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The best project management styles explained

What does great project management look like, and why does it matter? Here, we’ll explore the different project management styles out there.

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There are several potential project management styles to choose from. You’ll want to select the one that best matches your objectives and the skillset of the people who’ll actually be working on the project.

We’ve written on the subject before, in our Introduction to project management article. Here, we’ll take a deeper dive into project management styles.

What is project management?

You might suppose that the meaning of the word ‘project’ is obvious — but getting specific is crucial. That’s why it’s the very first thing taught in our Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management course.

Life is filled with projects, which we can define simply as an enterprise with a particular aim. When we go to the supermarket, we might write out a list of the items we need, go to the physical shop (or to the online equivalent) and fill our baskets. In the world of business, the projects tend to be a little more complicated, and involve organising a team of people — but the principle is the same.

Managing a project is what we do in order to overcome obstacles on the way to a goal. If we arrive at the shop to find that an item we need is out of stock, we might react by looking for a substitute or arranging to come back another day. We might ask when the item will be back and use the information to forge an alternative plan. All of this is a form of project management.

When most of us use the term, we’re distinguishing it from ongoing management. You finish one project, you move on to the next, ensuring that nothing is left undone, and all the loose ends are tied up.

So, a ‘project’ is a single enterprise with particular goals. These goals typically need to be achieved with limited resources (such as time, energy and human resource).

Why is project management important?

Good project management means greater efficiency. A successful manager will often break down the project into single tasks. These tasks can then be completed in the required order, by the person best suited to the job.

Project management becomes especially important in large, complex jobs. The greater the complexity, the greater the potential for inefficiency. For example, if you’re revamping a kitchen, you might break the entire job down into demolition, plumbing, electrics, plastering and carpentry.

Certain tasks need to be performed before the project can proceed, which means that the right people need to be brought in at the right time. If the plasterer arrives before the cabling is installed, then you’ll have to spend more time and money bringing people back in to correct the problem. Or there might be costly delays.

Good project management will help you to avoid these problems, pushing up productivity and eliminating stress for everyone. But doing it right requires the right project management skills, and the right underlying qualities. Just about everyone can benefit from learning the skills — but it’ll come naturally if you’ve got the right disposition and professional background.

Project management styles

Let’s consider the shopping trip analogy again. You might take many different approaches to this particular project. Do you move from aisle to aisle, picking up the items on your list as you go? Or do you move methodically down the list, crossing items off one by one? Are you going to give yourself the licence to deviate from your shopping list, or to rewrite it as you go?

The approach you take can be hugely consequential. It will change the results you get, and the amount of time and energy you need to commit in order to get them. This is especially the case when the enterprise in question is large and complex, as it so often is in the world of business.

There are many different methodologies available to project managers. You’ll want to understand all of them so that you can select the one that best matches your purpose.

Waterfall project management

‘Waterfall’ is a sequential style of project management. You do one thing and then you move on to the next. You don’t start work on phase three until phase two is completed.

This linear approach has the advantage of simplicity. It’s very difficult to get confused since you only need to worry about the phase you’re working on. Or, if you want to get zen about it, you chop wood and carry water until the forest and the lake are gone.

This approach has a way of focussing attention on the immediate task so that you do it as well as possible. It’s also extremely adaptable — just about any project can be completed using a waterfall project management style, whether it’s planning a party or building a suspension bridge. You can also easily see how much progress you’ve made at any given point.

There are good reasons that larger projects tend to avoid waterfalls, however: it tends to be a little bit inflexible. What if your plans change midway through the project? You might need to go back and change things, which could mean re-doing all the subsequent steps you’ve taken in the meantime.

Agile project management

In contrast to the waterfall approach, agile project management is iterative. You complete the project very quickly and then you come back and revise it. In most cases, you’ll break down the larger task into smaller ones that can be continuously improved upon.

Agile is a popular approach among software developers. Once version 1.0 of your program is up and running, it can be tested and adjustments can be made — not only to the minutiae but to the broader direction of the project.

Agile takes its name from the flexibility and adaptability it entails. It’s usually preferable to the waterfall method if large numbers of workers need to be able to work alongside one another. Members of the team aren’t kept waiting for their turn to come in and work — instead, they’re able to contribute regularly as successive versions of the project are put together.

There are many variants of agile available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

1. Scrum project management

The ‘scrum’ framework takes its inspiration from a rugby scrum. You might use it as a means of easing yourself into the ‘agile’ philosophy. It involves regularly getting together to review what’s going on, going away to work intensively, and then getting together again to assess where roadblocks need to be cleared. This means constant feedback and a sprint-based intensive workload that’s in keeping with Pomodoro principles.

