Project Management & Planning Articles

Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Waterfall…? How to Pick the Right Project Management Approach

by Hadley Jones
Published on 6 October 2014

Lightbulb moment

You want your projects to come in on time without cost overruns, so now you need to pick a project management approach that fits your needs and context. Unfortunately, like most things, it's more easily said than done. There are a range of different PM methods available, yet none of them are universally applicable. Your choice of project management technique may also affect your choice of project management software to help you do a better job in managing your project. Follow the instructions below to find your way out of the maze!

Intervals project planning and time tracking

Intervals -Project Dashboard

A Little Project Management History

It helps to understand why different approaches came about. Each one was invented in order to satisfy a certain type of project management need. As markets and user expectations changed, new methods were invented. Two of the best-known are:

  • Waterfall. This traditional' project management has been around since the 1970s. Project specifications are drawn up at the beginning, and the project is done phase by phase to generate the final deliverable (a building, a ship, a software application or other.)
  • Agile. More of an attitude than a method in its own right. Describes an approach in which a project team accepts frequent changes or updates to project specifications. Can also be described as "managed scope creep," where scope creep (unforeseen additions to specifications) is considered a natural part of the process.

Workfront screenshot of Portfolio Milestones

Workfront (formerly AtTask) Portfolio Milestones

Specific Examples of More Recent Methodologies

  • Scrum. An example of an agile methodology, formally starting in 1995. Uses an iterative approach to designing and building a product or service, allowing the deliverable to continually adapt to changing business goals and market demands.
  • Extreme Programming (XP). Has an impact on project management because it insists on certain activities being done is a particular order, at least for IT projects. A classic example is test-driven software development, where XP requires that the tests for the code are written before the code itself (which may sound like a paradox, but is in fact quite feasible).
  • Lean Project Management. Have you heard of lean manufacturing, in which efficiency is a big priority and waste is avoided like the plague? Lean project management takes a similar approach, borrowing techniques from agile environments such as encouraging team member inputs and putting a strong facilitator/moderator in place.


JIRA Scrum-Kanban functionality

Project Management Tools that Apply Across the Board

  • Gantt charts. Essentially a horizontal bar chart with a time axis along the bottom and a list of different project activities up the left hand side. The start and the finish dates of each activity are indicated as a bar on the same horizontal level as the activity. Useful to identifying possible timing conflicts: for example, an activity scheduled to start before another activity - on which the first one depends - finishes.
  • Burn down chart. Shows how much work is left (vertical axis) and how much time is remaining (horizontal axis) in order to finish a project, project phase or project cycle or 'burn down' the work to be done. A burn down line typically goes from top left to bottom right. If not, you may have a sizable project problem! See how quickly the line descends and where it is likely to cross the horizontal time axis in order to estimate a likely finish date. Burn down charts can be used with any project. However, they are very popular with Scrum in particular.
  • Kanban.'Signboard' project management originating in Japan and inspired by manufacturing visionaries like Toyota. Formalized for use in agile software development in 2003, but can be applied to Scrum, Waterfall and XP approaches alike. In essence, it's a visual system that shows how tasks move through their different phases to completion. It's also a lean management tool because it stresses just-in-time delivery and balanced loads for all team members.

Wrike - Gantt Chart

Wrike - Gantt Chart

How Should You Apply These Notions?

To keep things simple, we can define two basic situations - formal/heavyweight project management typified by Waterfall style methods, and informal/lightweight project management using an agile-style PM method.

  1. Use a formal Waterfall-style approach when:

    • The project specification is unlikely or cannot change from the initial version: for example, a project to build a multi-level office block.
    • You and your team have good experience using this kind of approach and feel confident about producing high quality results (on time and on budget, of course).
    • The project is being done for a customer that insists on a formal approach to project management.
  2. Use an informal Agile-style approach when:

    • Project specifications are changing rapidly (mobile software applications, for example) and this is considered to be a normal part of the process.
    • You don't have any vested interest in any particular PM style, or you and your team are new to project management.
    • Your client (whether inside or outside your enterprise) does not seek to impose any particular PM approach.

clarizen_social project management screenshot

Clarizen - Social Project Management

PM Apps to Suit Different Approaches

Depending on these different factors of project size, type and management style, you may naturally choose one of several types of PM app.

  • Easy to use, agile-oriented. Examples include Wrike , designed as a natural extension of email for easy task and project management, and Clarizen for its social project management approach.
  • Extensions for working in specific contexts. JIRA is agile-oriented too, with Kanban features to make it a natural fit for software projects and help desk/service desk activities. Workfront (formerly AtTask) also offers help desk and issue tracking, together with strong team-working features.
  • Integrates with other business apps. LiquidPlanner offers integration with Salesforce, the popular CRM cloud application. Mavenlink synchronizes with Google Apps.
  • Larger corporate projects. As project management becomes more and more a job function in its own right, you may also meet other apps such as Microsoft Project. Intervals and other PM apps mentioned above also extend to handle larger numbers of more complex projects.

mavenlink project management apps

Mavenlink - Integration with Google Apps

Try the PM Apps Out for Yourself

If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of this info, don't worry! A good place to start on your PM-picking journey is to first identify the type of projects you do, and the work style you feel most comfortable with. Secondly, make a shortlist of PM apps that suit your way of working, using the GetApp project management app reviews. Finally, try them out using the free PM software trials versions and make your final choice.


Apps mentioned in this article