Project management can get complicated. There's a whole host of PM certifications, tools, and terms—not to mention at least 15 different project management techniques. And while you can definitely invest lots of money and lots of time in becoming fluent in Gannt charts and getting comfortable with Microsoft Project, there's got to be something better you can do with your time. (Learn an actual language? Register to vote?)
You really only need to be comfortable with a few different project management techniques in order to accomplish your organization's goals.
Because at the end of the day, project management is pretty simple: understanding a goal and making sure you achieve it.
Whether that goal is getting a new product launched, approving next year's budget, redesigning a website, publishing a book, or throwing a work holiday party that is actually enjoyable—or quite literally anything in between—there's an approach that will best help you manage towards it.
Alan Zucker, founder of Project Management Essentials LLC, advises teams to choose a methodology that fits within the context of what the project and the team need. "New applications and significant customer interaction are well suited for Scrum. Kanban is good for enhancements to legacy applications. Teams starting their agile transformation do well with the structure of Scrum," he says.
Below you'll find an overview of the top 4 project management techniques—two overarching schools of thought and two popular techniques derived from them—as selected by PM pros, and what kind of teams they're best suited for.
Waterfall Project Management
Though this project management technique sounds extra flowery, it's probably one of the simplest techniques out there. It entails planning out project stages to flow together in sequential order, like a waterfall. Those stages include the following:
- Clarify requirements
- Analyze resources
- Design approach
As you move between steps, you'll need to get sign-off from the team that all defined goals of that step have been met.
Pros of this technique: It's straightforward, easy-to-implement, and can be managed with as little as a to-do list.
Cons of this technique: There's no opportunity to change the plan based on client feedback, adjust scope, or parallel-process steps.
Who it's good for: Industries that make physical products and don't often need to change plans as they go (like in product development or construction).
Gus Cicala, CEO and founder of Project Assistants, likes using the Waterfall approach at the beginning of his projects, even if he later switches to an Agile approach to better manage changes. "We maintain a high degree of rigor on the frontend. We place a high premium on understanding the foundations of the project: the why (benefits), how (solution approach), and what (requirements). Without knowing the fundamental basics of a project…we find many executives (especially CIOs) are just throwing money and people at a problem with no goals and little accountability," says Cicala.
Agile Project Management
The Agile approach was developed as a direct response to more rigid PM techniques (we see you, Waterfall Method) in 2001, when a group of software developers decided they wanted to focus more on individuals and interactions vs. processes and tools.
This approach has actual spawned several other PM techniques, like Scrum and Kanban, which we'll talk about below.
The Agile method is defined by constantly iterating and collaborating to create the best possible result for a client or customer, versus following a plan. Projects managed this way are broken up into several stages, all of which include interaction with stakeholders.
Pros of this technique: It's fast, wastes few resources since you're always doing what's most needed, and allows plenty of room for experimentation.
Cons of this technique: There's not often time to document decisions or processes, so it's hard to bring new team members up to speed, and it's hard to measure progress since you're constantly iterating on what you're working on. It's also harder to budget for a project managed with an Agile technique since it can easily increase in scope or time.
Who it's good for: Teams with lots of access to their customer or clients (and not a lot of bureaucracy to get in the way of collaborating and decision-making) and small-to-medium-sized organizations. It's popular in tech startups.
Olga Mykhoparkina, CMO of Chanty, a SaaS team-chat app, prefers the Agile methodology. She says it works for her team because "it favors communication over complicated processes and tools, which is suitable for a marketing team, [and because] it favors software instead of documentation, which is ideal for my team."
Scrum Project Management
This technique, an Agile methodology, gets its name from rugby, where the players start each play by joining up and trying to get possession of the ball. The Scrum approach is based on a series of short-term projects called sprints, which are continued until the project's goals are achieved.
Sprints are usually two-to-four-week chunks. Each sprint starts with a planning meeting and includes daily "scrum" meetings where teams communicate progress and issues. Sprints are managed by a ScrumMaster, whose role is to solve problems for the team, not to dole out individual tasks.
Pros of this technique: The short sprints keeps projects moving along quickly and allows for lots of client feedback.
Cons of this technique: Scrum PMing can cause scope creep, since the final deliverable is never defined, and be hard to implement in teams bigger than ~10 people. Its fast pace also makes it hard to work on multiple projects simultaneously.
Who it's good for: Small teams who work on one project at a time, like software developers preparing for a new release.
Kanban Project Management
This technique is also falls under the Agile umbrella. It was originally developed by Toyoka—Kanaban means "sign board" in Japanese—and is a visual-heavy method that focuses on improving processes.
It organizes work into three basic categories: requested, in progress, and done. Whether done on a whiteboard or a digital equivalent, like Trello or Notion, tasks are spread out among those categories in a way that lets you easily spot bottlenecks and track progress.
Pros of this technique: It's easy to get everyone on the same page and spot problems before they throw your project off track. It also works well with remote team members, since a digital board is easily shared.
Cons of this technique: Kanban is more tactical than strategic, so it can be hard to track progress against more strategic goals. It's also harder to visualize into the future, since you're very focused on what's happening now.
Who it's good for: Small teams, whether remote or working together, working in almost any industry.
Nikola Baldikov, digital marketing manager at secure instant messaging software company Brosix, says that Kanban works for his team because "the members of my team are experienced, independent, and visual." He notes that it works best for teams that can self-manage: "This method relies on a higher level of autonomy and independence among team members, so it may not be the best approach for a newly formed team. Kanban also puts a high emphasis on focused work, with little space for multitasking. This isn't always comfortable for team members who are used to balancing several priorities at once."
You Don't Have to Choose
If you like the visual aspect of the Kanban approach but the clearly-defined-outcome part of Waterfall technique, go right on ahead and combine them. Project management is about figuring out what works for helping your team reach its goals, and that doesn't have to mean sticking to one approach.
"Mature teams often develop their own hybrid practices incorporating many techniques," notes Zucker.
Have you pulled from different project management techniques to create the one PM technique to rule them all? Tell me about it in the comments!