Nutshell: How to pick a project-management methodology that works for you

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2021

06 Jan 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

Waterfall and Agile methodologies have advantages and disadvantages, which must be considered in relation to specific projects.

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

So says the Waterfall project management methodology which, in 2017 was still used by 51% of organisations, according to research from the Project Management Institute (PMI).

While leaders embrace ‘upstart’ Agile methodologies such as Design Thinking – being nimble, iterative and more in line with today’s fast-paced and ever-changing environment – there remains a place for the traditional, linear approach to project management, despite its ‘unmodern’ image. Pros and cons can be cited for both methods – and must be considered in the context of individual projects and organisations.

For example, benefits of Waterfall include its structure, discipline and clearly defined phases, versus Agile’s flexibility and responsiveness. Ultimately, the success of each methodology is dependent on factors such as the scope and purpose of the project, organisational culture, plus the capabilities and empowerment of teams involved.

Many of Waterfall’s perceived negatives are actually unjustified, argue project managers Alexander Rodov and Jordi Teixidó.

“The issue is that bad Waterfall projects have created the wrong common wisdom on what Waterfall really ‘was’,” they write in Blending Agile and Waterfall: The Keys to a Successful Implementation. “Therefore, we tend to compare Agile projects to bad Waterfall approaches and continue with this misconception.”

For Rodov and Teixidó, projects should “use a combination of Agile practices with a traditional approach usually associated with Waterfall projects”’; they predict a blended approach becoming “the dominant successful methodology, even despite the pressure for quick deliveries and the unstoppable growth of Agile philosophy”.

Whether or not you agree, what is certain is that effective project management lies in carefully considering each project’s unique aims and factors (from scope and team structure through to budget, deadlines and documentation requirements) and adopting a tailored approach, guided by the PMI’s six benchmarks of success:

  • Customers are happy
  • Costs don’t exceed budget
  • Works as designed
  • People use it
  • The people who funded the project are happy with it
  • It meets the goals that drove the project

Below are some of the main issues to take into account when choosing your project methodology.

1. Consider your project

When choosing a project-management methodology, it helps to start with the desired outcome in mind.

Where we have a clear idea of the end result, we may opt for a more structured methodology such as Waterfall. This is particularly true when a project is constrained by contract terms, regulations and compliance. However, if the desired outcome is vague and the project scope variable, an iterative, Agile methodology could work better, leaving room for unexpected changes or revisions. It is also advisable to consider:

  • The project budget: Do you have a fixed or flexible budget? Waterfall projects tend to cost more overall (and making changes after everything is built may require expensive reworking). However, Agile projects are dynamic, and their costs are harder to estimate at the outset, requiring financial wriggle room; they value speed and innovation over strict adherence to budget.
  • Timelines: Is speed of the essence? Is your deadline fluid or fixed? Waterfall tends to be slow, steady and methodical, providing structured stages, a predictable timeline and a set end date. It accommodates process, documentation and step-by-step approval, while Agile prioritises speed, action and functionality, allowing for changing requirements and incremental changes; for example, Scrum divides projects into individual sprints.
  • Project size and complexity: If your project is simple or typical (perhaps an enhancement to an existing product) there may be no benefit to using Agile, which can be a more challenging process to manage. Waterfall works well where there is a clear goal and plenty of time to meet it. It may also be the best methodology for large projects where there is a danger of getting lost in the details under an Agile approach. By contrast, novel projects with high levels of urgency and complexity benefit from an Agile methodology, which incorporates creativity and iteration; it’s worth noting that Agile projects can exist within a larger Waterfall programme.

2. Consider your team

A project-management methodology is the blueprint for a project – it tells us exactly what we’re going to create and how we’re going to create it. To follow the blueprint, team members need to be able to read it. If they are not familiar with the methodology, valuable time and energy will be spent teaching them this before any work on the project can actually begin. It therefore makes sense to choose an approach with which team members are familiar. Since “Agile innovation depends on having a cadre of eager participants”, coercing resisters may undermine projects, warn Darrel K Rigby et al in HBR’s Embracing Agile.

