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Methodologies & Frameworks
What Is The Project Life Cycle: The 5 Phases & Why It’s Important

What is the project life cycle? Regardless of what project management methodology or framework you’re using, every project follows the same life cycle. The project life cycle guides project managers and teams alike on how to move projects from initiation to closure, so the next step in the process is clear.

Here’s what I’ll cover:

What Is The Project Life Cycle?

The project life cycle is really just a highfalutin way of describing the life of a project. It describes the high-level process of delivering a project and the steps you take to make things happen. 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 life cycle is complete.

The PMI (Project Management Institute) has defined these five process groups, or phases, which come together to form the project life cycle.

  1. Project Initiation
  2. Project Planning
  3. Project Execution
  4. Project Monitoring & Controlling
  5. Project Closure

The PMI took what’s really common sense and called it the project life cycle. The PMI methodology is the de facto standard for project delivery, which you can find in their 370 page 7th edition of the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). It’s a really long, and to be honest, deathly boring read, so here’s a condensed breakdown of the project life cycle which contains all the important takeaways.

What Are The 5 Stages Of The Project 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.

illustration of the 5 phases in the project life cycle in a circle
The project management life cycle phases.

1. Project Initiation: Defining What Needs To Be Done

illustration of the 5 phases of the project life cycle with initiation highlighted
The project initiation phase involves kicking off the project internally and with the client.

Initiating the first phase of the project life cycle is all about kicking off a project with your team and with the client, and 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 the (sometimes) loose brief of a project and understand what the project 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 the business case—the problem that the project is trying to solve. 

It’s during this project initiation phase that you also decide whether delivering the business case is feasible. 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.

Key Project Management Steps During Project Initiation:

  • 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 does it affect them, and what are their needs?

Typically for Prince2 or PMI methodologies, the above is summed up in a Project Initiation Document (PID), but in an agency, the information is usually captured in an initial statement of work (SoW).

2. Project Planning: Defining How To Do What Needs To Be Done

illustration of the 5 phases of the project life cycle with planning highlighted
During the planning phase, project managers create the roadmap and clarify the project goals.

After receiving approval to proceed in the initiation phase, you can begin project planning. This is arguably the most critical project phase in the life cycle. 

Planning is where you define all the work to be done and create the roadmap that you follow for the remainder of the project. This is when you figure out how you’re going to perform the project and answer these questions:

  • What exactly are we going to do?
  • How are we going to do it?
  • When are we going to do it?
  • How will we know when we’re done?

At this point in the project life cycle, you have to decide how you and your team will attain the goals of the project. It’s worth 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 and 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 solution? Does it have the potential to be improved on, developed, and to become a permanent way of working?

I like this ‘3 Ps’ lens for goals, but you might also be familiar with the principle of setting CLEAR goals. This is a helpful framework to ensure goals are Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, and Refinable. Read more about them, and their benefits over SMART goals, here.

The planning phase results in a project plan that outlines the activities, tasks, dependencies, and time frames, as well as costs. In addition, it’s prudent to develop a plan for resources, quality, risk, acceptance criteria, communication, and procurement.

Key Project Management Steps For Project Planning:

Once you’ve planned, you’ve laid the groundwork for the rest of the project management phases.

3. Project Execution: Making A Project Happen

This is the part of the project life cycle where you finally get to execute on your awesome project plan. 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 (in theory).

illustration of the 5 phases of the project life cycle with execution highlighted
A project manager's responsibilities during the execution phase involve leading the team through the project, deliverables, and tasks.

As the project manager, you shift from talking about a project and creating documentation to getting the green light to proceed with the execution phase. Now, you’re leading the team and managing them toward delivery. You’ll spend your time in briefings, meetings, and reviews, and keep the project on track as it moves through the project life cycle.

Key Project Management Steps For Project Execution:

  • Team leadership: Cast a vision for success and enable the team to deliver on it
  • Create tasks: Clearly define what needs to be done and the criteria for the task
  • Task briefing: Ensure the team are clear about what they need to do, by when
  • Client management: Work 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. Project Monitoring & Controlling: Keeping A Project On Track

illustration of the 5 phases of the project life cycle with monitoring and controlling highlighted
During the monitoring and controlling phase, project managers will create status reports and keep the project on plan.

This is one of the toughest areas in the project management cycle. It involves reporting on performance and monitoring and controlling the project. That means ensuring the project is going according to plan, and if it isn’t, controlling it by working out solutions to get it back on track. As a project manager, you’ll be 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 reports in your project management software) to track progress effectively against the original plan.

Second, it means taking the data and comparing task completion, budget spend, and time allocated in the original plan. By comparing the actuals against the plan, 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 project scope!

Key Project Management Steps For Project Monitoring And Controlling:

  • 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. Project Closure: Ending A Project

illustration of the 5 phases of the project life cycle with closure highlighted
Project closure might involve a retrospective, lessons learned, and overall performance analysis.

In this closing phase of the project life cycle, your project is essentially over and your job as a project manager comes to a close. But the project’s not over yet. 

At this point, before everyone forgets, it’s useful to hold a post-project review meeting or post-mortem to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the project and team, what went wrong or 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 successes.

Key Project Management Steps For Project Closure:

  • 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 project team healthy and constructive?
  • Project closure: Document the tasks needed to bring the project 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, resulting lessons learned, and suggestions for the future. At the end of every successful project, you will learn that room for improvement always remains.

Why Is The Project Life Cycle Important?

While the project life cycle might not sound that interesting, it is important because it’s what we as project managers lead and facilitate.

The steps involved in any project are generally the same: define a project’s objectives, create a project plan to meet the objectives, and then make stuff happen to accomplish it. Different project managers or agencies may use slightly different terms to describe the project life cycle phases in various projects, but fundamentally, they’re pretty much the same.

A project always has to start somewhere: the problem that needs fixing needs to be defined. A solution to fixing that problem and an approach to doing it then has to be created. That plan has to then be put into action, and then that plan has to be tracked to make sure it does what it’s supposed to. The project is then deployed, performance is evaluated, and the project is officially over.

The project life cycle provides project managers with a pathway throughout projects. It defines where to start, and where to go next at each stage in the project. No matter how crazy things get, you’ll have a reliable structure to go back to and regroup on. 

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When The Project Life Cycle Gets Complex

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.

In practice, the way you manage the life cycle 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.

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By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedpm.com. I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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2 Comments

  • The article seems to be missing the E in CLEAR, "Emotional (Goals should make an emotional connection to employees, tapping into their energy and passion)"

    Reply

    • Thank you!

      Reply

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