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4 Categories of Project Management Methods

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What is a method in project management?

A method is how you do something.

It’s the way you achieve a result; the steps you take to get the output or the deliverable.

Think back to when you did science experiments at school. I had to write out the method, explaining how I did the experiment including the steps I used and the equipment that was needed. The point of it was to make sure that if someone else wanted to repeat the experiment, they could do so using the same steps as I had done, and hopefully, they would get the same result.

A method is simply that: a way of working, codified so that other people can adopt it (and change it) if they want.

We have a ton of project management methods – some you probably don’t spend much time thinking about at all. You just use them because you’ve always done it that way.

Types of project management methods

Project management uses lots of methods. Some are the same as what you would see in other jobs. For example, project management doesn’t have a specific method that we all use for document filing, different to, say, the way marketing or finance do document filing.

Some methods you use might be industry-specific: a project manager in construction, for example, might use different methods for planning than an IT project manager because of the nature of the work being planned.

But there are some specific project management methods. And the good ole’ PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition lists 4 different categories that I feel are pretty comprehensive.

The four types of project management methods are:

  1. Data gathering and analysis methods
  2. Estimating methods
  3. Meetings and events
  4. Other (because it’s always worth having a bucket category for anything else, right?)

Let’s look at them now.

1. Data gathering and analysis methods

Data gathering and analysis methods give you a richer understanding of a situation. They help you collect, assess and evaluate data.

And we have a lot of data in project management, so these methods are really helpful, especially when it comes to presenting information to executives, spotting trends, and working out what corrective actions we should take to keep projects on track. The output of using these approaches generally ends up being talked about in meetings or included in reports.

Because successful projects use data to make decisions. These methods are decision-making support tools.

Here are six methods that help project managers better understand their project data.

Earned value analysis

A complete book in itself! The ultimate way to integrate scope, cost, and time to assess performance and spot trends. Not something you’ll use on every project but your business might routinely need to use EVA if, for example, you do government contract work in the US. It’s one of the traditional methods of project performance tracking, and it’s hugely effective in the right situations.

Complex projects don’t necessarily need EVA but many use it because of the benefits.

SWOT analysis

Producing the SWOT analysis for our 3-year plans for the IT team was one of the highlights of my year – my boss might be surprised to hear me say that! I loved those conversations because it allowed me to be big picture and creative, and I was also blown away by the things that were on my colleagues’ minds.

SWOT stands for:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats.

Basically, review any given position, project, physical product idea, recommendation, or choice in light of those themes and see what you can come up with. This is rich information for understanding more and helping with the business justification of next steps.

SWOT analysis - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

Root cause analysis

We used to do root cause analysis a lot in the IT team. It was the way we found out what exactly had gone wrong.

The IT lead responsible for whatever issue happened produced a report which summarized what happened and how the situation occurred. Then we could implement preventative measures so it couldn’t happen again.

Essentially, all you are doing here is looking at what was the underlying cause or reason for something that resulted in a deviation from the expected norm. Whether that’s a quality issue, a software bug, a broken process, or human error – it’s all worth investigating.

You can do root cause analysis as part of risk management as well.

Forecasting

What you do when you predict how the project is going to go. There are lots of different tools and ways of forecasting to help you get meaningful and accurate views of how things are likely to turn out.

Read next: Project Forecasting 101

Your project management tools might help you with that – use the dashboards and reporting features to spot trend analysis.

Assumption and constraint analysis

Make sure that assumptions and constraints are factored into the project plan by doing a deep dive into how they are going to affect the work.

Decision trees

This is a diagramming technique to evaluate options where you have multiple choices and typically looks at the financial performance of various ‘paths’ through a multi-layer decision.

We could go on and on with data analysis methods, but let’s pause there and move on to the next category of project management method.

2. Estimating methods

These are to help you understand how much of something is needed, whether that is time, cost, resource, work, duration, effort, etc. Then you can plan more accurately.

Here are four estimating methods. There are, of course, a lot more, but these are common ones.

Types of estimating methods - Affinity grouping, analogous estimating, multipoint estimating, story points

Affinity grouping

I love affinity grouping and we do it naturally as humans without actually calling it ‘affinity grouping’. At least, I’ve never said to my team, “Let’s do some affinity grouping!” They would look at me weirdly.

But they are totally fine with doing T-shirt sizing (is the task Small, Medium, Large, XL or XXL?) or by moving sticky notes into categories to help with workstream organization.

That’s all it is.

Analogous estimating

This is my go-to estimating method. You look at data from past projects and use that information to estimate what the likely time, cost, effort, etc is going to be on this project.

With a lot of knowledge work, I find subject matter experts struggle with estimating, so being able to look back on what it actually took them last time helps them structure their thoughts on a new project.

Multipoint estimating

You might know this as three-point estimating. The team members assess the optimistic, most likely, and pessimistic estimates for a given activity (cost or time, usually). Then they work out the weighted average of those to give you an estimate.

It’s a way of off-setting risk because you take the worst-case scenario into account. It can also (in my experience) make the people doing the estimating feel more confident because they haven’t been hassled into providing a single-point estimate. Talking about ranges somehow makes them feel more confident. Even if what you ultimately put on the schedule is a single figure…

If analogous and multipoint don’t fit your use case, try parametric estimating. There are different ways to estimate – once you find one that works for your team members, go with that.

