Confused about what the project management life cycle is all about? In this complete guide to the project management life cycle, we’ll give the lowdown with handy links to more information on managing the different parts of the project management process.
In this article, we’re going to look in detail at what these project management life cycle phases consist of, the key project management steps, and how they can help deliver a successful, well-managed project.
What Is The Project Management Life Cycle?
The project management life cycle is really just a highfalutin way of describing the life of a project. It’s how projects happen; how the phases of a project conduct a team from brief through to delivery. Every project has a start and end; it’s born, matures and then “dies” when the project lifecycle is complete.
The PMI (Project Management Institute) have defined these five process groups which come together to form the project management lifecycle The PMBOK project phases are:
- Monitoring & Controlling
The PMI took what’s really common sense and called it the project management life cycle. The PMI methodology is the de facto standard for project delivery which you can find in their fascinating 589 paged 5th edition Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). That’s a really long, and to be honest, a deathly boring read, so here’s a condensed version of the project management life cycle which contains all the important takeaways.
Why Is The Project Cycle Important?
The project management life cycle describes the high-level process of delivering a project and the steps you take to make things happen. And while the project management life cycle might not sound that interesting, it is important because the project management life cycle is what we as project managers lead and facilitate.
The crux of any project life is the same: defining a project’s objectives, creating a project plan to meet the objectives, and then making stuff happen to accomplish it. Different project managers or agencies may use slightly different terms to describe the project management life cycle phases in various projects, but fundamentally, they’re pretty much the same.
The life cycle of a project always has to start somewhere: the problem that needs fixing needs to be defined (in PMBOK, this is focused in the Initiating phase of a project). A solution to fixing that problem and an approach to doing it then has to be created (Planning). That plan has to then be put into action (Executing) while being tracked to make sure it does what it’s supposed to (Monitoring & Controlling). The project is then deployed, performance is evaluated and the project is then over (Closing).
That’s the essence of the project management life cycle, which is shown in a simple project life cycle diagram below.
The Project Management Life Cycle
Below, I go into each of the life cycle stages and explain what happens in each of the 5 phases of project management.
1. Initiating: Defining what needs to be done
Initiating, the first phase of the project management life cycle, is all about kicking off a project with your team and with the client, getting their commitment to start the project. You bring together all of the available information together in a systematic manner to define the project’s scope, cost and resources. The goal of the initiation phase is to take a loose brief of a project and define it in terms of what it needs to do and achieve in order to be successful.
That usually necessitates identifying the project stakeholders and making sure they all share the same perception of what the project is and agree on the business case – the problem that the project is trying to solve. It’s during project initiation phase too that you decide whether it is feasible to deliver the business case. As a project manager, you will need to conduct adequate research to determine the goals of the project, and then propose a solution to achieve them. Once approved, you move on to the next of the project phases.
Key project management steps for initiating a project:
- Make a Project Charter – What is the vision, objective, and goals of this project?
- Identify the High-level Scope and Deliverables – What is the product or service that needs to be provided?
- Conduct a Feasibility Study – What is the primary problem and its possible solutions?
- Ballpark the high-level Cost and create a Business Case – What are the costs and benefits of the solution?
- Identify Stakeholders – Who are the people this project affects, how, and what are their needs?
Typically for Prince2 or PMI methodologies, these are summed up in a Project Initiation Document (PID) but in an agency, the information is usually captured in an initial statement of work (SoW) which covers the initiation phase only.
2. Planning phase: Defining how to do what needs to be done
After approval to proceed from initiation, you can begin project planning. This is arguably the most critical of the phases of project management. Get it wrong, and you’ll scupper your chances of delivering the project on time and budget. Planning is where you define all the work to be done and create the roadmap that you follow for the remainder of the project to get you there. It’s during planning phase that you figure out how you’re going to perform the project and answer the questions—what exactly are we going to do, how are we going to do it, when are we going to do it, and how will we know when we’re done?
At this point in the project life cycle, you take the goals of the and expand on those goals to decide how to attain them. It’s worth keeping evaluating those goals with three criteria: what’s Possible, Passionate, and Pervasive?
- Possible – strive for something that is achievable. Ask yourself, does this solution match the budget? Does my team have the ability to do this? Do we have enough time? Setting unrealistic goals is setting yourself up for failure.
- Passionate – Projects are tough, so you want a team that is emotionally engaged in the project. Ask yourself, Is this a project that your team can be passionate about? Is it something that can bring them together to collaborate to achieve the same goal? Even though it might be their job to do what you tell them to do, no one is going to invest into something they don’t think is worthwhile
- Pervasive – Does this have the potential to become a ground-breaking success? Is this something that is a complete solution to the problem that was given to you or is it really just a band-aid temporary or partial solution? Does it have the potential to be improved on, developed and to become a permanent way of working?
I like this ‘3 P’s Goals Lens’ but you might also be familiar with the principle of setting CLEAR goals. This is a helpful framework to ensure goals are Collaborative, Limited, Appreciable, and Refinable. Read more about them, and their benefits over SMART goals, here.
All of the planning feeds into a project plan and typically a statement of work that outlines the activities, tasks, dependencies, and time frames as well as costs—the three fundamental components of the planning process. In addition, it’s prudent to develop a plan for resources, quality, risk, acceptance criteria, communication, and procurement.
