentation to be accurate
Critical Path Method (CPM)

Critical Path Method (CPM)

CPM was popularized for project management in the 1950s but is less commonly used than PRINCE2. It focuses on:

  1. Identifying critical tasks that need completing for project delivery
  2. Recognizing dependencies to ensure tasks are done in the correct order

Once these essential tasks are mapped out in a diagram or flowchart, the project team must estimate how long each one will take to complete.

The critical path method defines the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed to deliver the project successfully. This is not to be confused with Critical Chain project management.

Prospros

  • Effective for identifying bottlenecks or dependencies

Conscons

  • Success depends on accurate estimation
  • Only identifies key tasks

Agile Project Management Methodology

Agile became one of the most popular project management methods in the early 2000s, accounting for the pace of technology and software projects. It’s now the dominant project management approach globally.

In fact, 61% of companies and 86% of software developers use it.

Core Principles

The principles of agile project management are defined in the Agile Manifesto, specifying exactly how the approach is different from traditional project management methods:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The key stages of the agile project management methodology are “plan,” “design,” “deploy,” “develop,” “test,” and “review.” These are mostly identical to the waterfall method, but they’re a circular, iterative process rather than linear.

The focus in the agile project management methodology shifts from detailed planning in advance to flexibility and embracing changing requirements as the project develops.

The 12 Key Principles of Agile Methodologies

These are the 12 key principles to this project management method:

  1. Satisfy the customer: Through early and continuous delivery of working software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements: Even late in the development cycle.
  3. Deliver working software frequently: Every few weeks or months. Quicker is better.
  4. Work together: Business people and developers must work together daily.
  5. Build around motivated individuals: Trust the right people to get the job done.
  6. Face-to-face conversation: This is the most effective method of converting information.
  7. Working software: This is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Sustainable pace: The team should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Attention to excellence: Good design and technical excellence enhance agility.
  10. Simplicity: Reduce unnecessary work.
  11. Self-organization: The best products come from self-organizing teams.
  12. Reflect: Teams should consider how to become more effective regularly.

Prospros

  • Delivers a working solution as quickly as possible
  • Provides greater freedom to prioritize work for the best solution
  • Stakeholders can see how the end product is developing

Conscons

  • Long-term planning is nearly impossible
  • Delivering significantly improved software in short intervals can be challenging
  • More suitable for dynamically changing projects with smaller teams

Common Agile Methodologies

The popularity of the agile project methodology has led to the development of many competing methodologies, but it’s most commonly associated with scrum.

Scrum

Scrum

Scrum gets its name from rugby, where a team comes together to move the ball forward. This agile methodology focuses on short bursts of effort, iterative development, and collaborative teamwork.

The scrum team is formed by:

  • A development team: Those who will undertake the work.
  • A product owner: The individual who defines the work to be done on behalf of the customer.
  • A scrum master: The individual who ensures the scrum practices and processes are followed.

Each project starts with a prioritized list of tasks to complete, called the project “backlog. The team adds to it as new requirements or tasks are identified.

They also ensure that everything needed to complete a task, such as designs or stakeholder approval, is available. Tasks are then allocated to a “sprint“.

A sprint is a short period of typically two to four weeks, and each sprint focuses on delivering new features or continuous improvement to the customer.

Scrum teams are encouraged to complete all the tasks in these short development cycles within the time allowed rather than roll them over from one sprint to the next.

The team has regular meetings, known as “ceremonies,” too, which support the sprint process and involve the following:

  • Sprint planning: Product owners assign backlog items to a sprint for completion.
  • Sprint review: The team demonstrates their work and gathers feedback after each sprint.
  • Sprint retrospective: The team considers their performance in the last sprint and considers ways they can improve in the future.
  • Daily scrum: A quick five- to 10-minute meeting between the team to discuss progress and highlight any challenges.

Prospros

  • Empowers teams to define the best approach
  • Backlogs and sprints allow for changing priorities
  • Sprint reviews provide accountability (great for stakeholders)
  • Excellent for software development projects

Conscons

  • Relies heavily on a skilled and capable product owner
  • Estimated delivery frequently moves as the backlog changes

Despite the challenges, the scrum project management methodology is now so widely adopted in software development that most modern project management tools like Monday.com support it.

Others, like Clickup and Zoho Projects, similarly provide features for backlog management, sprint planning, and task tracking in sprints.

Extreme Programming (XP)

Extreme Programming (XP)

XP is less structured than scrum, created specifically to handle software projects where the customer doesn’t have a clear understanding of what the final product should look like.

Instead of spending time on design, planning, or documentation without clearly defined requirements, the XP methodology suggests the best approach is to work with the customer.

