Project Management Methods: How to select the best for you

by Jörg Friedrich

Achieving Project Success with the Right Methods

A project management method is a structured approach to planning, executing, monitoring, and closing projects. Project management methods provide specific techniques and processes to help conduct projects efficiently and effectively.

There are two major schools of thought that advocate fundamentally different approaches to project management. These methods are:

  1. Classical methodology with thorough planning and sequential approach
  2. Agile methodology with flexible planning and iterative approach

Within these schools, there are several distinct models. For the traditional methodology, these include the Waterfall model, the V-Model, PRINCE2, the Spiral model, and the Rational Unified Process. For the agile school of thought, these include Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, and Extreme Programming.

Overarching these methods are reference models that provide criteria for the quality of specific process implementations, thereby implying what constitutes good project management. The most well-known reference models are CMMI, ISO/IEC 15504, ISO 9001, and Automotive SPICE.

Fundamental Decision: Classical or Agile?

The main difference between classical (traditional) and agile project management lies in the way projects are planned, executed, and controlled. The following table highlights the key differences.

  Classical Agile
Planning and Flexibility
  • Comprehensive and detailed project planning from the start;
  • Goal: Avoiding costly changes during the project lifecycle
  • Dynamic development of requirements
  • Ongoing feedback
  • Assumption: Changes are managed with minimal effort
Phases and Iterations
  • Sequential phases; the project plan is established before the project starts.
  • Series of short iterations or sprints, where the project is incrementally developed.
Customer Involvement
  • Customer involvement mainly at the beginning and end of the project
  • Continuous collaboration and feedback from customers throughout the entire project

Circumstances favoring the Classical Approach

  • Fixed Deliverables: You need to deliver something well-defined by a fixed deadline.
  • Large Teams: The project requires more than 10 people for execution.
  • High Cost of Changes: Changes are expensive, such as in tool development or hardware.
  • Clear Requirements: The requirements can largely be clarified in advance.

Conditions favoring an Agile Process

The agile approach is advantageous in the following scenarios:

  • Control Over Deliverables: You can determine what to deliver at a specific time.
  • Small Teams: The project requires fewer than 10 people for execution.
  • Easy Changes: Changes are easily manageable (e.g., refactoring).
  • Incremental Delivery: You only need to deliver increments to something that already exists.
  • Unclear Requirements: The requirements are difficult to clarify in advance.

Classical Methods

Classical project management methods follow a comprehensive and holistic approach. A clearly defined end state is established and planned at the beginning of the project. Costs, schedules, resources, quality, and benefits are considered from the outset. This enables effective project control and management and provides a solid foundation for successful project execution.

Classical methods are based on experiences from many projects and are timelessly valuable, like classical music. With the emergence of agile methods, they have sometimes been labeled as outdated and obsolete. It is often overlooked that not everything good is new and not everything new is good.

The most well-known classical project management method is the Waterfall Model, which is why it is often synonymous with classical project management. The original V-Model is an extension of the Waterfall Model. The extremely useful V-Model XT (development standard) expands on the generic V-Model and allows for an agile approach within certain limits. We have categorized the Spiral Model and IBM's Rational Unified Process (RUP) under classical methods, although they already show many ideas that would justify their classification in the agile school of thought.

Classical methods are particularly suited to projects that:

  • require more than 10 people for implementation
  • where changes in requirements are expensive
  • where binding deadlines and performance commitments must be made

Waterfall Method

The Waterfall method is a traditional project management approach that has been used for decades. It is a linear and sequential method where the project is divided into phases. Each phase must be completed before the next one can begin. The phases include requirements gathering, design, implementation, testing, and deployment. The Waterfall method is suitable for all types of projects where late changes in requirements would be costly.

