Higher Education Innovation In Action

How to Choose the Best Management Methodology for Your Higher Ed Project

Mark Bonges, Vice President, Applications Development Sep 19, 2017

In 2012, McKinsey and Oxford University conducted a joint study on the success rate of large-scale IT projects and found that more than half go over budget and beyond scope. The study identified several reasons for this, all due to basic failures in project management:

  • Objectives that aren’t clearly defined
  • Constantly changing requirements
  • Scheduling that doesn’t fit a project’s size or scope
  • Reactive vs. proactive planning

These issues probably sound familiar to you as a registrar, and they illustrate why proper planning and management are key to helping you stay on time and within budget in those projects you work so hard to win approval for each year.

If you’re like most registrars, you probably follow your own process or have a favorite methodology. If not, or if you’re looking for a new and more efficient system (or maybe you’ve heard all that buzz about Agile), here are three project management methodologies to consider, plus their pros and cons, to help you choose one that’s right for you.


The Waterfall method, so named for its cascading series of steps, is commonly used in IT, though it can be applied to other types of projects. It’s made up of the following five phases with each one clearly defined and carried out in a specific order:

  1. Requirements – spelled out in a formal project document
  2. Design – the project’s inner workings or architecture
  3. Implementation – development/execution of the project plan
  4. Testing – verification that the project works the way it’s supposed to
  5. Maintenance – implementation and ongoing support of the project’s end result

Pros: This method works best where all of the planning and decision-making happens upfront. For example, it might be appropriate for a joint technology project with your institution’s IT department.

Cons: By design, Waterfall does not allow for deviations along the way, so it’s probably not for you if your project doesn’t have a rigidly defined set of requirements and/or you anticipate that its scope will change.

In that case, you might consider Agile instead.


You may have heard the phrase “fail fast to succeed sooner,” attributed to IDEO’s founder David Kelley and embraced by many of today’s tech companies. In software development, it means that you quickly build what’s known as a “minimum viable product,” show it to customers, solicit feedback, make improvements, and repeat the process. You accept that, at the outset, you don’t really know if your vision is correct (“fail fast”), but you trust that small and incremental changes will help you build a better product (“succeed sooner”).

It’s a philosophy that the Agile method was designed for, and here’s how it typically works in practice:

  • The project team meets to discuss the requirements of the initial release
  • Team members meet briefly every day thereafter for a “standup” to report on progress
  • Each team member takes on only as much as they can complete within a two- to four-week cycle
  • The team meets at the end of each cycle for a “showcase” to demonstrate what they have built so far and solicit user feedback

Pros: Agile’s narrow scope and adaptability are ideal for projects that require making adjustments as you go along and fast turnaround times.

Cons: This method can be expensive in terms of meetings, and its fast pace may not fit with your particular needs.

However, some of Agile’s components, like regular check-ins with your team, may appeal to you. If so, you could try a hybrid methodology.

Project Management Hybrids

Recently, Natalie Spooner wrote about an imaging project she led as a registrar. She followed her own process, but that type of project would have also lent itself well to a combined Waterfall and Agile approach. For example, she might’ve used the first couple of steps of the Waterfall method to define and design the project, and Agile’s regular meeting schedules to communicate with the multiple departments that were involved and help keep the project on track.

Pros: By combining methodologies, you can tailor processes to each individual project.  

Cons: Because Waterfall and Agile are almost completely opposite methods, they have the potential to clash.

All projects require governance, but there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. The key to project management is understanding the different methodologies that are available and finding the best solution for you and your team.