It is advisable to consider the extent to which your team (or wider organisational structure) favours collaboration. Agile and Design Thinking methodologies require a lot of collaboration to work, whereas Waterfall – for example, 6 Sigma – allows for individuals to work more independently. You may also want to consider:

  • Team locations: The collaboration required for Agile projects may be harder to achieve across geographies and time zones and where some team members work remotely. Face-to-face meetings are considered most effective in Agile projects.
  • Available training: Being logical and linear, Waterfall models are more straightforward and intuitive to follow. Nuanced Agile approaches (which come in a range of different models) may require extra training for teams – plus behavioural change, where members are not sufficiently collaborative or proficient in self-organising.
  • Capabilities and empowerment of the project owner: The success of Agile rests on effective planning by a manager who is calm under pressure and possesses strong self-management capabilities, plus a good understanding of Agile principles. This must be accompanied by sufficient delegated authority to make swift decisions along the way. If everything needs to go through several levels of sign-off, the Waterfall methodology may serve you better.

3. Consider your organisation and industry

The structure and culture of an organisation should also inform your choice of project-management methodology.

If your organisation has a federated model, is heavily siloed or has very established hierarchies, an Agile approach may be hard to manage and could fail without a cultural transition. Equally if your organisation is lean, nimble and fast-paced, a linear approach such as Waterfall will feel stifling and slow. In dynamic sectors, the results of a Waterfall project may be out of date almost the instant they are released.

Where possible, it’s worth taking a look at previous projects and their methodologies to see which worked well. There may also be some compliance requirements for your industry which could influence your choice of methodology.  

4. Consider your stakeholders

Here, it can help to consider your stakeholder expectations and requirements and the rigidity of their systems and cultures.

  • How much involvement do they want?
  • How much involvement do you need from them?
  • How busy and available are they in reality?
  • How much communication do they want/expect from you?
  • How clear are they about their project goals?

Agile methodologies require stakeholders to be regularly involved and available for feedback. If you have a very busy stakeholder group, a methodology such as 6 Sigma demands less stakeholder involvement – only meeting/communicating at key milestones.

Stakeholders whose organisations are strongly hierarchical may wish to be nimble but lack the freedom to make swift decisions without multiple internal meetings and convoluted sign offs.

5. Consider your skills and preferences

How we like to work, and the strengths we bring to the table, will shape the project-management methodology that suits each of us best. Individuals who are co-operative, connecting, dynamic and adaptive will often enjoy working within an Agile framework. Those who demonstrate a preference for structure and goal-orientation are more likely to enjoy working in with a linear Waterfall methodology.

Plan with Waterfall, execute with Agile

Of course, as Rodov and Teixidó point out above, there’s no reason why we can’t combine the best of Waterfall and Agile methodologies to create a hybrid approach adapted to suit our specific project and working environment. We shouldn’t assume we have to take each individual methodology as it is.

In 2019, the PMI conducted a study of organisations that are highly competent in Agile project management, finding that 60% of these companies use hybrid project management all or most of the time.

Hybrid enables us to combine flexibility with structure, applying Waterfall to fixed deliverables and Agile to less certain elements of a project. It works well for large and complex projects where regulatory constraints and deadlines prevent adoption of a fully Agile approach, and in organisations that see the advantages of Agile but struggle with culture. Under hybrid, we can plan and define requirements with Waterfall, and design, develop and test with Agile.

Benefits may include better defined project parameters (including budget and timelines) and adherence to compliance standards, alongside a speedier process and enhanced collaboration. However, success will require careful thinking around the methodologies to combine, analysis of their specific pluses and pitfalls, and mindful tailoring of these to individual projects – with plenty of evaluation along the way. It is no easy option, but in the right circumstances, it could offer us the best chance of project success.


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