Advantages:

  • Well-defined structure: The Waterfall method is structured, making it easier for teams to understand what they need to do and when.
  • Clear deliverables: Each phase has defined deliverables that allow the project progress to be measured objectively.
  • Documentation-focused: The Waterfall method places a high emphasis on documentation, which is particularly important for large project teams where direct communication is less feasible.

Disadvantages:

  • Inflexible: Once a phase is completed, it is difficult to make changes to the produced outcomes. This requires good planning and robust requirements management.
  • Less direct collaboration: The Waterfall method promotes information flow primarily through documentation rather than direct interaction.
  • High risk: Since each phase depends on the successful completion of the previous one, any issues that arise can lead to significant delays.

V-Model XT

The term "V-Model" refers to both a general process model designed for software development and a development standard. The latest version of this standard is called V-Model XT, which supports not only the general process model approach but also many other methodologies. Here, we refer specifically to the development standard V-Model XT, not the general V-Model.

This standard is a framework for systems engineering and project management. It is an extension and concretization of the Waterfall model and is often applied in safety-critical and complex projects.

The V-Model XT proposes a specific approach. All necessary activities and their respective outcomes, called "products," are named and defined. For many products, templates are available that can be used directly.

The V-Model XT is also suitable for smaller organizations and projects by allowing customization. This "tailoring" is explicitly permitted and supported by tools.

Critical-Chain-Project Management

Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) helps prioritize work packages and manage the unavoidable variations in estimates. The method avoids harmful multitasking and reduces project duration through effective buffer management. The CCPM approach is as follows:

  1. Identification of Critical Resources: The first step is identifying the "critical resources" that are scarce in a project and could cause bottlenecks. These resources can be both people and items.
  2. Creation of the Critical Chain: After identifying the critical resources, the Critical Chain is created. This involves identifying the work packages or tasks dependent on these resources and having the longest duration regarding resource utilization. This chain represents the longest path in the project.
  3. Estimation and Buffer Management: In CCPM, estimates for work packages are made with an approximate 50% probability of completion. The difference between this estimate and a conservative estimate is used as a buffer for the project. This buffer is used collectively for all work packages on the Critical Chain to offset early and late completions.
  4. Operational Prioritization: Resources work on tasks on the Critical Chain, prioritizing based on the ratio of progress to buffer consumption. This ensures that critical tasks are prioritized to minimize project duration.
  5. Ongoing Monitoring and Adjustment: CCPM requires continuous monitoring of project progress and resource utilization. Adjustments are made as needed to ensure the project is completed on time.

In regular projects, employees estimate the duration of work packages and include a buffer for each package. Due to Parkinson's Law, which states that buffers are always used and never reduced, the Student Syndrome, which states that tasks are started as late as possible, and Murphy's Law, which states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, early completions are not utilized and delays are always passed on. CCPM effectively counteracts this phenomenon as well as harmful multitasking.

Agile Methods

Agile project management methods are characterized by flexibility, iteration, and a collaborative working approach. These methods are particularly effective in smaller projects where requirements are unclear, and in uncertain or rapidly changing environments.

The core of agility lies in breaking projects into small, manageable units known as iterations or sprints. During each iteration, a part of the project is developed, tested, and evaluated. The main agile methods include Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Programming (XP).

Agile project management is best suited for projects that require high real-time communication within small, motivated teams and less formal control. This method allows for quick adjustments during the project lifecycle and promotes interactivity among project participants. Agile project management is the optimal choice for such projects.

Agile approaches have gained significant popularity in recent years and are applied in various industries, from software development to product management and marketing.

Scrum

Scrum is a framework for agile project management. Originally designed for software development, it is now used in various industries. It is based on a set of principles and practices, as well as clearly defined roles, artifacts, and events.

1. Roles:

  • Product Owner: Responsible for defining and prioritizing requirements and maximizing the value of the product.
  • Scrum Master: Serves as a coach for the Scrum team, promotes adherence to Scrum practices, and removes obstacles.
  • Development Team: A group of professionals who create the product. They are self-organized and cross-functional.