Story points

Agile projects use story point estimating to assign a number that represents the amount of effort to implement a user story. The number could be anything, but other numbers for other user story implementations are relative.

For example, your team might estimate a user story as 5 story points. If another team estimated the same story, they might decide it was 10 story points. That doesn’t mean they think it is harder than you. They’re just using a different relative scale for their numbering.

It really doesn’t much matter what the number is, but all the numbers together present a picture of how complex, risky, and time-consuming the different user stories are.

This is a form of relative estimating.

3. Meetings and events

There are methods for running meetings and events? Or should we say that meetings and events are methods?

Meetings are a communication opportunity, so they are a method to achieve certain things. Your general team catch-up might not feel like a ‘real’ method, but you probably take a standard approach to it, using meetings management techniques to make sure it runs smoothly. 

They are basically methods for engaging stakeholders and ensuring communication happens in a timely and effective way.

Here are some other types of structured meetings and project events that act as methods for getting particular types of work done.

Kick offs

The kick-off meeting is held at the beginning of a project (project initiation). It makes sure that the team is on the same page about project requirements and pretty much anything else.

You can hold kick-offs at any time really, for example, the start of a new phase, or when you take over a project from someone else.

Risk review

I used to be in charge of the risk review meetings, back when I was a Business Change Analyst. I would prepare for the meeting by assessing what risks were open and significant, and that I felt needed updates. I also wanted to hear about risks where there were open action plans – to make sure that my colleagues were doing their work!

You can build risk review conversations into any standard project meeting, but we held them separately once a month, and you could do that too.

Backlog refinement

Refining the backlog means reviewing and prioritizing the work in the backlog that could be achieved during the next iteration. It’s a technique that agile teams use to make sure their next iteration is always focused on the right things.

Whether you end up with the work plotted out on a Kanban board or another way of managing your agile user stories, the point is to plan the work.

Change control boards

Got to love the CCB! As a project manager, I didn’t like having to turn up to (read: dial into) the CCB and present my change because I figured my project was important and I should just get all my changes approved so my project could carry on.

But no. There was this hurdle of having to do a formal submission… poor me?

Yes, the CCB process meant I couldn’t just get my changes in and some project work stopped until the changes were approved. But it was the right thing for the organization, of course. Larger projects, small projects, and business as usual changes went through the process.

The CCB is made up of a decision-making group who review and approve (or reject) changes across multiple projects, programs or portfolios so that everyone knows what is going on. And you aren’t putting in changes that someone else will un-put-in next week.

Stand-up meetings

Another staple of the agile project team: the daily stand-up meeting.

It’s a quick conversation that ensures people have what they need to make progress. It can be used for information sharing or pointing out blockers so the team can collectively resolve them.

It’s called a stand-up because some teams choose not to have chairs in the room as a way to encourage people to stay brief with their updates. All the stand-ups I have been to have been virtual and we all sat down?

Other types of meetings

There are so many other types of meetings in project management.

Here are some others:

  • Lessons learned meetings and retrospectives
  • Planning and iteration planning meetings
  • Procurement meetings like bidder conferences and contract reviews
  • Governance meetings like project boards, audit meetings, steering groups and peer reviews.

And you can probably think of more.

4. Other methods

PMBOK 7 talks about 5 other project management methods that are worth a mention but that don’t fit neatly into the categories above.

They are the following.

Impact mapping

Impact mapping is a method for strategic planning. It helps the team visualize the strategic roadmap, often for a product during product development.

Modeling

There are so many modeling options available, whether it’s a simple mock-up or a full-on system prototype. Storyboarding, diagrams, UX schema, maps for business processes and all that help project stakeholders (and product owner in projects using an agile approach) see how far the project has come and how close it is to their vision.

Prioritization tables

Prioritization methods are about creating ways to determine which projects and programs get done first. We used a simple weighted table-based method that helped calculate the relative priorities. When you are managing multiple projects, that’s a real help.

There are also methods for prioritizing requirements within a project, like MoSCoW.

Timeboxing

Is timeboxing really a method? Apparently so. It’s just a way of putting boundaries around the scope of work. You define what the time period is and then people can determine how much work can be done in that time.

Net promoter score

This is a method that I can’t say I’ve ever used. If you’ve ever answered an online survey that asks whether you would recommend a product or service to your friends, then you’ve seen it in action.

NPS is a way of judging how likely it is that a client will recommend you but it’s used as a generic way of assessing customer satisfaction. Customer-centric project management is the alternative I’ve used to assess customer satisfaction.

When to use project management methods

You’ll use different project management methods at different points in the project lifecycle. For example, kick-off meetings are going to be, naturally, done at the beginning (and certain other points if you really wanted to).

Certain methods are more suited to agile teams; others work better for teams using predictive methods (which we used to call waterfall methodology, but that’s not a super accurate term any longer).

Pick and choose the methods that fit the different project management methodologies you use for each project and the task you’re doing. If you have other methods that aren’t on this list, then awesome. Use all the things available to you. Invent new methods.

It’s your project. You’re in charge. You know the methods that would work best, so go with those. I trust your judgment! And if you don’t trust your own judgment, then book a mentoring call and we’ll talk about it!

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