Understanding the 4 Core Project Management Methodologies

In project management, the methodology defines not just what you do, but how you do it.

A project management methodology outlines how you approach the life cycle of product development or project completion - from start to finish. Nearly 12% of product spend is wasted on poor performance during the project. That’s just bad for business.

Having the right skills is important, but how you put those skills into practice matters just as much. PM software can also be a useful tool, but a tool is only one part of the process.

So, how do you optimize your overall project workflow to reduce waste and increase customer satisfaction?

Trying a new project management methodology, or refining one you already use, just might be the answer.

New to project management? Check out our Project Management 101 for a helpful overview.

Below we’ll cover a variety of project management methodologies, each falling into one of four broad families.

No matter the size or scope of your project, there’s a methodology out there for you.

Agile Project Management

Agile has taken over - plain and simple.

Whether your company is already an agile devotee or uses it as a point of comparison, Agile is on everyone’s mind.

But what is Agile?

If “learn by doing” were applied to a project management methodology, you would get an adaptive project framework, otherwise known as Agile.

kanban project management

Agile methodologies are characterized by iterative development, client-led feedback rounds, and continual adjustments to the project flow.

The 2001 Agile manifesto has four core values:

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

Okay, but what do these principles look like in practice?


Small teams, fast results

Scrum is one of the most popular Agile project management methodologies today. If the name sounds sporty, that’s because it is.

A small team (likely no more than 10 members) works under the direction of a Scrum Master. The team has daily meetings to discuss a backlog (to-do list), and works in short sprints of 2-4 weeks to complete top priority tasks.

The Scrum Product Owner then presents the finished tasks to the client, discusses necessary changes, and the next set of priorities. Then the process repeats.


  • Autonomy and self-management for team members
  • Nimble and adaptable


  • Constantly changing environment
  • Team members must be jack-of-all-trades

Best for: Scrum is a great option for trouble-shooting and responding to user/customer feedback. Teams can focus on specific issues and work quickly to resolve them.


Visualized objectives and minimal multi-tasking

Kanban is all about making priorities visible for the whole team.

Engineers at Toyota first implemented the technique to track a just-in-time system, and ended up popularizing a minimalist approach to project management.

Each task falls into a bucket: to-do, in-progress, and completed.

The most important tasks are tackled first. Team members have a specific objective and work until that job is done - usually these are short timelines similar to the scrum approach. Once each team member completes their given task, a new set of tasks is rolled out.

The system uses a clear story board to limit distractions and keep focus on what is most important.


  • Easy to visualize and follow
  • Team member tasks are clear and discrete


  • Requires constant check-in and re-evaluation
  • Unclear long-term timeframes

Best for: Kanban workflow boards can be applied to just about any project. For teams looking to reduce distractions and set priorities, it is a great option.

eXtreme Programming (XP)

Build, test, redesign, repeat

XP prioritizes context based testing in a fast-paced environment.

In fact, that is how engineers at Chrysler first devised the approach in 1999 for a payroll project. It shares many similarities to a Scrum schedule, but gives added weight to:

  • Pair Programming, in which programmers work in pairs to ensure quality engineering and design.
  • Integration, in which completed sequences are integrated and tested each day rather than at the end of a cycle.

Where XP differs from scrum and kanban is its daily testing and integration scheme, rather than waiting until the end of a sprint or story cycle.


  • Responds well to vague and ambiguous customer requests
  • Maximizes small to midsize teams


  • Daily checks and iterations can make it difficult to see the big picture
  • The quick pace can cause some team members stress

Best for: Clients who have lofty ideas but lack specific requests. Deliverables that do not please a customer can be quickly augmented or redesigned.

Traditional Project Management

Uncertainty can be costly.

waterfall project management

Traditional approaches to project management are for customers that prefer a well-defined path and teams that stick to the script.

For traditional methodologies, work is sequential making upfront planning key.


Traditional, comprehensive, trusted

Modern project management began with the waterfall approach - it’s almost as old as computer programming itself.

Like an actual waterfall, each step of the project process is laid out in a linear sequence, cascading from the first task through to the last. The sequence generally goes:

requirements > analysis > design > construction > testing > deployment

Unlike an Agile system, the customer and client negotiate a product, price, and timeline, and the team works until the full product is delivered with little to no feedback during the process.


  • Widely used and therefore familiar to most team members
  • Few surprises


  • Time-consuming upfront planning
  • Changes can be slow and difficult to implement mid-project

Best for: The waterfall methodology is best for big projects that require time and money. Hands-off customers will appreciate giving full control to the project team, and the project team will have the autonomy to move forward with a complete plan.

