18 October, 2021

Tailoring: How to Determine Appropriate Project Methodology, Methods, and Practices

Every project is different. So, if you apply the same methodology and practices to every project you do… Well, don’t expect to get the best results every time! The solution is tailoring. Make choices that match the needs of your project, client, and context.

And there has never been a better time for us to examine this question. Tailoring was a part of the sixth edition of the PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). And, since the start of 2021, it has been on the syllabus for the PMP Examination*. But, it is with the publication of the 7th edition of the PMBOK Guide (PMBOK 7) that PMI finally gives us guidance on how to tailor our approach and methodology.

Tailoring is one of the best aspects of the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK 7, so I shall draw from it extensively.

And the UK’s Association for Project Management (APM) also covers this topic in some detail in its APM Body of Knowledge, the APMBoK, 7th edition. Although the APMBoK does not use the word, ‘tailoring’, there is a lot of excellent content – particularly in section 1.2, ‘Life cycle options and choices’. For more about the APMBoK, please see our article, APM Body of Knowledge: What is it, Do You Need it?

But remember… Not all Project Managers are affiliated to the PMI or the APM. And nor do we all aspire to be. So, as you’d expect, this article gives my own perspectives too.

* Tailoring in the PMP Examination

The PMI’s premiere certification is the Project Management Professional (PMP). The syllabus for its examination is in the PMP ECO, or Examination Content Outline.

The PMP ECO covers three Domains (not the same as the 8 Performance Domains of PMBOK 7):

  1. People
  2. Process
  3. Business environment

Each domain has a number of tasks, which are divided into enablers.

Domain 2, Task 13 is ‘Determine appropriate project methodology/methods and practices

In the PMP ECO, PMI suggests you need to know how to:

  • Assess project needs, complexity, and magnitude
  • Recommend project execution strategy (eg: contracting, finance)
  • Recommend a project/methodology/approach (ie: predictive, agile, hybrid)
  • Use iterative, incremental practices throughout the project lifecycle (eg: lessons learned, stakeholder engagement, risk)

These are the four enablers for Task 13.

First, more OnlinePMCourses Resources for PMP

Second, our Free Articles and Videos…

Tailoring: How to Determine Appropriate Project Methodology, Methods, and Practices

The Four Big Questions We’ll Answer

Getting your head around what tailoring is and, more important, how to do it, can be daunting. So I have aimed for the simplest possible structure for this article. I will answer the four questions that seem to me most obvious…

  1. What is Tailoring?
    We’ll look at the PMI’s definitions and my take on them.
  2. Why is Tailoring Important?
    We’ll see what a difference it can make, first to your projects, and second, to your career.
  3. What Aspects of the Project Do we Need to Tailor?
    Tailoring is not just a choice of agile or predictive PM. We’ll see what else you need to think about.
  4. How Will You Tailor Your Project?
    Now PMI has given some clear guidance, we’ll look at what they say, and add in my own experience.

What is Tailoring?

Every project is different. And, to quote the PMBoK 7th edition:

Professionals are expected to make informed choices and select approaches that match their specific context.

APM Body of Knowledge, 7th edition
Association for Project Management, 2019
Introduction to section 1.2

When I first started in Project Management, I was within the consulting sector. From the start, I learned the GOSPA framework, as a route through projects:

  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Strategy
  • Plans
  • Action

However, many people found the ‘Strategy’ part difficult. This was about choosing how to design a project approach that was suited to the needs of the project and its client.

  • Would we outsource or use internal resources?
  • How much of the solution would we buy-in and how much would we create?
  • What were the major phases of the project, and
  • How would we create an environment of effective governance?

We were tailoring our project to the client’s needs.

What does ‘Tailoring’ Mean?

As with many Project Management jargon words (like milestone, gateway, and stakeholder), tailoring is a metaphor. And it’s instructive to look into its origin.

