Understanding the Difference in Project Management for PMP® and PMI-ACP® Credential Holders

Understanding the Difference in Project Management for PMP® and PMI-ACP® Credential Holders

Being an expert project manager is not just about keeping up with the latest trends in your field or industry. It’s also about understanding the unique needs of a project and choosing the best path forward to complete it successfully. The most commonly used project management approaches are traditional and agile project management.

Understanding the difference between traditional or waterfall project management, typically used by Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential holders, and agile project management, used by PMI Agile Certified Practitioners (PMI-ACP)®, is essential. Additionally, knowing which approach to use in a particular project environment will help ensure the project is as successful as possible. This article explains predictive and agile project management and investigates the differences between the two methodologies.

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Traditional vs. Agile Project Management

The Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification from PMI is globally recognized and has historically tested project managers on traditional project management methods. Traditional project management uses a more linear and sequential approach to managing projects. Traditional project management is also referred to as the waterfall methodology. In a waterfall methodology, each project phase must be completed before moving on to the next, which may lead to delays and frustration if one project phase takes longer than expected.

The traditional project management methodology may include planning, implementation, and testing phases.

Planning – When used for product development, the waterfall approach relies on building a clearly defined project plan for the entire project before any deliverables are created.

Development – This is the project phase when your team executes the project plan to produce the expected product.

Testing – Completing a comprehensive testing phase is necessary to verify that the product fulfills the project’s requirements. Clients do not usually receive the finished product until all work on the project has been completed.

Given the vast amount of planning used in waterfall projects, they usually have a specified completion date by which the client can expect the project or product delivery. The waterfall approach benefits from setting clear expectations before the project begins, including defining the milestones you will use to measure progress.

The waterfall approach is ideal for project teams who have:

  • Completed a similar type of project in the past
  •  An organizational requirement to plan a detailed project scope, schedule, and budget before they begin work
  • Experience with accurately estimating resources and cost of projects

Agile is newer than the waterfall methodology and uses shorter iterations to complete projects. Based on the principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto, Agile is typically seen as more flexible and adaptable than traditional project management. It relies on iterative development phases, with each version of a project building on the previous one.

Key Agile Terms

Backlog – Projects and their features are broken down into manageable tasks to complete the highest priority tasks first. This project management approach aims to create a product increment suitable for launch as quickly as possible to bring value to the customer.

Sprints – Sprints, a term used in the agile practice of Scrum, are short periods (generally less than a month in length) in which a new iteration of a project is started and completed. Each sprint is independent of the previous one, as products and their features are designed, constructed, and tested within a single sprint. Team members elect to take on specific tasks to complete at the beginning of the sprint with the idea that they will accomplish that work during the sprint.

Delivery – The client receives the product increment, which may include new features after the sprint or iteration ends. The constant flow of completed work increments allows clients to see regular progress and realize business value continuously.

Agile practices were initially created for the software development industry to prioritize high-value work that can be completed in a fast-paced environment. While other project management approaches like waterfall rely on a rigid plan and scope to ensure success, Agile uses flexibility to adapt to needed changes and realize business value for customers. The rapid delivery of high-quality products and their features is ideal for companies in the technology development space, where they can gain a competitive advantage from fast product launches. Agile is generally suitable for projects in which:

  • The direction frequently changes because the full project scope isn’t initially known
  • There is a short deadline for the product launch
  • The cost and timeline of a project are uncertain

Other differences between traditional (PMP) and agile project management (PMI-ACP):

Planning – Using traditional project management, the plan for the entire project is outlined and approved before the project begins. With Agile, a planning session occurs before the start of each iteration to outline the tasks expected to be completed in that iteration.

Build – Waterfall projects take a more linear approach to projects, completing one task before the next begins. Meanwhile, Agile uses an iterative process where each iteration generally builds upon the previous one. Also, many tasks may be worked on simultaneously.

Changes Change is more challenging in the waterfall approach because the plan is outlined and approved at the project’s start. Any changes, even minimal ones, will impact the entire project plan and must go through a change control process. Agile is more flexible because change is welcomed and integrated throughout the life of the project.

Delivery – With the waterfall approach, projects are delivered once the entire thing is completed based on the initial plan. In agile project management, teams present deliverables to the customer at the end of each iteration.

Testing – Testing is essential to ensure you deliver a high-quality product regardless of your method. The predictive approach conducts testing once the product is completely built while a project team tests their products as each product increment is developed using agile.

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PMI Certification Comparison (PMP vs. PMI-ACP)

The PMP and PMI-ACP certifications are offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI). To obtain either certification, candidates must possess a certain amount of professional project management experience, earn educational contact hours focused on the respective project management approach, and pass a rigorous certification exam. The primary difference between the PMP and PMI-ACP credentials is that the PMP certification is a broader-reaching certification that covers high-level aspects of both traditional and agile project management. At the same time, the PMI-ACP certification is specific to agile project management. Another difference is that the PMP exam is significantly longer than the PMI-ACP exam.

The Project Management Professional (PMP)® Certification: This certification is managed by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and allows project managers to demonstrate professional project management experience and that they have completed a certain number of formal education contact hours. Candidates seeking the PMP certification are asked to document any project management experience they have, whether it be traditional or agile. The PMP exam is 180 questions and is administered over 230-minutes or just less than 4 hours.

Earning this certification proves you have adequate comprehension of the traditional project management methodology.

PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) Certification: This certification is also sponsored by PMI and helps project managers to demonstrate that they have mastered the fundamentals of Agile Methodology. Candidates for the PMI-ACP credential must have direct experience with agile methods in addition to general project management experience. The PMI-ACP exam is 120 questions, and students have 3 hours to take it.

With this certification, you can increase your earning potential and take your career in several different directions, from being a project manager to a Scrum master to a consultant and more.


It’s important not to think of project management as the PMP vs. PMI-ACP certifications. Both approaches have benefits, and becoming either a PMI-ACP or PMP credential holder will help advance your project management career. What is most essential for your career is understanding the differences between the potential project management approaches and the benefits they offer. Neither approach is appropriate for every project and knowing how to tailor the appropriate method is an integral part of project management.

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Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO
Director of Product Development at
Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO