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Top Project Management Methodologies You Should Know

Industry Advice Management

In today’s corporate world where expectations are high and timelines are short, the role of a project manager is more vital than ever. The Project Management Institute (PMI) predicts that by 2027, there will be almost 22 million new project management jobs globally due to this increasing need for the high-level facilitation of processes within organizations.

For project managers, however, the practice is far more complex than simply working toward a project’s conclusion. Instead, project management—at the most basic level—is about “being able to take a set of ideas or objectives…and understand the scope of what it will entail to deliver on those objectives,” says Christopher Bolick, assistant teaching professor within Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Project Management program.

One of the most effective ways that project managers approach their work is through the use of various project management methodologies. The PMI defines a methodology as “a system of practices, techniques, procedures, and rules used by those who work in a discipline.” Regarding project management specifically, methodologies are considered to be the “tools and techniques, [as well as] the principles, processes, and good practices” that are used to guide a group through a set of tasks efficiently, Bolick says.

There are a variety of methods that can be used to facilitate this guidance through projects, each of which applies best to a specific industry and scope of work.

Popular Project Management Methodologies

Some of the most popular project management methodologies include:


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The Top 3 “Buckets” of Project Management Methodologies

Despite the many methodologies that project managers can choose from when leading a team, Bolick stresses that there are three main “buckets” of practices that are used most frequently and effectively in project management today. Read on to learn which of the above approaches he includes in this list, what they each entail, and how to identify exactly in which situations they can be best put to use.

Bucket #1: The Scrum Methodology

Scrum is a project management methodology that is defined by the Project Management Institute as “an empirical process that allows teams to respond rapidly, efficiently, and effectively to change.” It focuses on the delivery of outcomes through the improvement of communication, teamwork, and the speed of development. This method also emphasizes the practice of making decisions collaboratively as a team and providing consistent and valuable feedback to involved parties throughout the process.

Most often, this approach is used when working in short phases or “sprints” of a project. This means that a team will work for two or three weeks to achieve a certain goal, then meet back up and redefine the scope of the work before beginning the next phase. The Scrum methodology also relies on delivering “shippable” portions of a project at various intervals during the process, rather than waiting and sharing one final result or product at the end of a longer timeline.

This methodology is often applied to projects without a well-defined scope because of its adaptability and short-phases. For this reason, it is also the most commonly used methodology within the information technology and software industries.

Scrum’s Application to the Software Industry

The software industry is a perfect example of a field that would have to rely heavily on the flexibility of a Scrum project management approach. Bolick explains that in software development, determining the full scope of the process is not always feasible at the start of the project because of the unpredictability of the work being done. “Certain implementations of code may dictate down the road some other additional features that may not be thought of [at the] start of the project,” he says. This is why these project managers need to be in an agile mindset—something which works well when implemented within the framework of the Scrum method—and prepared to deliver their results in small doses as the project unfolds.

‘Agile’ Principles within a Scrum Framework

One of the most highly debated topics within the project management community is the discussion of how an Agile approach fits into project management.

An Agile approach is one that allows for maximum flexibility when managing a project. Teams operating under these principles will be easily adaptable to change, have open communication with clients or end users, and work on projects in rounds while always moving closer to final project solutions.

The debate about this approach is rooted in the fact that some consider Agile a methodology just like Scrum, while others believe that it is a set of principles through which project managers can effectively carry out various project management methodologies. Alongside Scrum, some of the other project management methodologies that this group believes work well with an Agile approach include Extreme Programming (XP), Crystal, Feature Driven Development, and DSDM Atern, among others.

Still, many find the close relationship between Scrum and Agile particularly confusing, though it has been found that the practices are so intertwined because they work best when applied to a project in conjunction with one another. “Agile is a set of principles that allow for flexibility in delivering your project,” Bolick says, “[And Scrum] is one of the most popular and simple frameworks to put the principles of Agile into practice.”

Bucket #2: The Waterfall Methodology

Where Scrum is considered to be a highly adaptive project management method, Waterfall is thought of as the more traditional approach.

“[In the] Waterfall approach, you have a set scope, schedule, and resources which you move throughout a series of executable tasks,” Bolick says. This translates to a project manager putting a set of expectations in place and guiding a team slowly and deliberately towards the conclusion of the project. The goal of this approach is to ensure every expectation is met both adequately and in a timely, organized manner.

Based on these characteristics, this methodology is often applied within the construction industry, as work in this field usually has set specifications prior to the start of a project and a defined idea of what the final product should look like. In these scenarios, the scope of work wouldn’t need the flexibility and consistent reevaluation that comes with a Scrum methodology, for instance, because teams would already have established constraints, timing, and resources in place. Instead, project managers using the Waterfall method are allowed a much more linear, controlled approach.