2. Artifacts:

  • Product Backlog: A list of all requirements and tasks that need to be fulfilled for the project.
  • Sprint Backlog: A selection of items from the Product Backlog that are to be implemented during a Sprint.
  • Increment: The product or functionality created at the end of a Sprint.

3. Events:

  • Sprint: A timeframe of typically 2-4 weeks during which the development team works on the Increment.
  • Sprint Planning: The team plans which tasks will be completed during the Sprint.
  • Daily Scrum: Short daily meetings where the team discusses progress and any obstacles.
  • Sprint Review: A review of the Increment created at the end of the Sprint.
  • Sprint Retrospective: A meeting where the team reflects on the Sprint and discusses improvements.

Scrum enables quick responses to changes in requirements and priorities. It emphasizes the continuous delivery of products and close collaboration between team members, the Product Owner, and stakeholders. Scrum is particularly suitable for smaller projects with unclear requirements.

Kanban

Kanban is an agile framework for project management and task management that originated in Lean manufacturing. The word "Kanban" comes from Japanese and means "visual signal." The main goal of Kanban is to visualize the workflow, identify bottlenecks, prioritize work, and promote continuous improvement.

In a Kanban system, tasks, work steps, or projects are represented on physical or digital Kanban boards. These boards consist of columns corresponding to the different phases of the workflow and cards or tickets representing individual tasks. Each column can have a limit to control the workflow, ensuring that only a certain number of tasks are being worked on simultaneously.

The core principles of Kanban are:

  1. Visualization: Work is visible to all team members, creating better transparency and a shared understanding.
  2. Limiting Work in Progress (WIP): Each column on the Kanban board has a limited capacity to prevent overload and make bottlenecks visible.
  3. Continuous Workflow: Kanban promotes a smooth and continuous workflow, where tasks enter and leave the process as needed.
  4. Pull System: Tasks are pulled by the team based on capacity and need, rather than being pushed or assigned.
  5. Improvement: By continuously monitoring the workflow and identifying bottlenecks, continuous improvements and adjustments to the process are encouraged.

Kanban is flexible and can be applied in various industries and contexts, not just in software development. It helps optimize workflows, increase efficiency, and improve the quality of results by focusing on high-priority work and minimizing waste.

Scrumban

Scrumban is a hybrid project management method that combines the principles of Scrum and Kanban. It was developed to integrate the flexibility of Kanban with the structure of Scrum, thus enabling efficient working methods in agile projects.

In Scrumban, tasks are visualized on a Kanban board, similar to the pure Kanban approach. Tasks move through various columns to indicate their progress. Unlike Kanban, however, Scrumban also includes timeboxes known as Sprints, as in Scrum. During a Sprint, a selected set of tasks from the Kanban board is worked on within a defined time period.

The key features of Scrumban are:

  1. Continuous Delivery: Scrumban allows tasks to be worked on in a continuous flow while still benefiting from Sprint planning and reviews as used in Scrum.
  2. Flexibility: The team can respond to unforeseen changes during a Sprint and add or remove tasks from the workflow without jeopardizing the entire Sprint.
  3. Visualization and WIP Limitation: As in Kanban, work steps are visually represented, and the limitation of work in progress (WIP) is maintained to minimize bottlenecks.
  4. Improvements: Scrumban promotes continuous improvement through retrospective meetings and adjustments in the work process.

Scrumban is especially useful in situations where requirements or priorities frequently change, while still requiring some structure and planning. It offers the flexibility of Kanban and the planning capabilities of Scrum to meet the demands of agile projects.

DevOps

DevOps aims to improve collaboration between the development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops) areas within an organization. The main goal of DevOps is to accelerate software delivery, enhance application quality, and increase the efficiency of deployment and maintenance.

