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PMO Methodologies: An Exploratory on Project Planning and 'Getting Across the Finish Line'

With the growth of computer system and application development and its use, Project Management, as a discipline, has grown leaps and bounds over the past decade or so, particularly in the area of Life Sciences. Once deemed a luxury, successful project management across most organizations has now become a highly-regarded necessity, with visibility into high profile projects often reaching weekly C-level Executive review status.

As organizations have evolved in line with technology, so too has the level of complexity associated with the various projects initiated and delivered year over year. Gone are the days of a “one size fits all” delivery plan, with project management professionals now needing to fully grasp and adopt a methodology that best meets both their short- and long-term strategic engagement goals.

But what exactly is a “methodology”? And which ones are the most popular amongst technology-based PMOs world-wide? By definition, a methodology is a system of practices, techniques, procedures and rules used by those who work in a discipline. The most common methodologies we will explore below are the Waterfall, PMI/PMBOK and Agile approaches, all of which have had and have their unique benefits as well as challenges

Waterfall: Waterfall methodology is an approach in which required tasks are organized and completed in sequential order. Progress flows in a downward, waterfall-like direction through the phases of conception, initiation, analysis, design, development, testing, deployment and maintenance all the way through to an end goal or final delivery. Typically, 30% of a project’s effort is invested in the first three phases with about 40% dedicated to development and the rest reserved for the phases that remain. The Waterfall method serves as a very structured approach, with a great deal of emphasis placed on requirements and design documentation, as well as source code. It lends itself to projects where requirements and scope are fixed, for the most part, and can be measured by identifiable milestones throughout the duration of the engagement.

Projects where we’ve utilized the Waterfall Method:

  • TrackWise Configuration and Enhancement Projects
  • Web Service and Custom Development Projects

Advantages of using the Waterfall Method:

  • Every phase has a defined start and end point, against which progress can be measured through the use of milestones by both the vendor and the client.
  • With major initial emphasis placed on requirements gathering and design, there is typically a reduced risk of scope creep and schedule slippage. Conversely, quality is often higher given that it is much easier to identify and correct potential flaws in the design phase versus the testing stage.
  • Lastly, knowledge transfer sessions tend to go much more smoothly as the first two phases result in the project team producing a formal specification that can be easily dispersed to key stakeholders and future end users.

Cons of using the Waterfall Method:

  • The Waterfall Method is much less effective on projects where the scope is unclear upfront, subsequently resulting in repeated scope assessment sessions, refinement and rework.
  • Also, developers working within the Waterfall methodology often encounter issues when designs that appear to be feasible on paper do not easy translate into real deliverables once implementation commences, thus requiring a re-design. Estimating time and costs with any degree of accuracy, as the Waterfall Method suggests, becomes increasingly more difficult.

PMI/PMBOK: While many may never formally regard this approach as a true “method” of delivery, my experience has taken me through several organizations that employ the strategy of breaking down project delivery into the five main process groups defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and documented via the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), more specifically known as Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, and Closing. During Initiation and Planning, project participants perform tasks such as developing a project charter, identifying stakeholders, determining budget and defining scope. During Execution and Control, the project team progresses according to the project plan, communicates on status and conducts familiar high-visibility sessions such as User Acceptance Testing. Finally, in the Closing phase, the project leads take all steps necessary to effectively complete the engagement, from publishing documentation to conducting project retrospectives and archiving all related assets.

Agile: The Agile approach is based on a philosophy under which requirements and deliverables evolve through the collaborative efforts of cross-functional teams and end users. Developed in 2001 by 17 software professionals, the main values were subsequently published in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and based on the premise of adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery and continual improvement. Popular within organizations that implement frameworks such as Scrum or Kanban, Agile encourages rapid, iterative review cycles and flexible response to change but can typically only result in success given ongoing collaboration and feedback between a project’s team members and its stakeholders.

Projects that typically fit the bill for Agile development are those where there is a degree of acceptance for uncertainty, meaning that a project team does not know everything about a project at the starting line, which is a stark contrast to the main premise of Waterfall, where requirements are expected to be in a complete state prior to any work starting.

The value in this comes from the idea that by accepting this approach, a team can then prioritize discovery and experimentation, reviewing what works and what does not work at a pace that allows for effective solutioning before fully committing to a set of defined deliverables. The goal of each iteration in Agile is to produce a working product or service.

Advantages of Agile:

  • Change is Embraced
  • End Goal is unknown
  • Delivery is rapid and high-quality
  • Team Interaction is strong
  • Improvement is continuous

Disadvantages of Agile:

  • Planning is less concrete
  • Resources must be highly-skilled and knowledgeable
  • Culture fit can be misaligned
  • Predictability is unlikely
  • Documentation can be neglected

In considering the delivery methodology to employ for your particular organization, you should take time to assess the general requirements of your most common project types while simultaneously keeping the end in mind:

  • Is scope usually well-defined?
  • Can projects be delivered in a linear sequence or do you consistently find a need to fast-track your efforts?
  • What are your typical budget constraints?
  • Is design a key driver for your end deliverables?
  • Is your industry highly-regulated?

If, for example, your project falls under certain regulatory constraints, then you may not have the flexibility to adopt a truly Agile approach given that what you send to an agency for review is what you have to build, by law. However, if you are building a SaaS platform, for example, you may have a great deal of flexibility in how you approach product development.

Also consider the lessons learned on past engagements. Try to incorporate what has resulted in prior success and baseline these efforts as best practice. If your project team tends to thrive in a collaborative effort, feeding off new ideas as they progress and regularly navigating sudden course-corrections, consider the Agile approach. If, however, they prefer a more structured, sequential path, draw from the Waterfall methodology.

There is no “best” answer for all organizations across the board; only one that best suits the stakeholders involved and the high-level success criteria defined across a program of services. Effective project management organizations are most successful when they are able to educate team members on the appropriate methodology and provide the tools/processes necessary to employ its best practices. Here at Process Stream, we find the best approach is often a tailored/customized combination of several methods, one size certainly does not fit all.

Be sure to check out our other project management related content on the streamINSIGHTS page and join the conversation on the Process Stream Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages!