The art of tailoring

making your project methodology fit


This paper offers a reminder of the value of tailoring a project management methodology to the successful execution of projects and looks at the emphasis A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) places on the value of tailoring, the conditions that determine the extent of tailoring that are appropriate, and presents a process for developing a tailored project management methodology. It also proposes a role for project management consultants in the process of assisting with the development of tailored project management methodologies.

At the end of this session, participants should have an understanding of what tailoring is, how and when to tailor a methodology, and be able to use this information to tailor their own methodologies.

Keywords: tailoring; project management methodology; project management maturity

Origins of the Problem

As a project management consultant, I have often been asked to provide clients with an off the shelf project management methodology. In one sense, this is a good thing because it shows a commitment to increasing project management maturity within an organization. However, I have come to see it as a liability and, in fact, counterproductive, and very rarely contributing to an increase in organizational project management maturity.

Too many organizations view an off the shelf project management methodology as the easy answer to all their project management problems. They assume that if they pay the licensing fee, send people to get accredited, and put up colorful posters around the workplace that people will actually use the methodology, that the methodology is right for them, and that as a result they will have a huge increase in the successful delivery of projects.

They seem genuinely surprised when no one uses the project management methodology and there is still a lack of consistency and maturity, which is a huge disservice to the many fine off the shelf methodologies available; they are really quite good, but they aren't as good as your own tailored methodology and the process of developing it yourself.

The alternative to an off the shelf methodology is to instead spend the time and money set aside for licensing and accreditation fees to develop your own tailored project management methodology. The results will be better suited to your organization and longer lasting because you developed it yourself, using your own language and creating your own champions.

What is a Methodology Exactly?

A methodology is an appropriate, professional, repeatable, standardized, and documented collection of processes, tools, techniques, and templates for managing projects (Whitaker, 2012). The methodology is what you use to deliver your projects; it should reflect the size, complexity, and industry of your projects. It should be based on good practices, such as those in the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth edition. It should be easily located and understood by all project team members. It should also be subject to the process of continuous improvement to make sure it is kept up to date with any changes.

A methodology is your organization's particular collection of processes, tools, and techniques and templates that you choose to use. Tailoring is the processes of choosing which of these are appropriate to use on any given project. One size doesn't fit all. Your methodology doesn't suit my projects, but your methodology also doesn't suit all your projects. It should also be flexible and scalable enough to be able to be used on all your projects.

This must be kept in mind when developing or changing your project management methodology. Your methodology is your winter or summer wardrobe, selected from the “clothes store” of the PMBOK® Guide. It suits the season but you still pick the individual items to wear on a daily basis. This is the part that is scalable and customizable.

Within your organization, it is the project management office (PMO) that is responsible for developing, monitoring, and improving your project management methodology. However, it is the individual users of the methodology who must agree to adopt, use, and improve it, so having them involved during the creation of your methodology will improve it.

Why is having a Methodology Important?

In the absence of a defined and appropriate project management methodology, you will be doing projects by the seat of your pants, constantly making things up as you go, and each project manager will do things his or her own way. This can lead to many negative things, including inefficiencies, decreased morale, less repeat business, financial losses, and lower chances of delivering successful projects.

Having a defined and appropriate methodology will allow you to extract the most efficiency from your project management activities. Greater efficiencies contribute to increased chances of project success. Project managers and project team members have defined and appropriate processes, templates, documents, and guidelines to refer to, to assist their planning, execution, and monitoring of the project. Program and portfolio managers have access to standardized information for reporting and assessment purposes. So, overall, having a methodology means a great chance of project success.

The existence of a project management methodology and a commitment to continual review and improvement are also signs of higher levels of project management maturity.

Off the Shelf or Customized Methodology?

When it comes to the process of developing or changing your project management methodology, you have two main options available to you. You can choose to develop your own methodology or to use an already developed one available as an off-the-shelf solution, usually for a fee.

