Project Management Styles: Examining 4 Key Methodologies

Project management is a dynamic and growing field that spans almost every industry. By 2027, employers are projected to need 87.7 million professionals working in project management roles, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI). Businesses recognize that an effective project manager with the right combination of education, background, and skills can drive innovation and positively impact the company’s bottom line.

A project manager walks a project team through pending and completed tasks

Professionals who are interested in learning more about project management, and how different project management styles translate to business success, can prepare for the rising number of opportunities in this field by earning a master’s in management and leadership.

Why Effective Project Management Matters

While the role of project manager is evolving and may vary from project to project, a few aspects of the job are constant. The project manager oversees all five stages of the project life cycle: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring or controlling, and closing. Effective project managers perform vital functions during each stage of the process.

  • Initiating: In this stage, project managers broadly define the project, ensure it aligns with company objectives, and identify all possible stakeholders.
  • Planning: Planning includes establishing a budget and timeline for the project (with appropriate flexibility), evaluating risks, and determining project team members. Project managers also set goals during this stage.
  • Executing: Overseeing the actual performance of the work is the responsibility of project managers. This includes handling communication between team members, conducting status meetings, ensuring team members have the needed tools, and managing stakeholder expectations.
  • Monitoring or controlling: As the project progresses, project managers must track and adjust time and expenses and evaluate the quality of the work being done.
  • Closing: In this last stage, project managers finalize all parts of the project. This may include producing a final report, recognizing successes and team member contributions, and noting areas of improvement for future project work.

Effective project managers combine strong leadership and communication skills to deliver projects on time and on budget, which can greatly impact a company’s reputation and profitability. According to the PMI’s 2020 Pulse of the Profession report, organizations waste 11% of investment because of ineffective projects. The report further states that organizations with high project management maturity (i.e., more advanced systems and processes) have more project success. Their projects are more likely to meet goals and stay within budgetary and time restraints, and are less likely to balloon in scope and fail.

The Common Types of Project Management Styles

One of the most important responsibilities of a project manager is to determine the project management style. These styles are often associated with different methodologies, with some working better than others depending on the project. The styles may also overlap. An effective project manager understands these styles well enough to determine which style will work best for a successful project.

1. Waterfall

In this approach, projects are managed sequentially. This requires thorough upfront planning, which is crucial to keeping the project on target. The waterfall style works best for projects that have phases and goals that are not expected to change.

A project manager would employ the waterfall style for long, detailed projects in which one phase must be completed before the next begins. Construction projects, for example, typically use a waterfall methodology. The foundation for a building must be completed before walls go up. Project managers in the software development and engineering industries may also use the waterfall method. The main downside to this style is that any significant change can derail the project.

2. Agile

The agile style has more flexibility than the waterfall approach. Agile features several quick development cycles and daily interactions between team members. While the waterfall style focuses on one large deliverable at the end of the process, agile has several small deliverables throughout the process.

With the agile method, stakeholders can provide immediate feedback and the project manager can make changes. Change is expected with this approach, as is continuous improvement which can lead to higher quality. With the agile method, turnaround time tends to be faster and risk tends to be lower.

Agile was first used in the software industry, but many other industries such as financial services, healthcare, and insurance have adopted this methodology. A project manager who uses this project management style needs to be flexible and comfortable with change, and employ frequent communication with team members and stakeholders. One drawback to agile is that there may be more unknowns at the beginning of the project, which can impact later phases of the cycle.

3. Scrum

The scrum style is similar to agile. It features quick development sprints, called scrum sessions. Small teams focus on specific tasks, and team members rely on each other’s input during daily meetings called scrums. Regular communication between team members makes this approach highly collaborative. Priorities can shift during scrum sessions, so adaptability is key.

Scrum differs from agile in that it emphasizes scrum sessions with quick, set time frames. Project managers using this style should clearly explain responsibilities and roles to team members, and foster ongoing communication between all members of the team. Like agile, the scrum methodology can lead to higher quality and has been adopted by multiple industries. It is also similar in that less upfront planning can lead to unpredictability in later stages of the project.

4. Strategic

As the role of project manager evolves, strategic project management is enjoying increasing emphasis.  This style focuses on an organization’s long-term strategic initiatives. A strategic project manager may work with other managers in the organization to make sure their projects align with the overall goals of the company. A strategic project manager may also review a company’s entire portfolio of projects to determine the organizational value of each project and offer prioritization guidance. While beneficial, this style can add complexity and time to the project management process.

Essential Skills for Project Management

Those aspiring to a career in project management need a well-rounded skill set that goes beyond subject matter knowledge. In addition to education and work experience, other competencies are integral to this role.

Any successful project manager needs to be a strong leader to motivate team members. Demonstrated critical-thinking skills can help a project manager review processes for improvement. Project managers need to think analytically to decide the best project management style, determine the necessary steps for project completion, and gauge how long each step should take. In particular, the waterfall style requires careful analysis and planning in the early stages.

Perhaps most importantly, an effective project manager should be able to communicate with all team members and stakeholders. Meetings may take place in person or remotely, so both verbal and written communication skills are important.

Effective project managers are comfortable speaking in front of large groups, which may happen with the strategic or waterfall styles of project management. They need to also be comfortable communicating in more frequent informal settings, which are hallmarks of the agile and scrum project management styles. At some point, conflict among team members may occur. The project manager helps resolve any conflicts that arise while keeping the project on track.

In addition to these essential skills, those pursuing a career in project management can benefit from advanced technical skills. Knowledge of burgeoning advances such as data science and artificial intelligence (AI) is important for project managers. Individuals who appeal to employers will be those who ensure they understand these technologies and how they can impact the field, in addition to taking advantage of any educational opportunities related to these technologies.

Launch a Career in Project Management

If you are considering a career in project management, an excellent place to begin is to explore Maryville University’s online Master of Arts in Management and Leadership program. With eight concentrations, including project management, the program provides a strong foundation in business while developing leadership and management skills.

Let’s be brave together. Discover how Maryville University can help you move into an exciting and growing career field.

Recommended Reading

Ethical Leadership in Business: Why It Matters

How to Become an Executive Soft Skills: Why Businesses Crave Them


American Management Association, “Bridging the Gap Between Company Strategy and Strategic Alignment of Projects”

American Management Association, “The Top Three Project Manager Team Leader Skills”

CIO, “Agile Project Management: 12 Key Principles, 4 Big Hurdles”

CIO, “Top 17 Project Management Methodologies — And How to Pick the Best for Success”

CIO, “What Is a Project Manager? The Lead Role for Project Success”

Forbes, “4 Project Management Trends on the Horizon…Are You Ready?”

Inc., “The 4 Most Common Project Management Styles (and How to Choose the Best One for Your Business)”

Project Management Institute, “Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017-2027”

Project Management Institute, “Pulse of the Profession 2020”

Smartsheet, “Demystifying the 5 Phases of Project Management”

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