This involves building something immediately with smaller, shorter release cycles than a scrum sprint. The primary differentiating practices of an XP approach include the following:

  • Pair programming: Two developers of equal skill work together on one workstation to produce code of higher quality.
  • Test-driven development: Software developers should write the tests before they write the code to ensure it meets test standards.
  • Collective code ownership: Everyone on the team should feel responsible for the entire codebase, which encourages collaboration and improves quality.

Prospros

  • Empowers developers to define everything with the customer
  • Intentional lack of structure results in significant cost savings
  • Focus on collaboration and quality results in better performance

Conscons

  • Requires customers to embed themselves in the project team
  • Uncontrolled customer-led development risks scope creep
  • The lack of structure can lead to costly re-works

Lean Framework

The lean methodology was inspired by the Toyota Production System, which, unlike other project management methodologies, was used to improve business processes (in this case, manufacturing) and reduce waste.

Core Principles

The lean project management methodology focuses on existing processes and how to optimize them by eliminating waste and inefficiencies.

The 3 types of waste are:

  • Muda: Activities that consume resources without providing additional value.
  • Muri: Overuse of equipment or specific employees.
  • Mura: Operational imbalance, which results in long-term reduction in productivity or efficiency.

These are the 5 key principles used in identifying and eliminating waste:

  1. Identify value: Similar to a business case, the problem the project solves.
  2. Map the value stream: Diagram your ideal project workflow from initiation to completion, and then diagram your existing project workflow and identify waste.
  3. Create flow: Remove the waste identified in step two.
  4. Establish pull: As one team member completes a task, that task should seamlessly move to the next person in the process.
  5. Continuous improvement: Repeat the process and strive for perfection.

This approach is likely to uncover the following inefficiencies in your processes:

  • Overproduction: Building or maintaining unnecessary features.
  • Inventory: Waste from incomplete work or mismanaged backlogs.
  • Motion: Asking workers to context-switch too frequently.
  • Defects: Results in expensive repairs and wasted time.
  • Overprocessing: Upgrades the customer doesn’t need.
  • Waiting: Delays in the timeline
  • Fragmented teams: Miscommunication and unnecessary meetings.

Prospros

  • Optimizes existing processes
  • Doesn’t require any additions to your existing team or processes
  • Predict the costs, duration, and resources for each step

Conscons

  • Provides little guidance on how to define or deliver a project
  • Defining an ideal workflow can be challenging
  • Not suitable for one-off projects

Common Lean Methodologies

Given the unstructured nature of the lean framework, lean project management methodologies are often used in conjunction with more structured approaches, like Scrum or PRINCE2.

Kanban

Kanban

This simple, visual planning system was introduced to the Toyota Motor Company in 1943 to improve efficiency in their automotive production processes.

It’s since grown to become one of the most recognizable and widely used project management methodologies.

  • Kanban boards are visual representations of the current status of any project.
  • The board is divided into columns, with each column representing a different task status.
  • In the simplest Kanban boards, there are 3 columns—”to do,” “in progress,” and “done.”
  • If you manage complex projects, you can include additional columns such as “planning,” “testing,” or “review.”

The team must work together to ensure each task moves through all the project phases as quickly as possible. Each column is subject to a “work in progress” (WIP) limit, too.

This prevents too many tasks from being at the same stage of the project. If a task can’t be moved to the next phase of the process because of a WIP limit in the next stage, it’s considered “blocked.”

Team members are expected to work together to unblock tasks as quickly as possible. Project managers can quickly see what tasks are being worked on, what hasn’t been started, and what has been done.

With the Kanban methodology, bottlenecks in a process or entire project are easily identified by a buildup of work in any one column.

Prospros

  • Improves visibility and collaboration within small teams
  • Helps project managers identify and improve process efficiencies
  • Easy to learn and implement

Conscons

  • Following the rules can be challenging
  • No guidance on how to scope or plan your project
Six Sigma

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is another process improvement methodology that focuses on limiting variation and minimizing product defects.

Motorola developed the methodology in the 1980s to rate the maturity of a process. A “sigma” rating indicates the percentage of products shipped without defects.

A “Six Sigma” process is one in which 99.9997% of products are expected to be free of defects, indicating high levels of efficiency within a project team.

Six Sigma is perhaps best known for its multi-level, martial-arts style training program. Each level is represented by a colored belt, from white to black, indicating the practitioner’s knowledge level.

To achieve maximum process efficiency, Six Sigma proposes 5 key principles a team should follow:

  1. Focus on the customer: Any changes should deliver maximum benefit to the customer.
  2. Identify the root cause: Gather and use data to understand problems.
  3. Reduce variation: Change processes to reduce defects and improve consistency.
  4. Clear communication: Involve all stakeholders in decision-making.
  5. Be flexible: Process change requires staff to be responsive to an evolving workplace.

Depending on the maturity of the process, there are two approaches to take:

  1. DMAIC: This stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control and is used to optimize existing business processes.
  2. DMADV: This stands for define, measure, analyze, design, and verify and is used to create processes that don’t yet exist.