A tailor makes clothes that fit you. They are not ‘off-the-peg’ clothes that will fit you pretty well – and the next person too. They will fit you precisely, because a tailor measures you and fits them to the exact form of your body.

A specific methodology will fit a range of projects pretty well. But tailoring means adapting them and bringing in new ideas to make a perfect fit to the needs of the:

  • culture
  • people
  • deliverables
  • resources
  • politics
  • …and much more

The PMI Definitions of Tailoring

It is the Project Management Institute (PMI) that introduced the word ‘tailoring’. And their definition has evolved from a functional definition in PMBOK 6 to a more principles-based definition in PMBOK 7. I think both are instructive, but the newer definition (in PMBOK 7) is, for me, the one to focus on. It is, in my view, excellent.

Determining the appropriate combination of processes, inputs, tools, techniques, outputs, and life cycle phases to manage a project.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Sixth Edition
Project Management Institute, 2017

The deliberate adaptation of approach, governance, and processes to make them more suitable for the given environment and the work at hand.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Seventh Edition
Project Management Institute, 2021

As an aside, at time of writing this article (autumn 2021), PMI’s position is that both editions 6 and 7 of the PMBOK guide are current. That is, while PMBOK 7 is the newer, PMBOK 6 remains the basis for its CAPM examination syllabus and a core reference for its PMP examination syllabus.

Why is Tailoring Important?

Without a doubt, tailoring is a vital concept in modern Project Management. Your industry or your employer might call it something else, but it will be there; perhaps as:

  • Customization
  • Bespoking
  • Adaptation
  • Approach
  • Strategy
  • Shaping

So let’s find out why it’s so important now.

Why is Tailoring Important to Effective Project Delivery?

Actually, it’s no more important now than when I learned the GOSPA framework, back in 1994. But it’s more evidence, because of the obvious need to select a methodology on the spectrum from a purely predictive to a totally adaptive model of Project Management. And that spectrum is broad and fine-grained. So, there are lots of ways we can design and deliver our projects.

I do hope that the value of selecting and optimizing a methodology and approach to each project is evident. We must look at the individual characteristics of the project and its context and fit in with them. The alternative is a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

And, as my friend and former colleague, Tony Quigley used to say:

One size fits all is for silly hats.

Quigleyism: a humorous saying from Tony Quigley

Selecting an Existing Methodology or Framework

Of course, many Project Managers like to use a familiar methodology or framework, like PRINCE or Scrum. And there is nothing wrong with this. They come with well-tested processes, toolsets, and structures that offer confidence and convenience.

But all of them are best applied with the benefit of good judgment. Unthinking and uncritical application of the whole framework is wrong – and often in breach of the guidelines within that framework. Rather, your job is to take the established methodology as a starting point. And then adapt it to suit your needs. This means:

  • greater efficiency in the use of time, budget, and resources
  • clearer and more effective governance
  • higher levels of motivation and commitment among team members
  • greater levels of coustomer focus and stakeholder satisfaction

Why is Tailoring an Important Skillset for Project Managers?

If your project needs tailoring, then you need to be able to deliver tailoring. But the benefit to you is wider than just ‘being able to do your job’. Indeed, the more adept you are at understanding context, diagnosing need, and applying a broad range of ideas to that situation, the more opportunities you will have.

If you can adapt yourself and your project structures to more contexts, you will not only be able to deliver more effectively to time, to budget, and to specification. There will be a greater variety of project types that you will be able to take on with confidence.

What Aspects of the Project Do we Need to Tailor?

Tailoring is not just a choice of Agile or Predictive Project Management. There are many other considerations. Let’s look at them.

Tailoring the Delivery Agent: In-house, Outsouring, Contracted and Consulting Support

Firstly, who will do the work?

Will your own people lead it, or will you bring in a contracted or consultant project management team?

And what about project resources? You can use your own staff, contracted or consultant staff, agency or interim workers, or outsource the whole thing.

