How Do You Choose the Best Methodology to Fit a Project?

I often see questions on “How do you choose the best methodology for a project?”

How do you choose the best methodology for a project?

What’s the Best Approach for Projects?

I don’t think that there is one single “best” approach that works for all projects.  A lot of people make the mistake of force-fitting a project to some standard methodology.

  • Some project managers will try to use a traditional plan-driven methodology for a project (what many people loosely call “Waterfall”) because it is the only thing that they know and it has been so widely-accepted as the way to do project management
  • Many other people have the misconception that there is a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and will attempt to force-fit a project to one of those extremes

The “best” approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the project.  That takes more skill but it definitely can be done.  You should also recognize that there is not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” as many people seem to think.  There is a whole spectrum of different approaches ranging from heavily plan-driven at one extreme to heavily adaptive (or Agile) at the other extreme.

Range of Agility

How Do You Choose the Best Approach?

There are a number of factors that influence the selection of the best approach for a particular project.

    1. Level of Uncertainty – Probably the most significant factor in choosing an approach is the level of uncertainty in the project.  A project with a high level of uncertainty would be best-suited for a more adaptive (Agile) approach.  Attempting to force-fit such a project to a traditional plan-driven project management approach could be disastrous.
      • It would force you to make a lot of assumptions to try to resolve the uncertainty; and, in many cases, those assumptions may be wrong and require a lot of re-planning and possible re-work
      • The emphasis on planning and control in a traditional plan-driven project can create an environment that is not conducive to changes which will make it difficult to maximize the value of the solution in an uncertain environment
      • In today’s competitive environment, creativity and innovation can be very important to create very competitive business solutions and an approach with a heavy emphasis on planning and control can stifle creativity and innovation
    2. Customer Relationship – Managing customer expectations is probably one of the most critical aspects of any project.  If the results of a project are not consistent with customer expectations, the project will likely not be viewed as successful no matter how good you think it is.  The nature of the customer relationship can range from:
      • A contractual style of relationship where there are very definite and well-defined customer expectations that must be met.  In this type of relationship, the customer may not take any responsibility for the success of the project.  The customer defines what his/her expectations are and expects the project team to do whatever is necessary to meet those expectations with limited participation by the customer.
      • A collaborative style of relationship where there is a shared responsibility for the success of the project between the project team and the customer and the customer takes an active role in helping to define the direction of the project as it is in progress

      Naturally,  the contractual style of relationship is well-suited to a project with a relatively low level of uncertainty where it is possible to define the customer’s requirements in some level of detail prior to the start of the project.  It would be much more difficult to make a contractual-style relationship work in a project with a high level of uncertainty.

      Of course, the customer has to be amenable to whatever type of relationship you choose.  If the project has a high level of uncertainty, that would lean towards more of a collaborative relationship but the customer has to be open to that kind of relationship for it to be successful.  This is a big problem in many companies where it is difficult to break down organizational boundaries between organizations and establish truly collaborative relationships based on a spirit of shared responsibility, trust, and partnership.

    3. Project Team Capabilities – The final major factor in selecting a project approach is, of course, the capabilities of the project team.    An Agile approach requires a lot of training and skill and a hybrid Agile approach  can require even more training and skill.  Naturally, it does not make any sense to choose an approach that the team is not capable of implementing.

Why Is This Important?

There are two major factors that require us to broaden the way we think about “project management” today:

  • Solutions tend to be much more complex and the level of uncertainty is much higher
  • Competitive pressures frequently require much higher levels of creativity and innovation

For those reasons, force-fitting all projects to a standardized plan-driven approach that is oriented around planning and control to achieve predictability over project costs and schedules is not necessarily the best approach for all projects.

A project should be focused on producing value for the customer, meeting cost and schedule goals is only one component of value, and it may not be the most important component of value to the customer.  There have been many projects that have met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an acceptable level of business value.  “Value” can be a very elusive goal but, in any case, it’s what the customer thinks that “value” is that counts.