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How to Identify the Right Project Management Strategy

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Management

Connie Emerson, faculty member in Northeastern’s project management program, shares tips on how to identify the right strategy for your next project.

The job of the project manager is to deliver the project according to its success criteria—often meaning on budget, on schedule, within scope, and of high quality—all while balancing effective stakeholder engagement and the team’s workload. This is no easy feat and requires the solid application of project management strategies. But what are the strategies most effective in accomplishing this?

It’s easy to outline the minimum planning deliverables that any project could benefit from. All projects should have:

  • Clear scope statement aligned to organizational strategies
  • Stakeholder analysis and engagement plan
  • Clear requirements
  • Realistic and detailed plan outlining all of the work
  • Agreed upon processes for communication, risk management, change management, issue escalation, and lessons learned

But what are the most effective strategies to ensure these deliverables drive successful results? How much of any of these are enough? Or too much? What adds value? What gets in the way?

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From my 30-plus years of project management experience, it seems there’s no right list. The answer is, “It depends.” As much as I dislike that answer, it’s the reality. To most effectively engage project management strategies, it’s all about finding the sweet spot in project management for your specific project.

This requires knowing the goals and objectives of the project and being clear on its measures of success, as well as the challenges and constraints facing that success. Based on this, the project manager can then define the project’s critical success factors—meaning, what must go well or right for the project to be successful. These critical success factors are the most effective project management strategies for the project. Once those are identified, it’s a matter of matching the pieces of project management and building them into your plan.

For example, if your team works virtually across different time zones, a critical success factor could include: “Ensure team members have the information necessary to keep their work moving forward by establishing and executing a communication strategy that allows the project team access to information in a timely way.” This would become operationalized in the communication plan to ensure that the appropriate information is collected and distributed in a way that provides the correct level of access. A project manager might also consider setting ground rules on how to use specific technology, since it’s easy for communication to be misinterpreted when it’s not face-to-face. Those rules could be as simple as responding to an email within two days or, if the tone of an email is upsetting, following up by phone.

In order to establish the right project management strategy, it’s necessary for the project manager to know the body of knowledge of project management, the value of each piece, its intended use, and how to use it. According to the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge, there are 10 knowledge areas:

  • Scope: Processes required to ensure all the work—and only the work necessary to complete the project successfully—is included
  • Time: Processes required to manage the timely completion of the project
  • Cost: Processes involved to plan, manage, and control costs so that the project is within its approved budget
  • Risk: Processes to identify, analyze, plan for, and manage risk on a project
  • Human Resources: Processes that organize, manage, and lead the project team
  • Stakeholder Management: Processes required to identify, analyze, and effectively manage stakeholders and their expectations in project decisions and execution
  • Communications: Processes required to ensure timely and appropriate communication of project information
  • Quality: Processes and activities to ensure the project satisfies the needs for why it was undertaken
  • Procurement: Processes needed to acquire products, services, and results from outside the project team and performing organization
  • Integration: Processes and activities to coordinate across the nine other knowledge areas

The project manager needs to be able to analyze his or her project to know what parts of project management are necessary to implement these critical success factors, and then apply those in a way to overcome the challenges and meet the success criteria. He or she needs to employ those pieces and only those pieces—progressively elaborating this process throughout the project.

Successful project managers recognize that the most effective project management strategies will change throughout the project. He or she needs to continually be thinking, “What is going on? What do I need to be going on? What needs to get done at this point in time? What is supporting or hindering me? And what tools, skills, or competencies of project management will help me? How do I put these into action?” This requires knowing not only the theories of project management, but also how to apply them.

Here is how I identified my top five strategies for my current project. After working with the sponsor to clarify the purpose of the project and its strategic alignment, I worked to write the goal and objectives of the project and vetted those with other key stakeholders. From these conversations, I better understood their expectations for success and key challenges that the project faced. I was then able to work with the team to create this project’s critical success factors—what must go well or right for the project to be successful. I used these strategies to then build tactics into my project planning deliverables to ensure they were executed. This process, then, is my most effective project management strategy.

Identifying the most effective strategy for your project is an area we focus on in our Master of Science in Project Management program. Our curriculum allows students the opportunity to learn the tools and techniques of project management and how they work, but also how to apply them in a way that adds value to the success of the project. This is one reason why, here at Northeastern, our curriculum integrates experiential learning. We want to ensure students are well prepared for success in planning and executing using the right mix of project management to support project success.

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