Then, there are components that you can:

  • Build from scratch
  • Adapt from commercial options
  • Buy bespoke to your specifications
  • Use what is available

And this will link, of course, to:

  1. Your budget and quality priorities
    Cheap and basic, top quality and cost no object, or somewhere between
  2. Your procurement processes
  3. The contract form you choose
    Examples include: Cost plus, Target cost, fixed price, time and materials (schedule of rates), design and build, DBFO (design, build, finance, and operate) – or Private Finance

See our article: Project Procurement Management [All the basics you need to know].

Tailoring the Delivery Approach: Predictive, Adaptive, or Hybrid Methods

There is a broad spectrum of options to consider, with some ‘primary colors’ being:

  • Linear predictive – one main delivery, fully planned in advance
  • Incremental predictive – multiple deliveries, largely planned in advance
  • Iterative adaptive – multiple iterations of new and adapted delivery, planned a step at a time
  • Fully adaptive – an evolutionary aprproach that only plans what is immediately ahead of us

And, of course, there many ways that we can hybridize these approaches. We have an article on this: Hybrid Project Management: What You Need to Know.

Tailoring the Delivery Cadence: Lifecycles, Stages, and Phases

What will be the stages and phases of your project? Although the terms ‘stage’ and ‘phase’ are often used interchangeably, I will use them to mean:

  • Stage:
    A logical stage in a project life cycle, like Definition, Planning, Delivery, Closure
  • Phase:
    In a delivery program, the delivery may be split into chunks and scheduled through time. So, Phase 1 may deliver some functionality, and subsequent phases may add to this.

So this raises the two questions:

  1. What Life cycle model will you choose?
    You may of course, not eed one, with certain agile approaches. But, if you do, what stages will you select and how will you label them?
  2. How will you phase either Projects in a Program, or Delivery within a Project?
    You may have a single phase, multiple phases, or a cyclical process. And, within many operational IT departments, for example, we see continuous delivery models – often based around a Kanban approach.

Tailoring your Selection of Tools, Techniques, and Models

The other big tailoring decisions will focus more on small, but important, details. Which tools and techniques, and what templates and models will you use. This is about the pragmatics of what will work best for you and your team. And sometimes you will need to work within the constraints of what is available – or even mandated – within your organization.

Under this heading, we might include things like, for example:

  • Governance and reporting – creating and maintaining an audit trail
  • Document, knowledge management, and learning lessons
  • Risk management processes
  • Stakeholder engagement and project communication
  • Benefits management and realization
  • Team management and leadership

How Will You Tailor Your Project?

Now we reach the crux of the matter. What is the process for tailoring an approach to your project’s needs and its environment?

What to Consider when Choosing Your Project Approach

In the previous section, we saw that we will need to tailor a number of things:

  • Delivery agent
  • Procurement Process
  • Delivery approach
  • Cadence and Life Cycle model
  • Tools, techniques, and models

So, what do you need to consider, in deciding how to tailor your project?

Here is my starter list, but it can never be exhaustive. Your situation may draw in other factors:

  • The culture of the sponsoring organization
  • What benefits you need to realize and how you will deliver value
  • Requirements for good governance – including fitting with existing structures
  • Preference and priorities of different stakeholders
  • The nature and extent of any organizational or societal changes that need to flow from your project
  • Constraints on schedule, budget, specification, or other factors
  • Dependencies on other internal and external events and activities

Factors in Making Your Tailoring Decisions

So, with all of this, how can these influence your choices? This is a big and complex question. And all I can reasonably do in an article of this scope (around 3,000 words) is offer some examples.