2. Lean project management

The ‘lean’ approach emerged from Toyota in the 1950s, though it’s been around for much longer. It centres on the elimination of waste, which comes in three forms, all derived from Japanese words beginning with M.

There’s Muda, which is uselessness or futility. These are the things you’re doing that don’t generate any actual value. Then there’s Muri, which is excess resulting from a lack of standardisation. Finally, there’s Mura, which is inconsistency.

Lean project management is great for when you need the project to make the best use of the available resources, and you’d like the final result to be as streamlined as possible.

3. Kanban project management

Kanban is a particular form of lean management that puts the emphasis on visualising work. This is done through something called a Kanban board, which allows everyone contributing to a project to see exactly how far along the project is, and what needs to be done.

Everyone can then pull down tasks when they have the capacity to do them, rather than having those tasks constantly pushed down from above.

Kanban boards tend to be very easy to use and straightforward for the people doing the work. They’re also adaptable, which makes them highly effective in the case of larger and more complex projects. The visual nature of Kanban also makes it easy for those supervising the project to analyse its direction and progress.

If you’d like to learn more about Agile, Scrum, and Kanban, you can do so with the help of Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

4. Six Sigma project management

Six Sigma (or 6σ if you want to show off) is a quality-control doctrine devised by a Motorola engineer in the 1980s. Like lean project management, it’s heavily influenced by Japanese business culture. The major difference is that 6σ seeks to keep variation and defects to a minimum.

According to this way of thinking, an efficient process is one that fails only 3.4 times out of a million. It’s implemented through a framework called DMAIC — which is an acronym that seeks to define, measure, analyse, improve and control the problem. Just about any problem a business is faced with can be dealt with by running through these steps.

This methodology tends to produce greater efficiency and reduced waste in the same way as many of the other styles.

5. PRINCE2 Project Management

PRINCE is an acronym, standing for Projects in Controlled Environments. This school of thought emphasises the division of projects into controllable stages. It’s actually derived from an earlier project management technique called PROMPT (Project Resource Organisation Management Planning Techniques) which was in widespread use in UK government IT agencies.

PRINCE2 came about in 1996, and it’s since become standard in governments across the world. It puts forward seven principles, according to which projects should be managed. These include focussing on products, learning from experiences, and managing on a stage-by-stage basis.

Those looking to delve deeper into the wonderful world of PRINCE2 might look into our course on the subject: PRINCE2® 6th Edition: Foundation Certification. The pass rate is an impressive 98%, making it a course that just about anyone can get their head around. This is one of several microcredentials that we offer.  

PRINCE2 is highly adaptable and modern, but it does require a little bit of a learning curve. Whether the effort is justified depends on how seriously you want to take project management! Note that it isn’t just the methodology you use that’s important. Consideration must also be given to the qualities you personally bring to the table.

Much of the information we’ve gone through here was taken from Types of Project Management Methodologies, from Coventry University. If you’d like to learn more, it’s a great place to continue your journey!

How to get into project management

As a field, project management has become more sophisticated over the last few years, with businesses, governments, and individuals taking it very seriously indeed.

As such, knowledge of how to manage a project has never been more important. This has driven a surge in education around the subject. If you’d like to learn about project management, there’s never been a better time.

Project management courses

We offer a range of project management courses, covering all of the basics, and drilling down into more advanced techniques. In the former camp, there’s Foundations of Project Management. In the latter, there’s Project Management: Beyond the Basics.

You might also take a look at our microcredentials: we have Business Management: Project Management, which is an Open University microcredential focusing on developing the project management tools and techniques you need to succeed. Then there’s Practical Project Management, from the University of Glasgow, which focuses on practical skills – both of these microcredentials are professional, accredited qualifications.

Other courses

Final thoughts

It isn’t just would-be project managers who might benefit from learning what we’ve discussed. Like reading, writing, and arithmetic, project management is foundational and beneficial to a whole range of professionals.

Effective project management is like any other skill — getting better at it requires patience and deliberate practice. If you’d like to get there as fast as possible, then getting some instruction can be enormously helpful. Perhaps the best place to start on your journey is with our Introduction to Project Management open step.

If you’re serious about improving your skills as a project manager, you might apply the principles we’ve outlined to your own personal development: outlining a goal, writing the steps you’ll need to take to get there, and perhaps taking regular reviews. You can project manage your way to being a better project manager!

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