How much methodology is needed for a successful project?

Published on the 25/03/2015 | Written by Gary Nelson

These days it seems like you can’t swing a cat without bumping into two or three technology projects, but not all of them will be successful. Project management methodologies are one way to improve success rates…

Whatever business you are in, you will find projects. They are the way that things get done, the way to introduce change, make new things or make things better – but what is the best approach to getting a successful project outcome?

‘Winging it’ has a tendency to produce variable results. Alternatively, you can use a project methodology – a defined set of methods, principles and rules for doing something in a consistent fashion. One good thing about using established methodologies is that someone else has already done a lot of the hard work. The down side is that there are a lot of methodologies out there, with names of varying levels helpfulness like Method123, Scrum, TenStep, UPMM, Prism, PRINCE2, Lean and Waterfall. Some are simple to use, while others can be extremely complicated and require huge amounts of effort. And following a project methodology does not mean that a project’s success is confidently assured, although it can significantly improve the odds.

If you are considering using a new methodology, there is a lot of information available that describes the pros and cons of each. With a bit of reading you can generally choose one that looks promising, but it is wise to seek advice on what methodologies are best suited to your industry or situation. You don’t need to hire another consultant to do this, just talk to other companies in your sector that have been using the methodology for more than a year – particularly those that have similar challenges to yours. Find out what project methodologies they use, what worked, what didn’t and how they adapted them to work for their business. You might also like to find out if the methodology needed extra staff to support it and what added the most value for them.

While a project methodology can help move a project forward, I have seen too many people get lost in the methodology itself and lose sight of their project’s objectives. When you adopt a project methodology, take it with a grain of salt. My advice is to introduce it slowly, learn from it, and gradually adapt it so that it works for your business. (Obviously, the shorter the project the less documentation and structure you need, but you can still pace the project for learning.)

You may not need to use all of the structure or documents the methodology describes, and most methodologies actually advise users to tailor them to their specific situation. If a particular document adds no value, then it’s not a sin to drop it. When all is said and done, it is not the methodology that is important, but the project results and a well-adapted methodology should be an aid to producing your desired results.

Another, more advanced, approach is to develop your own custom methodology that is specifically tailored to your business needs, using a framework like the PMI PMBOK Guide. These custom project methodologies typically serve their purpose very well and allow users to adjust and improve them as time goes on, but are only really worth the investment for large projects or when your company has lots of projects in its sights.

All in all, a project methodology is only a guide and should be treated with a critical eye. Throw out things that are not adding value, tailor elements to suit your environment, and keep an eye on your own project’s goals and you should find yourself with the perfect balance between methodology and practical application.

Gary NelsonGary Nelson, PMP, is a project manager and author of three project management books. He has co-developed several project methodologies over the past 25 years, and his international experience includes numerous projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada.

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