Prospros

  • Offers documentation and guidance on how to improve your processes
  • Provides organization-wide efficiency savings

Conscons

  • Not widely adopted
  • Rigid structure and complex jargon

Hybrid Methodologies

Hybrid approaches have been created in an attempt to bridge the gap between the flexibility of agile and the predictability of waterfall frameworks.

They’re increasingly common in large organizations that wish to move away from traditional waterfall approaches but still need to deliver large, complex projects on time and within budget.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

SAFe combines lean, agile, and waterfall principles to provide a structure that helps large organizations have some control over multiple agile teams.

This enables portfolios of projects to work seamlessly together rather than as independent pieces of work. Here’s how it works:

Potentially Shippable IncrementRelease Train Engineer

Teams work together to build a “potentially shippable increment” every 5 sprints. This is a much larger and more complex piece of work than would be expected of a traditional scrum team.

Project work is typically broken down into components or by user journey and shared across the teams.

To coordinate multiple teams, a “release train engineer” works across project teams to ensure all the work being delivered will combine into one cohesive deliverable.

Release train engineers also communicate the project’s progress to the board and the customers, gathering feedback on the potentially shippable increment and communicating it back down to the individual project teams.

Example: If you were building a marketplace app, you may have one team focused on the seller experience, one on the buyer experience, and another for administrators or support.

The release train engineer then makes sure that no team releases a new feature before the other is ready by sharing information between the teams and setting appropriate priorities.

Prospros

  • Very adaptive project framework
  • Flexibility to plan and organize backlogs and sprints
  • Provides control and flexibility to define longer-term priorities

Conscons

  • Shifts decision-making from project engineers to executives
Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

LeSS was introduced as an extension to the scrum methodology in 2008 to help scale scrum practices to larger organizations and more extreme project management needs.

As with SAFe, LeSS tackles the problem of coordinating multiple independent agile project teams. To do this, it suggests that each scrum team should:

  • Work to the same sprint cycle
  • Work from the same shared backlog
  • Share a project owner (who’s responsible for prioritizing the backlog)

Unlike SAFe, there’s no additional management layer to coordinate the various teams. Instead, all the teams come together to work as one giant scrum team. There are two versions of LeSS:

  1. Basic: For two to eight teams (10-50 people)
  2. Huge: For more than eight teams (50-6000+ people)

The primary difference is that in “LeSS huge,” there are multiple product owners who each take responsibility for a subset of the scrum teams and collaborate to prioritize the backlog.

Prospros

  • Teams familiar with scrum will have no difficulty adjusting practices.
  • No additional overhead, management, or documentation requirements

Conscons

  • No additional visibility or control over project timelines
  • Depends heavily on a single highly skilled leader

How to Implement a New Project Management Methodology

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Implementing your chosen methodology is a challenging task, especially if you’re inheriting a new team or an existing team that favors a different approach.

Cultural shifts of this kind may not happen quickly or easily, but there are a few project management best practices you can follow to ensure a smooth transition.

  1. Be Transparent

    Clarify the reason why you want to implement a new project management methodology and explain the problems you hope to solve by doing so. Be clear on when you expect responsibilities and working practices to change.
  2. Gather Support

    Look for any team members proactively supporting the changes you’re implementing and involve them as much as possible. Make sure senior leaders endorse your efforts publicly.
  3. Use the Right Software

    The best task management software can make it much easier to coordinate your tasks across multiple teams and communicate the progress with stakeholders. However, avoid introducing unnecessary complexity or too many tools.
  4. Don’t Rush

    It may make sense to implement the new approach with one team first. This will allow you to gather feedback on the transition and adapt your strategy for the broader rollout.

Conclusion

The variety of project management methodologies can be overwhelming at first, but in reality, there are only three fundamental frameworks to choose from:

  1. Agile — If the customer is flexible and doesn’t know the best way to solve their problem, prioritize this approach.
  2. Lean — Use lean frameworks to eliminate waste and improve efficiency in any project.
  3. Waterfall — Use this approach if the customer has clear objectives, strict deadlines, and expects regular progress reports.

Once you’ve chosen the right project management methodology for you, the next step is to ensure you have the best project management software to put everything together. With the right methodology and tools in hand, your project is sure to be a success.

FAQs

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Joe Crocker
SaaS Product Expert

Joe is a former police officer with over 10 years of cybercrime detective work under his belt. He's coordinated the response to thousands of complex investigations involving multiple stakeholders, analyzing complex datasets, conducting interviews, and writing comprehensive reports. Joe also served as a hiring manager for 3+ years, growing and managing the unit's team. Upon leaving the police force, Joe began his career in product management, helping companies build and launch digital products. He now brings his many years of experience in cybersecurity and digital product management to Techopedia.