Traditional Project Management: Are Agile Methods Any Better?

By Henri Gisclard-Biondi
Published: 3/11/21
illustration agenda 1

Would traditional project management be more suited to your business and its needs?

The question might be interesting to ask. There are different project management methods (PERT, Xtreme Programming, Kanban…), usually regrouped into two categories: traditional methodologies and agile methodologies.

How to choose the right project management methodology?

To help you navigate both worlds, let’s take a look at traditional project management methods (Waterfall and V model) and compare them to agile methodologies, with the scrum methodology being the most prominent example.

What is traditional project management?

Traditional project management, also known as predictive project management, remains one of the most commonly used project management methodologies.

Key characteristics

  • Linear, sequential project life cycle: the project manager ensures that each step of the project is complete before starting the next phase
  • Predictive planning approach: the project is conducted in accordance with what has been agreed upon in advance with the client (project sponsor). The project charter is used for reference throughout the development cycle and all needs and requirements have been determined prior to the beginning of the execution phase.
  • Few interactions between the team members and the client: writing detailed project specification means the project sponsor does not need to intervene during the development process. Quality control is conducted at the end of the project.

Known limitations

  • Low flexibility: traditional project management approaches don’t allow the project team to backpedal. This rigid approach can hinder progress in the face of unforeseen events and requires careful and proactive risk management.
  • No iterations: traditional project management methods imply delivering the product in its final version. Therefore, it could create issues such as:
    • client dissatisfaction if their needs have evolved in the meantime and the results don’t match their expectations anymore
    • the tunnel effect, meaning a lack of communication between the project manager and the project sponsor or other stakeholders

What are the traditional project management methodologies?

The two most widely-used traditional project management methodologies are the Waterfall methodology and the V model methodology.

Let’s dive into these two traditional approaches.

The waterfall methodology

Definition

Just like a real-life waterfall, the waterfall approach is linear and goes one way. It is based on 6 phases arranged in sequential order.

Each step must be complete before moving on to the next. Going back to a previous step is impossible, or would be too costly to the business.

The 6 steps of the waterfall methodology

The 6 steps of the waterfall methodology© Startinfinity
  1. Requirement gathering: the project sponsor expresses their needs and defines the objectives.
  2. Analysis: the project team analyses the needs of the client and defines project specifications or the project charter.
  3. Design: the team writes technical specifications aiming at describing precisely how the product will work and the way it will be conceived.
  4. Execution phase: this is the project development phase. The team executes the tasks required to complete the project, coding in the case of software development.
  5. Testing: the results are put to the test to verify they are working the way they should.
  6. Operations: the product or service (deliverable) is released to the client.

The V model methodology

Definition

The V model framework takes inspiration from the waterfall model. It too relies on a sequence of successive steps to describe the project life cycle, but each belongs either to the descending phase (representing the development phase) or the ascending phase (which represents the testing phase).

Its main focus is on software development. Just like other traditional methods, it requires extensive planning.

The 9 steps of the V model methodology

The V cycle in software development© Javapoint
  1. Business requirements: the project sponsor expresses their needs and defines the objectives.
  2. System specification: the project team analyses the needs of the client and defines project specifications or the project charter.
  3. High-level design: the team writes technical specifications aiming at describing the way the product will be conceived.
  4. Low-level design: the development team writes specific documentation about how individual features should be implemented.
  5. Execution phase: this is the project development phase. The team executes the tasks required to complete the project, coding in the case of software development.
  6. Unit testing: each individual feature is tested by the project team.
  7. Component testing: the tests are repeated for the product as a whole
  8. Integration testing: these tests involve the end-users, who will check the solution works for their usage.
  9. Acceptance testing: before releasing the product, the client verifies that the product conforms to the needs expressed in the project specification.

Traditional project management vs agile methodologies

What is agile project management?

The agile approach is a new set of methodologies and is becoming more and more commonplace in businesses. Agile and scrum are closely related: the scrum methodology is the most widely used agile methodology.

Below are a few of the defining characteristics of the scrum methodology:

  • It focuses on client satisfaction, therefore the latter is often seen interacting with the project team and takes a more active role in project development.
  • It allows for backtracking at any time of the development process. This added flexibility is made possible by:
    • iteration-based cycles: scrum is based on repeating iterative cycles, called sprints, to build the project progressively
    • incremental progress: the team adds features regularly to the product. One increment refers to all the elements completed by the end of one iteration, to which are added the features developed during previous sprints

The differences between traditional and agile methodologies

Traditional project management methods are often compared to the scrum methodology. Though they can share some tools like the Gantt chart, they are widely different approaches overall with divergent processes.

The table below sums up their main divergences.

Traditional project management methodologies Scrum methodology
Organization and management Vertical hierarchy, specialized resources A more horizontal and participative approach to management
Teamwork No size limit Limited team size as the scrum methodology implies many meetings, called the scrum ceremonies
Lifecycle Linear, sequential order Iterative, incremental progress
Planning Predictive planning: comprehensive strategy designed at the start of the project Adaptive planning: the strategy is reviewed during each sprint
Flexibility Does not allow backtracking A flexible method designed to adapt to the client’s needs
Quality assurance The client only sees and validates the final product The client is part of the development cycle, they grant approval at each stage
Documentation Extensive documentation: necessary to validate deliverables and establish a contract Less comprehensive due to the incremental approach and regular client consultations
Success measurement Initial commitments were respected (budget, delays, quality) Customer satisfaction and added value

How to choose the best project management approach?

It is important to understand that none of these methods is inherently better than the rival approach. You can use either, the choice depends on:

  • the nature and goal of the project: different types of project require different tactics
  • the way your company is organized and its activity
  • the level of familiarity of team members with one management method or the other

That being said, there are some situations where one or the other method is generally preferred.

Advantages of traditional project management

  • If you have sufficient visibility over the future of project development, everything can be planned in advance
  • If you are confident in your ability to account for most, if not all potential risks, you could implement proactive risk management processes
  • If the client is not readily available or prefers to be presented with the final product, a traditional approach would be more appropriate
  • If taking decisions quickly or contractual engagement is paramount, traditional project management offers the possibility of defining the project scope from the start
  • Large scale projects with large teams could benefit from the more rigid approach of traditional project management

Advantages of agile project management

  • If the project is likely to evolve or see changes, those could be handled better
  • If the client does not seem to have clear requirements, it could give them time to think about their needs in detail
  • If the target market is in constant evolution, the flexibility of agile processes offers competitive advantages
  • Agile methods allow you to leverage the collective intelligence of development teams and customer feedback, which could make complex projects easier

Summing up

Traditional project management is sometimes seen as an outdated set of methodologies, and agile management is on the rise.

But failing to see the benefits of a more traditional approach could be a mistake. Depending on the needs of your project and client, it could be wise to take a step back and think about which set of methods would be most beneficial.

Don’t be afraid to look at the more traditional side of project management to glean best practices from all approaches!

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