DevOps is based on the following key principles and practices:

  1. Collaboration: DevOps promotes close collaboration between developers and operations teams. This means that teams work together on planning, development, deployment, and maintenance of software.
  2. Automation: Automating processes such as builds, tests, and deployments is crucial to achieving repeatable and consistent results. Automation tools like GitLab, Jenkins, Ansible, and Docker are integral to DevOps.
  3. Continuous Integration (CI): Developers regularly integrate their code into the main codebase, and automated tests are conducted to detect errors early.
  4. Continuous Delivery (CD): Continuous delivery enables automated deployment of software changes into the production environment after passing CI tests.
  5. Monitoring and Feedback: DevOps relies on comprehensive monitoring to ensure application performance and availability. Feedback loops allow for quick identification and resolution of issues.
  6. Scalability: DevOps enables applications to be scaled quickly and to respond to changes in demand.

DevOps can reduce time-to-market, increase reliability, and improve efficiency. It promotes an agile and iterative approach to software development and operations, which is crucial in today's fast-paced IT world.

Lean

Lean in the context of project management refers to the application of Lean principles and methods, originally developed in the manufacturing industry, to the efficient and waste-free execution of projects. The goal of Lean Project Management is to maximize project success, minimize resource waste, and optimize the delivery of value to the customer.

The key Lean principles in project management are:

  1. Customer Focus: Lean emphasizes placing the needs and requirements of the customer at the center of the project, ensuring that customer value is maximized.
  2. Waste Elimination: Lean aims to reduce or eliminate all types of waste in the project, whether in the form of excessive work, unnecessary waiting times, or resource wastage.
  3. Continuous Improvement: The concept of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a central element of Lean. Teams are encouraged to constantly review and optimize their processes and work methods.
  4. Pull System: Similar to Kanban, Lean Project Management is based on a pull system where tasks are only performed when needed, rather than being pre-planned and stacked.
  5. Flow Optimization: Lean strives for a smooth workflow where tasks are completed continuously and without interruptions.
  6. Reduction of Variability: Managing uncertainty and variation is a crucial aspect of Lean to ensure predictability and stability.

Applying Lean in project management leads to more efficient resource utilization, shorter lead times, better quality control, and overall higher customer satisfaction. It is particularly useful in projects with changing requirements and complex workflows, where optimizing workflow and eliminating waste are critical.

Supporting Methods

A number of methods cover only a very specific aspect of project management or are collections of terminologies, principles, and practices, such as the PMBOK. Therefore, we do not list them here as project management methods but rather as "supporting methods." They are typically used to complement the more comprehensive methods.

PMBOK

The "PMBOK" stands for "Project Management Body of Knowledge." It is a set of standards and guidelines for project management, issued by the Project Management Institute (PMI). The PMBOK is not a method in the traditional sense but serves as a framework and guide for project managers across various industries. It encompasses best practices, processes, and terminologies in project management.

The main aspects of the PMBOK include:

  1. Process Groups: These divide the project management cycle into five groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing.
  2. Knowledge Areas: The PMBOK defines ten knowledge areas important for project management, such as Project Integration, Scope, Schedule, Cost, Quality, Resource, Communication, Risk, Procurement, and Stakeholder Management.
  3. Best Practices and Guidelines: It offers guidelines and best practices that can be applied in various project situations.
  4. Ethical Principles: The PMBOK also emphasizes the importance of ethics and professionalism in project management.

Anyone who is professionally involved in project management should be familiar with the PMBOK.

Earned Value Method

The Earned Value Method (EVM) is a project management technique that allows the actual progress of a project to be assessed and compared with planned expectations. EVM is based on three main parameters:

  1. Planned Value (PV): This is the value of the planned work up to a certain point in the project, often referred to as the budget.
  2. Earned Value (EV): This is the value of the actual work completed up to a certain point in the project, measured against the budget.
  3. Actual Cost (AC): This is the actual amount of costs incurred up to a certain point in the project.

