Lean, agile, waterfall: Exploring the methodologies of project management

It’s no secret that being a competent and adept manager of people, processes and products will translate to success in the project management field. However, while it’s important to have technical knowledge and a personable touch (think communication and listening skills), there are further aspects to the art of project management that are even more fundamental in practical application: methodologies.


Each unique project calls for managers to utilize different methodological approaches to produce results. Like the different leadership styles a project manager may assume, choosing the right methodology will depend on the situation (like if there are tight deadlines) and how the structure motivates and communicates to reports. The key to effectively deploying any one methodology is in understanding these exact characteristics: PMs will have to look at their cabinet of methodologies and assess each one’s use in context of the current problem or task at hand.


While this may seem like an overabundance of options, once project managers become familiar with such methodologies, the natural applicability and usability in each become clearer, allowing PMs to capably wield them. In fact, students may already recognize some strategies without knowing there was a proper name for it. Here are some of the most widely used methodologies in project management:



Agile has become massively popular in modern project management, particularly due to its use in the process of building, releasing and patching mobile apps and other consumer software. The reasons for this are because agile is a methodology used in fluid, fast-paced situations. In agile, there is no final stage concepted before embarking on the project. There is a product or goal in mind, but an exact end phase is not designed. Rather, adaptability and speed are valued; repeat processes are used to facilitate “sprints” that deliver in short cycles.


The engine to agile is communication. Because of the lack of set parameters and standards, constant feedback and real-time communicating are needed to fuel the developments and sprints. Project managers who know how to communicate in different ways and at different levels—but not be overbearing, as agile fosters an inherently self-motivated working atmosphere—will find the skill pays dividends in agile methodologies.



An offshoot of agile, scrum keeps with the visual imagery trend. Named after a rugby scrum, in which players lock arms in a tight-knit, crouched formation, this methodology builds on agile qualities—flexibility and paced action—and encapsulates them in the structuring of a scrum meeting. These groupings often take the form of 30-minute meetings with defined agendas and are held on a regular schedule. Having project collaborators and stakeholders attend scrum meetings ensures tasks are clear and information is shared.



On the opposite end of the spectrum from agile is the waterfall methodology. Just as one can get the heart agile from its name, the same can be said for waterfall: Like the natural landform that cascades down in a very ordered, top-down manner, waterfall methodology uses sequential concepting and planning to bring about greater organization. Often referred to as the traditional project management methodology, in waterfall progressing to each next step depends on the completion of the preceding one: there is no margin for interruptions.


Practically, waterfall is often used when there is a large team, or an interdisciplinary team, to manage. Multifaceted projects need coordination and milestone accounting, which waterfall can impart. Construction is one example where waterfall works. Consider the building of a home: You certainly cannot start on walls if you have no foundation, nor can there be a roof if there are no walls, which the foundation must first enable. When rigid adherence to a project’s specs and phases is needed, waterfall is most suitable.


Lean/Six Sigma

Popularized by Japanese companies (like Toyota and Motorola), lean and Six Sigma, while possibly not strictly methodologies, are nonetheless management tacks to consider. The primary objective behind both is to reduce waste. In the project management process, eliminating drag before it drains time and resources is important to the overall progress and success of the project.


The data-driven frameworks of lean and Six Sigma call for a comprehensive accounting of processes called DMAIC: define, measure, analyze, improve, control. Not only does this approach promote waste reduction, but continuous improvement, which can benefit large-scale, even multiyear, projects that will need inefficiencies to be identified and trimmed over its life time.


Critical path/chain

Another methodology aimed at reducing waste is critical path/chain. These methodological constructs have particular use for teams or projects that must keep close tabs on resource use, either because there are finite appropriations or because the scope calls for so much resource use that there’s a serious danger of running over and hiking costs. To counter these risks, critical path/chain methodologies break down projects or tasks into specific activities and processes to better plan, manage and monitor them. In critical path this looks like holistic planning to ensure interdependent steps are locked in and not running over calculated time lines; in critical chain, tasks and project phases are allocated specific amounts of resources, enough to complete, with just a little bit of excess allowed.



Distinct in that the PRINCE2 methodology is officially sanctioned by the government of the United Kingdom, this strategy is widely used for its detail-oriented structure. Though it requires certification, PRINCE2 practitioners can use the system to unpack complicated tasks to ensure clarity on expectations and deadlines.


While the different types of methodology are important tools for the project manager, they are not the only ones needed. As mentioned, it is critical project managers are just as well-versed in technical knowledge and soft skills. A comprehensive PM education can help round out gaps.  Interested students can learn more about the Brandeis University online Master of Science in Project and Program Management degree by contacting us today.


Recommended reading:

Tips for managing nondirect reports

Leadership And Decision Making

Tips for Managing Contracted Government Projects


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