every once in a while in your life you reach a decision point. a crossroad leading left or right. you can not look far enough to make the perfect step, but you have to decide anyways. is it left or right? or even turning back?

An interesting question that some of my students have been asking lately is whether they should spend time studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP®) exam or concentrate on studying for the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP®) exam, both from the Project Management Institute®. In response to this question I give one of my favorite answers as an instructor: “Well… It depends!” You might as well ask, “Should I get a master’s degree in mathematics or physics?” Or, “Should I become a painter or a philosopher?”

In other words, the answer has to come from within you and depends largely on your goals, desired career path and preferences. For example, do you want to manage a multi-year project for SpaceX to send satellites to Jupiter? If so, then go for the PMP first, because we’re talking serious waterfall-based approaches. Or do you want to work for a small startup company developing software? Then go for PMI-ACP because you need strength and proven experience with agile. In other words, the answer lies not with what I say but with you intend to do. To help you determine which is a better fit, let’s delve into the benefits of each approach and then you can make your own informed decision.

Waterfall or Agile — Projects and Career Path

To determine which certification is more important for you to obtain as a project manager, start with the question of what type of career you’re seeking in the project management field. Just like many organizations need to decide if waterfall or agile project management is the right choice for any specific project, it’s also true that aspiring or current project managers need to decide which type of project management training and experience will help them continue their project management careers well into the future. The PMP is based on PMI’s PMBOK® Guide, which outlines mainly a waterfall project management best practice approach to executing projects successfully, while the PMI-ACP (as well as other agile certifications) is based on an agile best practice approach.

Waterfall Project Management

Waterfall (sometimes referred as “traditional”) project management involves an in-depth, upfront planning process and follows a linear, pre-determined project schedule over a specified period. Waterfall projects are typically predictable; have a definitive end date; and have explicit procedures of how projects are initiated, planned, executed, monitored, controlled and closed (Deming’s “Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle”). The advantages of using the waterfall method to manage projects is having clear expectations and meeting those expectations by achieving certain milestones. Waterfall originated in the manufacturing industry as a result of understanding that changes in scope mid-project were usually very costly. Generally, companies use waterfall on their projects when:

  • They’ve executed a similar type of project previously and it’s almost cookie-cutter;
  • They’re able to determine up front the specific project scope and requirements; and
  • They can fairly accurately estimate the resources, cost and work effort necessary to finish the project on budget and on time.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management is an iterative approach that helps project teams deliver the highest value work possible to the customer within a rapidly changing environment. The essential aim of agile is to be flexible and able to adapt to changes rather than being forced to execute against a pre-defined plan that may become obsolete as the project progresses. There’s usually no definitive end date because the customer may decide at any point in the project that the functionality already delivered is sufficient for their needs.

Agile also uses Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. The only difference is that product components are delivered to the customer every two to four weeks rather than only at the end of the project, so that they can provide feedback to ensure the project team is headed in the right direction. Agile originated in the software development and mobile application industries to help companies be first to market with new and innovative products, giving them a competitive advantage. Generally, companies use agile on their projects when:

  • They don’t know specifically what they want;
  • They don’t know how long it’s going to take to produce; or
  • They don’t know how much it will cost to produce.

The Future of Waterfall and Agile Project Management

You may be wondering what the future of waterfall and agile project management are and what types of opportunities will be available to you as a project manager. I firmly believe that waterfall will never truly go away since some of the basic principles are also used in agile, such as decomposition, rolling wave planning, continuous improvement and process tailoring, to name a few. Aerospace, medical device and government contracting will still be alive and well for many years to come, although they are now embracing a “hybrid” project management approach, which allows companies to tailor their processes to a combination of the best practices of both waterfall and agile. However, it will be important to have your PMP certification in order to understand the basics of how these mainly traditional companies have operated in the past.

Waterfall or Agile: What’s Right for You?

If you decide that agile is the career path for you, then there are a few different ways you can go. The first would be to gain a good foundation in waterfall first by obtaining your PMP certification, but then following up on that by getting your PMI-ACP credential soon after to gain an overview of agile principles, best practices and different agile methods. This will give you a solid background in both waterfall and agile project management methodologies and position you nicely for the hybrid approach that many companies are embracing. You can also choose to go with an organization that’s new to agile and become a champion or driving force for change across the company using agile. And last, if you really want to be “extreme,” you could seek out companies that are cutting-edge and use advanced agile methods such as lean software development, Kanban and extreme programming, which will require more extensive and specialized certification training outside the realm of the PMI-ACP certification.

How About Both?

I’ve seen that many aspiring or current project managers decide to obtain their PMP first since it’s the most globally-recognized project management certification and is still the methodology used on the majority of projects being executed. Then they obtain their PMI-ACP certification in addition to their PMP. I believe this is a good way to go because once you understand the basics of general project management by obtaining your PMP, you may start to work on a few agile projects with your company and decide it’s a better fit for you. And bear in mind that the majority of contemporary projects are no longer strictly waterfall-only or agile-only. More traditional companies in aerospace, medical device and government contracting now embrace a hybrid approach, allowing them to tailor their processes to a combination of the best practices of both disciplines.

So the next time you ponder whether you should become PMP-certified or PMI-ACP-certified, I hope you’ll understand that the answer truly depends — on you.

Which direction have you decided to go? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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