If you choose to develop your own one, the most important part to getting this right is to have people with the right levels of experience, passion, and commitment to make sure the development doesn't stop halfway through. Developing your own methodology is not a single event; it will take time and iterations to ensure it is correct. It also requires a champion who will commit to seeing the initial process to completion. Too many good initiatives have been left to flounder due to the absence of a champion. The benefits of developing your own methodology is that you can leverage off existing intellectual property, accommodate the organizational culture, and get buy-in from the project management team by seeking their input on what constitutes an appropriately tailored methodology. A disadvantage to making your own methodology is the time and effort it takes to get it from initiation to working methodology with processes, tools, and templates.

There are many off-the-shelf solutions for a project management methodology and of the ones I have seen, most claim they can be customized to suit; however, most people don't see this and assume that simply by taking an off-the-shelf solution that it will solve all their problems. The benefit of getting an off-the-shelf solution is that it is available right away and it is a known methodology. The drawbacks are that people assume that because it works for someone else that it will work for them, when this is not always the case. The instant methodology does not reflect the organizational culture or industry. Also, there is no control over intellectual property and there can be a lack of buy-in and support from project team members.

What is Tailoring?

Tailoring is “For any given project, the project manager, in collaboration with the project team, is always responsible for determining which processes are appropriate, and the appropriate degree of rigor for each process. Project managers and their teams should carefully address each process and its constituent inputs and outputs.” (PMBOK® Guide— Fourth edition, p. 38) The concept of tailoring has grown in importance over the years with different versions of the PMBOK® Guide, giving it more emphasis. The phrase ‘tailor’ or ‘tailoring’ is used 0 times in the second edition, 10 times in third edition, and 13 times in the fourth edition.

The Process of Tailoring

Tailoring your project management methodology is an important step in organizational project management maturity and also in getting people to use and improve your particular methodology. In the absence of an appropriately tailored project management methodology, people will tailor their own solutions. Here are some signs that your project management methodology is not tailored correctly.

  • Project team members are not using the methodology
  • Project team members are independently modifying the methodology
  • Your methodology features process for the sake of process
  • Your methodology is a one-size-fits-all approach to projects of differing sizes and complexity

The benefits of a tailored approach to your project management methodology are:

  • Buy-in from team members
  • Customer oriented focus
  • Focus on best-for-project approach
  • More efficient use of project resources

There are three stages to tailoring your project management methodology.

The first is the initial tailoring you do to select those elements that will form your project management methodology. Here, you select from a body of knowledge such as the PMBOK® Guide, all those processes, tool and techniques that are appropriate to the styles of projects you are doing based on their complexity and size. I believe that the factors that influence the choices you make in developing a project management methodology are project size, complexity, organization and team culture, and internal and external constraints. Once this initial process is complete you will have a methodology that can be used for your projects. If your projects are all largely similar, then the methodology will be a fairly standardized one used without much change between projects. If, however, the size and complexity of your projects vary considerably, then this first stage in tailoring your methodology will result in a scalable and flexible methodology that can be adapted to be used on all your projects. Some specific examples of scalability and flexibility include the type and size of any project charter, the range of scope definition and extent of planning completed, and the effort put into risk management and communications management.

The second stage is the tailoring done before starting a project to determine what elements of your project management methodology you are going to use for this particular project. This process should involve both the project manager and the PMO in deciding which elements of the organization's project management methodology are appropriate for this particular project. An easy way to do this is simply to divide projects into small, medium, and large projects and have a different set of processes, tools, and templates for each category. There are other, more complex ways of making these decisions as well.

The third stage of tailoring is completed during the execution of the project, where you are checking that the particular combination of elements you have selected is still appropriate and you are not overcooking or undercooking a project. Tailoring is an iterative process done throughout the entire project life cycle. The PMO should have an input into this review process and oversee and approve any changes. Adding your lessons learned about the application of your selected methodology to your lesson learned process helps other project managers in the future.

Developing your own Project Management Methodology

Developing your own project management methodology isn't rocket science. A good place to start is to first identify the major problems you are having with your projects and seek to address these first. You should also spend time documenting the existing processes and templates you have. These need to be standardized if you have multiple versions and they need to be checked to make sure they are actually right for you and your projects.

