← Go Back

Have you ever heard a project manager refer to “formal” project management and wondered what exactly makes it formal? While different organizations might have their own definition of the term, formal project management is the area of interest to professional project managers, and is the preferred style of management for most enterprise projects. Here’s a quick look at the differences between formal and informal project management, and the situations in which you might use one over the other.

formal vs informal project management

Formal Project Management

Formal project management is usually marked by a few distinguishing characteristics:

  • The presence of a professional project manager who guides the project team and helps ensure that project activities are conducted according to plan. It’s safe to assume that if a project has a dedicated project manager, the project is using a formal project management style.
  • The use of sophisticated project management tools for planning, tracking and reporting. While informal projects often rely on loose collections of spreadsheets and documents, formal projects generally take advantage of cloud-based project management solutions like Clarizen to streamline the planning process and facilitate communication between team members.
  • The use of a well-defined project management methodologies such as agile project management or the waterfall methodology. Project managers are typically experts in the methodology itself, and help team members coordinate their work with the management style.

It’s important to note that the term “formal” doesn’t necessarily imply the use of strict procedures and extensive documentation, but simply means that an organization is investing time and effort to ensure that proper plans and controls are in place. Some types of formal project management may actually allow as much flexibility as any informal management style.

Informal Project Management

Informal project management is harder to define, as it can take an almost infinite number of forms. The simplest answer is that informal project management is any approach to planning and executing a project that doesn’t fit a reasonable definition of formal project management. Informal project styles are commonly used on very small projects, and when projects are to be completed by small teams who are familiar with both the work to be done and with each other’s style of working.

Informal project management rarely involves a project manager or specialized project management technology. Instead, project management activities are usually shared among the people who are actually doing the work, and who use whatever combination of online and offline tools they prefer in order to keep track of their own tasks and progress.

Making the Choice

For most organizations, formal project management is the only acceptable choice for large or mission-critical projects, as it ensures a level of oversight and accountability that is not achievable otherwise. However, most companies allow departments or employees to use informal styles to manage projects that don’t require a separate budget or other specific resource allocations.



Todd Valentine
Todd is a Senior Product Manager at Clarizen. Todd has experience working in innovation, product development and PMO organizations within VMware’s CTO office. He has a master's in Information Systems and an MBA from the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.