Key project management steps for planning a project:
- Create a Project Plan – Identify the phases, activities, constraints and schedule and create a project timeline with a Work Breakdown Schedule and Gantt chart
- Create a Financial Plan – Create a project budget and cost estimate and a plan to meet your maximum cost, complete with allocations across resources and departments
- Create a Resource Plan – Build a great team, recruit and schedule the resources and materials needed to deliver the project
- Create a Quality Plan – Set your quality targets and measures
- Create a Risk Plan – Identify the possible risks, assumptions, issues and dependencies, assign an owner, and develop a mitigation plan for how will you avoid/overcome them
- Create an Acceptance Plan – Assign criteria for what constitutes ‘done’ and ‘delivered’
- Create a Communication Plan – List your stakeholders, and plan the communication cadence
- Create a Procurement Plan – Find any 3rd party suppliers required and agree terms
- All of this should come together into a Project Statement of Work – Create a statement of work scope document which outlines the parameters of the project for approval
- Get approval of your Statement of Work (SoW) to proceed!
Once you’ve planned, you’ve laid the groundwork for the rest of the project management phases.
3. Executing: Making a project happen
This is the part of the project management life cycle where you finally get to execute on your awesome project plan—it’s where planning gets turned into action. You bring your resources onboard, brief them, set the ground rules, and introduce them to one another. After that, everyone jumps in to perform the work identified in the plan. Easy peasy.
As the project manager, you shift from talking about a project and creating documentation to get the green light to proceed with the project execution—tto leading the team and managing them toward delivery. You’ll spend your time in briefings, meetings, and reviews to lead the team, and keep the project on track as it moves through the project development lifecycle.
Key project management steps for executing a project:
- Team Leadership – Cast a vision for success and enable the team to deliver on it
- Creating Tasks – Clearly define what needs to be done and the criteria for the task
- Task Briefing – Ensuring the team are clear about what they need to do, by when
- Client Management – Working with the client to ensure deliverables are acceptable
- Communications – Ensure you’re informing and updating the right people at the right time through the right channel
4. Monitoring & Controlling: Keeping a project on track
This is one of the toughest areas in the project management cycle. In parallel with the project execution, as a project manager, you report performance, and monitor and control the project. That means monitoring the project life to ensure the project is going according to plan, and if it isn’t, controlling it by working out solutions to get it back on track. In reality, a project manager is monitoring and controlling a project in some way throughout all of the project life cycle phases.
First, that means ensuring you capture the data (usually derived from timesheets and tasks completed) to track progress effectively against the original plan. Secondly, it means taking the data and comparing the task completion, budget spend and timeline allocated in the original plan. By comparing the plan against actuals you can establish whether or not you’re hitting the objectives for timeline, cost, quality and success metrics.
And when you realize that things aren’t quite going to plan (they rarely do) it’s figuring out the options for pivoting the project so that it still delivers something the client is happy with while meeting the budget, timeline and quality constraints. Pro-tip: usually that means reducing scope!
Key project management steps for monitoring and controlling a project:
- Cost & Time Management – Review timesheets and expenses to record, control and track against the project’s budget, timeline and tasks
- Quality Management – Reviewing deliverables and ensuring they meet the defined acceptance criteria
- Risk Management – Monitor, control, manage and mitigate potential risks and issues
- Acceptance Management – Conduct user acceptance testing and create a reviewing system, ensuring that all deliverables meet the needs of the client
- Change Management – When the project doesn’t go to plan, managing the process of acceptable changes with the client to ensure they’re happy with necessary changes
You’ve moved through four of the project stages—now it’s time to move on to the final step in the project management life cycle: closing a project.
5. Closure: Ending a project
In this final phase of the project management life cycle, your project is essentially over and your job as project manager on the project comes to a close. But the project’s not over yet – check out our article on How to manage a project when it’s over. At this point, before everyone forgets, it’s useful to hold a meeting post project review or post-mortem to discuss the strengths and weaknesses or the project and team, what went wrong and what didn’t go so well, and how to improve in the future. This can be one of the most rewarding stages of project management, as it’s a great opportunity to recognize and acknowledge valuable team members and celebrate the successes.
Key project management steps for closing a project:
- Project Performance Analysis – This is an overall look at how well the project was managed, and whether the initial estimates of costs and benefits were accurate. Were there unforeseen risks? What issues arose and how well were they dealt with? Has the project plan been changed, and how?
- Team Analysis – Did everyone do what they were assigned to do? Were they passionate and motivated enough? Did they stay thorough and accountable? Was the communication within the team healthy and constructive?
- Project Closure – Document the tasks needed to bring the project life to an official end. This includes closing supplier agreements, signing off contracts and handing in all the necessary project documentation.
- Post-Implementation Review – Write down a formal analysis of successes and failure, and resulting lessons learned and suggestions for the future. At the end of every successful project, you will learn that room for improvement always remains.
The project life cycle is simple, right? No, of course not! Like most things in life, projects are complex and involve a large number of variables, along with plenty of grey area. Your life cycle management in practice may look totally different from another agency’s or project manager’s system. Even so, many of the underlying concepts that support the steps in project management are the same.
To move forward from here and get started planning your projects, I suggest you check out my post on project methodologies. Let me know what you think of this article and what you would add to it in the comments below!