Based on these values, several important metrics can be calculated:

  • Cost Performance Index (CPI): Indicates how efficiently the project is managing its costs (CPI = EV / AC). A value above 1 indicates that the project is under budget.
  • Schedule Performance Index (SPI): Shows the efficiency of the project schedule (SPI = EV / PV). A value above 1 means the project is ahead of schedule.
  • Cost Variance (CV) and Schedule Variance (SV): These values show the difference between the planned and actual values (CV = EV - AC, SV = EV - PV).

EVM allows for early detection of cost and schedule deviations, helping to implement corrective actions in a timely manner. This leads to projects being completed with higher adherence to budget and schedule.

Network Planning

Network planning techniques are a project management method used for planning, controlling, and monitoring projects. They enable the visualization of tasks or activities, their dependencies, and the timeline in a network diagram. Two main approaches are used in network planning techniques: the activity-on-node approach (PERT) and the activity-on-arrow approach (CPM).

In the PERT approach, activities are represented as nodes connected in a diagram. Each activity has an estimated duration and a probability of completion within that duration. PERT allows for the calculation of the most likely project duration and the identification of critical paths.

In the CPM approach, activities are represented as arrows that connect events such as milestones. CPM uses fixed durations for activities and focuses on identifying the critical path to determine the earliest possible project completion time.

Both approaches enable detailed planning, resource allocation, and time management to achieve project goals on schedule and identify bottlenecks. Network planning techniques are particularly useful for complex projects with many activities and dependencies.

Milestone Trend Analysis

Milestone Trend Analysis (MTA) is a project management technique used to track the progress of a project by monitoring milestones. It compares the planned milestone progress with the actual progress and identifies deviations.

For visualization, the dates of the milestones are plotted on the Y-axis at the start of the project. The dates of the scheduled project status meetings are marked on the X-axis. At each status meeting, the milestone dates are updated and plotted on the chart. If the milestones move upwards over time, it indicates a delay. If the milestones remain on a horizontal line, the project is on schedule.

Through MTA, project managers can identify potential problems early and take corrective actions to bring the project back on track. This method provides insights into the project's timeline and financial status, allowing proactive responses to delays or deviations.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a quality management method aimed at improving process quality within organizations and minimizing errors and defects. Developed by Motorola in the 1980s, the method has since been adopted across many industries.

The name "Six Sigma" refers to a statistical term meaning that a process is so precise that it produces only 3.4 errors or defects per million opportunities. The goal is to design processes that are nearly error-free and maximize customer satisfaction.

Six Sigma uses a structured and data-driven approach, often referred to as the DMAIC cycle:

  1. Define: In this phase, customer requirements and project goals are established.
  2. Measure: Relevant data is collected and analyzed to understand the current state of the process.
  3. Analyze: Potential causes for problems or defects are identified based on the data.
  4. Improve: Improvements in the process are implemented based on the analyses.
  5. Control: Measures are put in place to ensure that the improvements are maintained.

Six Sigma employs various tools and techniques, including statistical analysis, process mapping, and control charts, to optimize processes. It is a systematic and data-driven method aimed at reducing costs, improving quality, and enhancing competitiveness. Companies that successfully implement Six Sigma often achieve significant improvements in their business processes and customer satisfaction.

Summary

In this article, we have introduced the most important project management methods. Essentially, one must first decide whether a classical approach or an agile method is better suited for their specific task. Within these two categories, the appropriate method can then be selected.

If you want to become productive as quickly as possible, we recommend starting with the PMBOK, and then moving on to either the V-Model XT or Scrum. Once you have gained some experience, you can consider supplementing the chosen method with other methods or parts thereof. Over time, this will result in a project management style tailored to your own needs.

Christoph Friedrich

CEO Alltena GmbH
Christoph Friedrich has a degree in computer science and is a certified Project Management Professional. He has considerable experience with the introduction and integration of project management tools as well as in the analysis and definition of processes in project and service management.

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