Intrinsic Factors: Internal to the Project

  • Size and Complexity
    Is your project big and complicated or small and simple? or maybe some other combination.
  • Novelty
    How familiar is the project you are delivering. And how much will your team need to innovate and problem-solve during the delivery process?
  • Health & Safety
    What are the implications of either your deliverables or process for the health and safety of your team, stakeholders, and end-users?
  • Criticality
    How critical is the success of your project to the sponsoring organization and l=its client group. This will, of course, link closely to…

Extrinsic Factors: External to the Project

  • Risk Tolerance or Aversion
    How risk averse or tolerant is the project’s sponsoring organization? For example, the public sector is highly risk averse, while entrpreneurial start ups will embrace substantial commercial risk.
  • Clarity of Requirements
    How clear are requirements and how you can meet them, from the outset?
  • Social and Technological context
    Some contexts are highly stable, leading to firm requirements that are unlikely to change through the course of the project. Others will cause massive shifts in scope or specification through the life of your project.
  • Regulatory Environment
    Legislation and regulation can impact many project types. This will bring in factors like compliance, standards, and security. But the extent and nature of their requirements can vary massively.
  • Capacity and Capability
    What is the capacity and capability of the delivery organization to work on the project?

The PMBOK 7 Process for Tailoring

For my money, one of the best aspects of the new 7th edition of the PMBOK Guide is the chapter on tailoring. It offers solid advice on how to do it.

One of my quibbles with PMBOK 7, however, is its price. So it is great that I can point you to a free download from PMI that contains some of the core of that chapter. Therefore, do grab yourself a copy of PMI’s Tailoring Explainer.

As PMBPK 7 sets it out, the tailoring process has four steps:

  1. Select Initial Development Approach
    This is the broad approach you will take, and includes the agile-hybrid-predictive spectrum and the relevant life cycle model and cadence. Pick one that you consider best matches your neeeds. You may well select a particular methodology as your starting point.
  2. Tailor for Organization
    This is where you modify your initial approach based on the nature and culture of the sponsoring and sdelivering organization (or organizations). You’ll also take account of the context (social, regulatory, etc) in which the organizations sit.
  3. Tailor for Project
    Now you need to adapt what you have to the specific nature of your project. You’ll consider things like scale, complexity, novelty, and criticality. But also, factors relating to the team you have available, like culture, location (co-located, dispersed, or virtual), experience, and capacity.
  4. Implement Ongoing Improvement
    As the project continues, periodically review the effectiveness of the tools, structures and processes you have in place. Set up a process of continuous improvement, using a ‘review and revise’ approach. This allows you to assess the situation, diagnose what the problems are, and identify further tailoring options that will remediate the problems.

Selecting Appropriate Tools, Techniques, and Models

You need to suggest the best – most useful and effective – tools, techniques, templates, and models to help deliver your project. These are what PMBOK 7 describes as the project’s models, methods, and artifacts. Your intent should be to optimize:

  • efficiency and productivity
  • transparency and good governance
  • economy
  • delivery of value
  • quality of outputs
  • satisfaction of stakeholders

Of course, you will always be looking for an optimum balance among these often-competing priorities (and others).

And, where you have standard artifacts, you need to adapt (tailor) them to the specific needs of your project and the preferences of your team. And do keep the new versions and document lessons learned from their use. This is how our toolset grows and evolves.

Tailoring Your Approach to each Domain or Knowledge Area

The next step is to take a critical look at each area of our discipline. PMBOKs 1 to 6 referred to Knowledge Areas (of which there are 10 in PMBOK 6). PMBOK 7 talks of 8 Project Performance Domains. These are different, but overlapping ideas.

PMBOK 6 has short sections – usually a few bullet points – that point us to tailoring considerations within the chapters on each of its 10 Knowledge Areas.

PMBOK 7 has similar lists of bullet point tailoring suggestions for each of the 8 Performance Domains, at section 3.5 of the chapter on Tailoring.

These do offer helpful prompts. But nothing will beat getting your team together and brainstorming what areas of your practice you can improve by further tailoring and adapting your tools and processes. I recommend you adopt a rolling sequence of reviews, alongside lessons learned sessions within regular project team meetings.

Please Tell Us about Your Experiences of Project Tailoring

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas, experiences, impressions, and questions. I will respond to any comment you make below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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