Other qualities of the Waterfall methodology include a singular timeline, rigidly defined team roles, infrequently adjusted expectations and requests, and a relationship with the customer that only consists of a starting conversation and the delivery of the final product at the end of a predetermined contract period.

Bucket #3: The Lean and Six Sigma Methodologies

Bolick counts both the Lean and Six Sigma methods within the third “bucket” of project management methodologies. These two approaches are “all about quality control and eliminating waste,” he says.

Lean is explicitly focused on reducing waste in all business processes with a resulting “reduction of cost and lead-time as well as an increase in quality,” according to the PMI. Similarly, the Six Sigma method is described as being focused primarily on eliminating defects and waste as well as developing a more solidified understanding of customer expectations throughout a project.

Other critical aspects of the Six Sigma approach include an emphasis on the project or organization’s financial performance and the reduction of costs related to completing a project through a focus on improving processes.

Both of these approaches to project management derived from manufacturing or product development environments; the Lean method came out of Toyota—most specifically the Toyota Production System (TPS)—and Six Sigma was initially utilized by Motorola and has since been adopted by other such organizations, including General Electric, Toshiba, and Boeing, among others.

Bolick explains that, to this day, these methodologies relate most naturally to manufacturing and product development work. “As you go down the assembly line, you want to make sure that all the products are exactly the same,” Bolick says. “Those principles spill over into project management.”

How to Choose a Project Management Methodology

Even though Bolick considers these three buckets of project management methodologies among the most popular, there are dozens of approaches that project managers can choose from when embarking on a new assignment.

While this may seem overwhelming to aspiring project managers, Bolick emphasizes that the right methodology should be chosen based solely on “the project and what the needs of the organization are.”

To help evaluate those needs, project managers should consider four key factors about the work they’ll be doing.

Key Factors To Consider

  1.    The industry
  2.    The project’s specific goals or objectives
  3.    The project’s complexity
  4.    The environment they will be working in

Understanding how each methodology in their project management “toolbelt” relates to these four factors will help project managers determine what process will facilitate the best results for the customer in each specific scenario.

While this ability to switch between methodologies depending on the scope of the work is ideal, Bolick also explains that the more project managers work with a particular methodology, the more partial to that one they may become. This often results in project managers working to apply that singular approach to a variety of situations without giving as much consideration to what will most benefit that specific work—a practice that can be harmful to the final result of the project if they’re not careful. For this reason, a more versatile approach to using project management methodologies is preferred.

Northeastern’s Master’s in Project Management program, for example, incorporates a multitude of different project management methods and works to ensure students have the tools needed to use any one of the approaches when the situation calls for it. Bolick explains that having this “toolbelt” in place is meant to help graduates provide the most effective techniques for delivering projects within their predetermined deadlines, budgets, and to the expectations of the customer when they enter the workforce.

Beyond the Methodologies

Although there is a purposeful focus on project management methodologies and the way they apply to various project situations within Northeastern’s curriculum, the program also emphasizes the fact that a skilled project manager will have more than just the ability to apply one of these developed approaches to a set of work.

“We can teach tactical skills and the foundational material of project management all day, but in the end, [being a successful project manager] really comes down to emotional intelligence,” Bolick says.

The emotional intelligence aspect of this work includes:

  • Learning how to manage project stakeholders properly
  • Develop an understanding of corporate culture
  • Identify the strategic goals of an organization or industry
  • “Soft skills” such as the ability to read people, engage a group, and communicate effectively.

In order to develop these skills, alongside a more theoretical understanding of methodologies, Northeastern’s program also incorporates three experiential learning opportunities for students within their graduate program. These options are designed to fit the needs of students with varying amounts of work experience, and each one allows them to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a live project scenario.

  1. Traditional Co-op: The first experiential learning option offered through Northeastern is a traditional cooperative education—or co-op—experience in which students work as project managers within a university-partnered organization.
  2. Professional Co-Op: The second is for students who already have an established career as a project manager within an organization. This option allows those students to facilitate a project that comes up within the scope of their existing work, and then bring their experience back into the classroom for evaluation and exploration.
  3. Industry-Switch Co-Op: The third option is for project management students who want to switch industries entirely. Through their affiliation with Northeastern, students who utilize this experiential learning option are given a chance to partner with a company on a new type of project within that new field.

Each of these options provides students with unparalleled exposure to real-world project management work, which is especially important considering the constantly changing trends of the industry.

Project management is a demanding career that requires a broad understanding of a variety of complex methodologies. Explore our Master of Science in Project Management program page today and learn about the variety of methodologies, practical tactics, and skills you can get exposure to with an advanced degree from Northeastern.


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