Critical Path

Map the project path and focus on the toughest stretch

Project management is all about planning. It has been implemented for some of the biggest achievements in human history - from the pyramids to the space race.

Critical path does upfront planning to calculate various paths to project completion. A scheduling algorithm is then used to identify the critical path, or longest stretch of dependent activities to establish an accurate timeline.

This is also known as the program evaluation and review technique (PERT):

  1. List of all tasks required to complete the project
  2. Time required for each task
  3. Dependencies between tasks
  4. Milestones for deliverables

Once the path is outlined, the team gets to work.


  • Comprehensive plan for each step of the project
  • Sets realistic expectations and timelines


  • Estimates can change significantly if problems arise
  • Requires precision upfront that may be hard to specify in some cases

Best for: Critical path is excellent for repeatable and predictable projects. If a company has had success in the past, critical path can further streamline proposals and give customers consistent, realistic (and appealing) expectations.

Critical Chain Project Management

Prioritize resources over tasks

The critical chain method (CCPM) flipped the critical path method on its head.

They both begin by laying out the necessary tasks and time to complete the project. But from there, the critical chain cuts the time expected for each task in half.

The theory behind this approach is that people are imperfect workers. Some procrastinate, while others finish early and then tinker. In both instances, a task can likely be completed in half the amount of time allotted to a team member.

Critical chain treats time as a resource and therefore identifies the shortest duration required to complete a project, then builds a buffer from which the team pulls when they fall behind.

Everyone then works as quickly as possible, and the buffer allows for potential resource constraints to still deliver the product on time.


  • Analyzes time management
  • Sets realistic expectations


  • Team member buy-in can be mixed
  • Time constraints can be stressful

Best for: A critical chain approach can expose bad time-management practices and breathe new life into older and routine projects. For teams that have missed deadlines, or for customers that want clear deliverable dates, critical chain is a great option.

Niche Methodologies

Traditional and agile project management methodologies can be applied to a number of sectors, but they are best known in the software and technology industry.

alternative project management

So what about other areas?

The following methodologies have been developed and implemented by governments, NGOs, and built-world sectors that face a different set of challenges.


Certified, comprehensive, transparent

The rules for the public and private sector can be quite different. When it comes to technology and software development, the fast paced environment can prove difficult for government oversight to keep pace.

PRINCE2 was created by the UK government in 1996. It is a second generation project management method first established for IT systems in 1989, Projects in Controlled Environments (PRINCE).

Today it is widely practiced for its thorough lists of seven:

Seven Principles:

  1. Continued business justification
  2. Learn from experience
  3. Defined roles and responsibilities
  4. Manage by stages
  5. Manage by exception
  6. Focus on products
  7. Tailor to suit project environment

Seven Themes:

  1. Business case
  2. Organization
  3. Quality
  4. Plans
  5. Risk
  6. Change
  7. Progress

Seven Processes:

  1. Starting up a project
  2. Initiating a project
  3. Directing a project
  4. Controlling a stage
  5. Managing product delivery
  6. Managing stage boundaries
  7. Closing a project

A government is accountable to multiple stakeholders and requires a clear and documented approach to project management, which is precisely the objective of PRINCE2.


  • Clear principles and processes
  • Vast network of certified project managers


  • Rigid structure
  • Reliance on official forms and certification

Best for: PRINCE2 is most commonly practiced in EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Asia). For larger scale operations in these regions, PRINCE2 is a well-established method with certified project managers and teams ready to implement the process.


Value maximization of total asset life-cycles

Projects Integrating Sustainable Methods (PRiSM) is a common methodology in real estate development and construction.

The approach goes beyond the project development lifecycle to include the planning stage and long-term benefits of the completed project.

PRiSM is based on six principles:

  1. Commitment and Accountability
  2. Ethics and Decision Making
  3. Integrated and Transparent
  4. Principles and Values Based
  5. Social and Ecological Equity
  6. Economic Prosperity

In short, a product is never limited to a company and its client, which is an important consideration for many businesses and governments.


  • Holistic approach to community and environmental impact
  • Leverages existing systems and infrastructures


  • Considering factors beyond the scope of product development can be cumbersome
  • Customer is not the sole stakeholder

Best for: Companies that focus on social and environmental responsibility will be familiar with PRiSM principles. For projects that take a longer view of their operations, PRiSM can outline how a product fits into the broader landscape, which can be great for a company’s corporate responsibility.

Outcome Mapping

Planning for real world change

Outcome mapping (OM) is a method for planning, monitoring, and evaluating a project based on tangible change in a sector or community.

It focuses on:

  • behavioral change within the team
  • impact on boundary partners or the target communities of the project
  • contributions that the project ultimately provides

OM is commonly deployed for projects that include research monitoring to understand the impact of a project.


