Adaptive vs. Predictive: Is the end clear?

Author: Elisa Warner

Utilizing a variety of project management strategies will help ensure success.


Some projects have clear objectives and goals while others’ end results are uncertain. Each type of project has its own set of management challenges.


Implement different project development methodologies based on project conditions and team size.


Organizations should not employ a “one size fits all” project development method, but tailor their strategy to maximize quality and productivity.

Adaptive vs. Predictive Planning

Many factors can affect the chosen project development method of an organization or project team. When evaluating which approach to take, consider whether the project is familiar territory with a predictable path, or a new frontier with uncertain outcomes.

Known projects can usually rely upon a predictive method of planning. Predictive planning provides a linear, specific development plan structured around producing a pre-determined end result within a specific timeframe.

Evolving projects that face changing conditions are best suited for adaptive planning. Adaptive planning involves breaking a project into small components over an undetermined timeline to allow ultimate flexibility in directing the course of the project.

Whereas the outputs from predictive planning are expected and knowable, adaptive planning may yield surprising outcomes. Due to the incremental nature of adaptive planning, the overall result of a project may differ substantially from the original intent. The challenge associated with adaptive planning is to remain flexible and open to change, while not becoming irresolute.

The planning approach selected by an organization will lend itself to a specific project development methodology. Whereas an organization with a predictive mindset might choose to utilize a “waterfall” approach, adaptive teams may choose “agile” techniques.

When Objectives are Known: The Waterfall Method

The waterfall approach to project management is a useful approach when the variables and outcomes of a project are known. In the waterfall method, a single episode of directive discussion is followed by a lengthy production or development period, ending in the delivery of the resulting project.

The steps of the waterfall method include:

  1. Discussion of project concept and direction
  2. Analysis of project (design)
  3. Project development process
  4. Project evaluation
  5. Project delivery

The waterfall method may be an appropriate choice for an organization if:

  • The project is familiar to the team
  • The parameters of the project are unlikely to change
  • The project is involved and the project team is large
  • The project development process is thoroughly documented
  • The organization prefers predictability to change
  • The project manager is inexperienced in other project methodologies

The waterfall method places a great deal of responsibility on the project team to understand and implement provided objectives. If project representatives fail to provide the team with complete and accurate information, the final product will not meet the needs of the organization. Subsequent changes could be time-consuming and costly.

When Objectives are Unknown: Agile Methodologies

While clear knowledge of project objectives simplifies planning considerably, surprises are almost inevitable. Time does not stand still during a lengthy project development process; organizations may find that what suited their needs in January will not measure up in July. When organizations are faced with developing new projects with unclear objectives, agile methodologies provide the greatest flexibility.

First introduced in the field of software engineering, agile methodologies prioritize flexibility over a commitment to a predetermined outcome. Whereas the waterfall method casts its directives in permanent ink, agile planning would typify the use of a chalkboard and eraser. Agile methodologies emphasize the importance of incremental feedback in the project development process. Projects are completed in stages, with a series of deliverables rather than a single final product. As a result, the direction of the project is easily modified according to the evolving needs of the organization. Indeed, the project resists finality and may be recast, revised, or restructured indefinitely at the discretion of the organization. Agile methodologies tend to be well received by participants, as most feel that such techniques lead to improved quality and productivity.

The steps in agile techniques can vary somewhat based on the exact method employed. However, agile steps generally include:

  • A project brainstorming session
  • Production of a functioning component of the project
  • Delivery of component for feedback from multiple sources
  • Implementation of feedback into project design and goals
  • Production of another project component under the redefined project parameters and goals

Agile methodologies may appeal to an organization if:

  • The parameters of the project are evolving or undetermined
  • The organization easily adapts to change
  • The team and/or project is somewhat small
  • The timeline is flexible
  • The organization represents an industry that is rapidly changing
  • There is an experienced project manager

Although agile methodologies are more appropriate for small teams, they can be employed when a large team is broken into sub-groups. If this is not possible, establish alternative communication channels to enable broad input into a project from a variety of sources.

Special Considerations for Non-Profit Organizations

Agile methods can serve as an important tool for non-profit organizations. When non-profits represent an industry rather than a client base, an even greater element of unpredictability is introduced into their actions and goals. The structure of a non-profit can make collaboration difficult, as the executive director is typically the lynchpin between the board of directors (designers) and staff (constructers). Furthermore, in spite of their desire to bring cutting-edge workshops, research, and publications to their membership, many non-profits are sheltered from the industries they represent and fail to see trends until they are widely practiced.

To implement agile techniques in non-profit projects:

  • Survey the membership about project ideas and reactions prior to the development process.
  • Create diverse teams consisting of industry leaders, staff, board members, regional leaders, and general members.
  • Use technology to facilitate communication between geographically separated team members (e.g. conference calls, Internet message boards, etc.).
  • Present project components to an extended network of board and committee members for evaluation.

Technological Resources for Project Planning

Project management software may provide valuable tools to team members and project leaders. Such software is typically most effective for large, waterfall-style projects. Agile projects may defy the assumption of “finite” projects by many software packages.

Project management software varies greatly in features and price. Microsoft Project is a popular software package that is available to certain educational institutions at a discount. Another software package, Project Kickstart, is designed specifically for non-profit organizations. The software facilitates typical non-profit activities such as fundraising, grant writing, event planning, and volunteer recruitment.

Some of the features included in most project management software packages include: Project Definition, Task Scheduling, Team Assignments, Resource Allocation, Setting Deadlines, Tracking Progress, Reporting Functions. As with other technological resources, project management software should complement personal oversight and communication—not replace it.


  • Barkstrom, Bruce R. 2004. The Standard Waterfall Method for Systems Development. NASA website.
  • Mochal, Tom. Waterfall vs. RAD: How to Pick the Right Method for Your Project. TechRepublic website. (2004) Subscription required.

Elisa Warner develops research and training programs for non-profit and educational organizations. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Educational Facility Planner.

2 comments on Adaptive vs. Predictive: Is the end clear?


23 Mar 2011, 10:11 pm

Fantastic article, exactly what I was looking for. Thanks a bunch :)


Predictive Project Management AND Adaptive

06 Oct 2011, 10:24 pm

[…] I read Elisa Warner’s article on adaptive vs. predictive and Abrachan Pudussery’s article Adaptive vs. predictive styles of project management.  My […]


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