Project managers lean on trusted project management methodologies to achieve business goals, each of which brings its own rules and frameworks.
While it can be tempting for a project manager to choose a single methodology as a means of streamlining their processes, this typically isn’t recommended or effective, because no two projects are exactly alike.
Effective project management is part art, part science, requiring project managers to tailor their approach to the unique needs of their current project.
Regardless of the specific methodology or framework that you prefer, though, there are several strategies you can use to inform and guide your project. Below, we take a look at these strategies in greater detail.
Download Our Free Guide to Breaking Into Project Management
A guide to what you need to know, from today’s in-demand skills to the industry’s growing job opportunities.
5 Strategies to Guide Your Project
1. Understand what success means to the project.
A project manager has many different responsibilities that fall into the different phases, or processes, of the project life cycle: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. It is through each of these phases that the project manager ushers a project through from conception to completion.
Typically, “success” means the project is completed on (or under) budget, on schedule, within the designated scope, and results in high-quality deliverables.
“Based on these factors, the project manager can then define the project’s critical success factors—meaning, what must go right for the project to be successful,” Emerson says. “These critical success factors will inform the most effective project management strategies for your project. Once those are identified, it’s simply a matter of matching the pieces of project management and building them into your plan.”
2. Understand the challenges and constraints that could impact success.
While a project manager must understand their project’s success criteria, Emerson notes that it’s also important that they understand any challenges, risks, or constraints that might influence their chances of success.
“What has the potential to get in the way?” she asks.
There are many different potential project constraints to be aware of and factor into your plan. The most common include:
- Scope: What exactly is (and isn’t) included in the project?
- Cost: What is the budget that the project must stay within?
- Time: What is the schedule that you are expected to adhere to?
- Quality: What expectations are the project to be measured against?
- Stakeholder Satisfaction: What is the overarching goal or objective that the project needs to meet for the customer to be satisfied?
- Resources: What material and human resources are available to use in the completion of the project?
3. Turn to the PMBOK.
Once you understand the project’s success criteria and constraints, it’s important not to make assumptions about how the project should unfold. Return to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) to inform your project before developing your plan.
“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,” Emerson says.
This knowledge includes 10 key areas, including:
- Scope: Processes required to ensure all the work—and only the work necessary to complete the project successfully—is included in the project plan
- Time: Processes required to manage 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 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,” Emerson says. “He or she needs to employ those pieces—and only those pieces—progressively elaborating this process throughout the project.”
4. Document your proposed process in the required documents.
Armed with the knowledge you’ve gathered thus far, you can begin to craft the documents that will ultimately guide your project. Two of the most important of these include:
- A project scope statement, which will provide a detailed description of the work necessary to deliver the project on schedule and within budget
- A project plan, which is a formal document designed to guide a project’s execution. This plan should include ancillary documents, such as the communication plan, which outlines the cycle of communication for a project.
Emerson stresses the importance of building a thorough communication plan, which can be easy to overlook by first-time project managers. She describes a situation in which a project team is working across multiple different time zones, which may present itself as a challenge to efficient communication.
“In this case, 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,’” she says.
“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.”
5. Stay flexible.
Even after the project has officially kicked off, Emerson notes that it’s important to remember that a project plan is not a static document. It should be a living document that, while providing guardrails for the project, also has the ability to evolve to meet the emerging needs of the project.
“Successful project managers recognize that the most effective project management strategies will change throughout the project,” she says. “He or she needs to continually be thinking: What’s 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.”
Choosing the Right Project Management Strategy for Your Project
Below, Emerson shares tips on how to identify the right strategy for your next project, using her own experience as an example:
Aspiring project managers often ask: 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?
From my 30-plus years of project management experience, it seems there’s no single right answer to these questions. The answer is: “It depends.” However much I dislike that answer, it’s the reality. In the end, success lies in finding the sweet spot in project management for your specific project.
As I mentioned, this requires knowing the goals and objectives of the project and being clear on success criteria, potential challenges, and possible constraints facing that success. Those are some of the most important inputs for any project.
For example, here is how I identified my top five strategies for a recent project that I led:
After working with the sponsor to clarify the purpose of the project and its strategic alignment, I developed the goal and objectives of the project and vetted my assumptions with other key stakeholders. From these conversations, I better understood their expectations for success, as well as the key challenges that the project faced.
I was then able to work with the team to create a list of the project’s critical success factors—what must go well or right for the project to be successful. I used this list of factors to then build tactics into my project planning deliverables to ensure they were executed.
While it is painted in broad strokes, this process is my most effective project management strategy. It offers me a framework to follow which I know works, while also providing me with the flexibility to determine a plan that will meet the unique needs of the project that I am working on.
Knowing How to Tailor Your Approach
Ultimately, there is no single project management strategy or approach which is guaranteed to be completely effective for every project you manage. Each project will require a unique strategy, and it’s up to the project manager to analyze the project’s requirements and craft the strategy which will best fulfill those needs.
The ability to analyze projects and turn that analysis into strategy is one of the most important skills for project managers to develop. This skill typically comes with experience and is refined over the course of a project manager’s career, but it’s also possible to begin developing the skill by pursuing an education specifically designed to impart that knowledge.
“Identifying the most effective strategy for your project is an area we focus on in our Master of Science in Project Management program,” Emerson says. “Our curriculum gives students the opportunity to learn project management tools and techniques, how they work, and also how to apply them in a way that adds value to the success of a real-world project.”
Emerson also points to Northeastern’s unique approach to experiential learning as an integral element of the curriculum that helps students develop these essential skills. Through co-ops and internships, students work with businesses and other organizations on challenges they are facing, gaining real-world experience and building powerful connections along the way.
“We want to ensure that our students are well prepared for success in planning and executing the right mix of project management to support project success.”
To learn more about advancing your project management career, download our free guide below.