  • Focuses on people and communities rather than “customers” or “clients”
  • Thinks broadly about betterment rather than simply a better product


  • Difficult to identify or cater to a key/single audience
  • Metrics of success are hard to measure

Best for: Outcome mapping is a methodology utilized by development groups, NGOs, and other outfits focused on community change. Rather than improving a single product or business-client relationship, this management approach is collaborative and multifaceted.

Process Improvement Methodologies

process improvement

In most cases, the end product is what matters most for project management.

However, building the best product can be done in a variety of ways, and process improvement methodologies are concerned with data-driven diagnostics to streamline the entire operation.

In fact, improvement methodologies identify 8 different kinds of waste:

  1. Defects
  2. Overproduction
  3. Waiting
  4. Non-utilized talent
  5. Transportation
  6. Inventory
  7. Motion
  8. Extra-processions

In recent years the following examples have gained a lot of traction.


Eliminate waste and improve efficiency

As companies grow, operations become more complex.

Lean takes a holistic approach to project management by examining operations across the board to optimize flow and value production.

Designed by Japanese engineers, lean addresses the 3Ms of waste:

  1. Muda - eliminate wasteful revisions, redundancies, and other slow-downs
  2. Mura - eliminate variation to standardize processes
  3. Muri - eliminate overloading the production process

Lean is all about heightened focus to deliver value.


  • Optimizes large and established companies
  • Examines and improves “business as usual”


  • Can reveal some difficult truths for employees
  • Obsession with efficiency can challenge perks in a company’s culture

Best for: Companies that have stalled in a particular market or lost a competitive edge can regain their footing through a lean overhaul.

Six Sigma

Identify problems and reduce errors

Six Sigma was designed in the 1980s by engineers at Motorola.

The method is defined by data-driven two acronyms:

DMAIC applies to existing products and processes:

  • Define the problem
  • Measure process performance
  • Analyze the process for defects
  • Improve performance
  • Control the improved process

DMADV applies to new developments:

  • Define the purpose and goals
  • Measure the factors critical to quality
  • Analyze alternatives for optimal performance
  • Design alternatives
  • Verify performance

Through DMAIC and DMADV, Six Sigma aims to reduce error across the entire manufacturing process.


  • Data-driven
  • Diagnostic problem solving


  • Requires a large team
  • Time-consuming focus on process rather than products

Best for: The Six Sigma methodology is best for larger companies that are looking to reduce waste and redundancies by improving efficiency and quality through a data-driven approach.

Lean Six Sigma

Make every process better, faster, and more productive

L6 is a hybrid of Lean and Six Sigma. The two methods have increasingly blurred, and therefore the hybrid is a natural permutation rather than an active integration.

If Six Sigma focuses on reducing variation, and Lean focuses on reducing waste, then L6 is simply about overall streamlining to bring the most value directly to customers.


  • Best of Lean and Six Sigma
  • Can identify defects of all kinds in an operation


  • L6 is a commitment that requires time and reflection
  • Employees may not want to buy-in

Best for: L6 is best for companies that are willing to face hard truths and make serious changes. The upside is that change can be very good, and profitable.

The PMBOK Method

Standards and best practices by the book

If this list has you overwhelmed, maybe the best place to start is with PMBOK.

Think of it as the overall playbook for project management - it is literally a guide book on project management standards.

The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) outlines five core process categories for any project:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring
  5. Closing

In a world where each company takes their own approach to project management, PMBOK seeks to establish a standardized set of best practices.


  • Clear reference guide
  • Industry standard for any project type


  • Lacks actionable approaches
  • More of an outline than a roadmap

Best for: PMBOK is a great reference guide when outlining a project and checking in as you make progress. If you are testing various methodologies, PMBOK is an excellent companion to measure your success.


Project management methodologies are like company cultures - no two are the same.

As you think about implementing a new methodology, ask yourself:

  • What has worked in the past?
  • What needs improvement?
  • How large is your team?
  • What are your resource constraints?
  • What are your client’s expectations?

As you answer these questions, some of the options above will look appealing, while others will be best suited for other companies.

Just remember, project management methodologies exist to improve your operation, so choose the one that fits your needs.

Want to see project management in action? Check out our article on enhancing utility operations with project management tools.

Interested in map-based project management?

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OnePlace equips boots on the ground with intuitive mapping tools, multi-layered maps, basic forms, and real-time communication. Use satellite imagery as a starting point before overlaying shapes, drawings, measurements, asset information, and field data.

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See how Unearth can transform communication in your project with a 14-day free trial of OnePlace.

Unearth's map-based project management software
Unearth's simple, yet powerful project management software, OnePlace
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