As a broad overview, you can start by developing an outline or process flow chart using the Plan-Do-Check-Act1 cycle, or the PMBOK® Guide Process Groups of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closing to define major parts of your process. After all, the only real difference between traditional project management methodologies in the construction and agile methodologies used in IT is the speed at which you go through these processes and the amount of effort in each stage or phase.

Then take into account the size of your organization and projects, your organizational and project team culture, the complexity of your projects, the duration of the project, and the level of organizational project management maturity. Don't forget to start by using any existing process assets that you may have, then go and fill in the blanks using your project team members, and external experts; in addition, there are plenty of examples to draw ‘inspiration’ from on the Internet. Bring your team members together and have regular meetings to discuss the next steps. Don't forget to appoint, and encourage, a champion (or two or three) to develop and implement the new methodology and then commit to continuous improvement.

You may want to consider using a tool for assessing your level of project management maturity because it provides guidelines for assessing where you are now and where you should be, along with the gaps in your methodology that need to be filled to help you bridge that gap. There are several very good organizational project management maturity models on the market, so shop around and find the one that is right for you.

Keep in mind that none of this is ‘rocket science’ and you don't have to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of free resources available online; there are free templates, processes, discussion groups, and webinars available to you and your team. There is also the option of bringing in a consultant subject matter expert and going on training courses.

Perhaps the most important aspect in this process is to acknowledge the role of time. All good things take time and, despite your impatience, you simply won't achieve all of your planned project management methodology overnight. It will take time as your prioritize those things that must be done sooner rather than later; of course, you still need to continue with business as usual and deliver projects.

The Role of the Consultant

Among all these good intentions and commitment to developing you own customized and tailored project management methodology, it is important to discuss what role, if any, the project management consultant should have during this process.

A typical relationship involves bringing in a skilled project management consultant who then proceeds over a short period of time to instruct or tell you what you should do. He or she will then leave, and you are expected to have listened to everything he or she said, and adopt it overnight. Needless to say, this isn't the best process for a long-lasting outcome and improvement in your project management methodology.

The key role that a consultant can play during the process of developing your own tailored project management methodology is one of empowering employees to develop their own appropriate methodology. In this role, the consultant acts as supporter, subject matter guide, mentor, and change agent. At the end of the day, it is the role of the consultant to put him or herself out of a job as fast as possible because, in doing so you have ensured that there is increased professional capability within the organization, which is much longer lasting than a typical transaction with a consultant.


Project Management Institute (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Whitaker, S. (2012). The practically perfect project manager. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.


1 The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle was first developed by W.E. Deming and W.A. Shewhart as part of the development of quality management processes.

© 2012, Sean Whitaker
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Getting Past the Editor's Desk member content locked

    By Klein, Gary | Müller, Ralf To reach acceptance, every research paper submitted to Project Management Journal® (PMJ) must pass several hurdles. This editorial aims to declare the editorial process and reveal major reasons for…

  • Project Management Journal

    Narratives of Project Risk Management member content locked

    By Green, Stuart D. | Dikmen, Irem The dominant narrative of project risk management pays homage to scientific rationality while conceptualizing risk as objective fact.

  • Project Management Journal

    Coordinating Lifesaving Product Development Projects with no Preestablished Organizational Governance Structure member content locked

    By Leme Barbosa, Ana Paula Paes | Figueiredo Facin, Ana Lucia | Sergio Salerno, Mario | Simões Freitas, Jonathan | Carelli Reis, Marina | Paz Lasmar, Tiago We employed a longitudinal, grounded theory approach to investigate the management of an innovative product developed in the context of a life-or-death global emergency.

  • Project Management Journal

    Investigating the Dynamics of Engineering Design Rework for a Complex Aircraft Development Project member content locked

    By Souza de Melo, Érika | Vieira, Darli | Bredillet, Christophe The purpose of this research is to evaluate the dynamics of EDR that negatively impacts the performance of complex PDPs and to suggest actions to overcome those problems.

  • Project Management Journal

    Navigating Tensions to Create Value member content locked

    By Farid, Parinaz | Waldorff, Susanne Boche This article employs institutional logics to explore the change program–organizational context interface, and investigates how program management actors navigate the interface to create value.