With so many companies reporting an up to 70% project failure rate, it’s important that project managers and teams are equipped with the knowledge they need at all times. Having a deep understanding of the project management life cycle and using it to monitor the project at all stages can help your company see through as many projects as possible to successful completion, and avoid falling trap to this bleak statistic.
Projects can get very chaotic, but the project management life cycle provides much-needed clarity and order to the entire process. In this article, we will take a closer look at the five stages of the project management life cycle, what each phase requires of PMs and team members, and how you can use this life cycle to lead your project to victory.
The project management life cycle is a unified model of the way a project progresses, from its inception all the way through to completion. Every project process consists of five key stages, which include: initiation, planning, monitoring and control, and termination. These phases detail every aspect of a project, from smaller-scale (but nonetheless crucial) elements such as dependencies and individual responsibilities to the very core building blocks of a project such as the schedule, budget, and key milestones.
According to a 2017 PMI study, for every $1 billion invested into projects, up to $97 million is wasted due to poor project performance – so it’s essential that organizations do everything they can in order to make their projects work, and that begins with getting to grips with basics such as the project management lifecycle.
Understanding the project management process steps is important for the entire project team. By arming teams with a model that defines the clear-cut stages, every single aspect of the project becomes much more manageable and easier to understand.
The project life cycle is like a roadmap that provides your teams with a sense of direction and clarity. By knowing what’s coming next and understanding what each stage requires, all those involved are equipped with a sense of agency and control over the processes they’re responsible for. Additionally, the structure that the life cycle provides also allows us to establish the most productive communications between teams.
Having in-depth knowledge of the project management life cycle is also particularly important for project managers, as it allows them to effectively plan and execute the project. Structuring the project into stages provides them with a bird’s-eye view over the entire process, allowing full control over each step.
Finally, learning the lifecycle stages can be very useful for stakeholders and customers, as it encourages transparency for every step of the project, enabling these parties to assess risks and have an understanding of what they can expect every step of the way.
Project management can be divided into five very distinct phases:
Monitoring and control
There is some debate on the actual number of stages in the project management life cycle, as these phases will often overlap. However, each of the above stages does have very specific characteristics and deliverables that help to differentiate and separate it from the rest.
The first two steps – initiation and planning – are pre-project phases, when you and your team will typically do all the prep work and lay a strong foundation. The bulk of the project action happens during the execution. The monitoring and control phase runs simultaneously with the execution, whereas the termination stage is an assessment and finalization of your project.
The life cycle takes into account all the important details of your project, big and small. This includes:
Resources: including the budget, teams, time, and tools needed to complete the job, and how these will be allocated
Milestones, timeframes, and deadlines for each process within the project
Deliverables that will be produced at each stage
Task workflows and dependencies
All deliverables and reports
Post-project analysis and evaluation
A great way to view your project is by likening the project management life cycle stages to construction with each new phase as a different aspect of the building process. Now, let’s take a look at each step of the project management life cycle in more detail.
The project initiation phase is very important for quality project management. A survey by Geneca found that 75% of surveyed companies felt their projects were often “doomed right from the start”, which highlights the importance of getting off on the right foot when it comes to your projects.
The initiation lays the foundation for all future steps, all the way to the project’s closure. In this stage, you and your team will identify the key issues the new project will strive to solve. You will determine how feasible this project is and whether it actually makes sense to go ahead with its execution. By the end of this phase, everyone involved should be very clear on the project rationale.
This is the phase in which you will specify who is involved in the project, begin to organize teams, and identify key stakeholders. You’ll also determine what resources this project will require, as well as where to source them.
The final step in this early phase of your project is creating a Business Case – this will organize and provide a better understanding of the following key factors:
The justification behind the project
What issues will the project solve? What created the need for this project?
What other solutions to the problem were weighed up? Why is this project the best solution?
How long do you expect this project to last and when will you be able to see the results?
How much do you expect this project to cost?
What benefits (monetary and otherwise) will this project result in?
What’s at stake? Are there any risks or hidden obstacles?
If we use the project-house analogy suggested above, the initiation stage can be seen as the stage in which you’re thinking about your house and figuring out whether it’s actually something that’s feasible. Can you afford it? Will it pay off? Who will benefit from it? These are all questions a project manager will be considering before getting the ball rolling on the project.
Once the initiation stage is over, your project will enter the planning stage. As its name implies, this phase has everything to do with the planning and preparation of the project. Plan everything correctly, and your project is guaranteed to be a success.Before you can begin executing your project, you’ll need to create a detailed plan of action. A project plan brings clarity and systematization to what can quickly become a very chaotic process. During the planning phase, you should come up with a clear understanding of the following points:
Project schedule and deadlines
Group and individual responsibilities
Resources available, including budgets, and how these will be utilized
Tools that you’ll use
When planning, you and your team will come up with a roadmap that specifies the milestones of your project with the steps you’ll be taking to achieve them. In addition to that, you’ll also come up with a clearer understanding of the timeline of the project as well as deadlines that each team member will have to stick to.
Most crucially, you will gather and allocate resources to where they’re needed: finances, time, tools, and teams will all become very specific and measurable.
As mentioned before, it’s essential that you get this step right, as it forms the entire skeleton of the way your project will progress. When building a house, this would be the stage of drawing up building and floor plans, as well as determining and purchasing all necessary materials.
And if we take our analogy even further and view any given project as a building, then the planning stage would be its foundation – and if you know a thing or two about buildings, the foundation is arguably the most important part. The quality of the foundation determines whether your building – home or otherwise – will stand the test of time and even whether you’ll be able to build it in the first place. In the same way, with poor planning, your project is inevitably bound to crumble and crash, without making it to completion.
In this stage of project management, your project finally comes to life. During the execution, you’ll implement your plan and begin to take all the steps necessary to carry out the project. This is the longest and most important phase of your project, in which all of the action happens.
By the end of this stage, you will see the physical manifestation of the pre-execution brainstorming and planning. In the execution, the building blocks are actually laid down, and brick by brick, your project ‘building’ or ‘house’ is formed.
If you’re the PM, this stage will require you to:
Set tasks for team members
Create and organize workflows
Motivate your team(s)
Use resources that were allocated for the project in an effective way
Ensure that deadlines are being met and everything is progressing smoothly
Respond quickly to any stumbling blocks
Keep stakeholders updated on how the project is progressing
The key focus here is on deliverables, both internal and external: from reports that are shared between teams to more tangible products that are given out to customers and stakeholders. The project manager will need to keep an eye on how the project execution progresses and monitor each stage of the process closely – but we’ll go into more detail on that below. It’s also equally important to ensure that teams stay motivated and on track at all times.
Finally, this stage is also characterized by its increased communication and collaboration. During the execution, there will be plenty of interaction between and within teams, as a result of the constant stream of tasks. Thus, in this stage, it’s important to make sure that teams have the right tools for efficient and effortless communication, and that PMs have the necessary tools for managing these communications.
Some models of the project management life cycle do not separate the monitoring and control and the execution phases, as these run simultaneously and are therefore very interdependent. Nevertheless, this fourth stage features plenty of important distinguishing characteristics and deserves a special mention.
In the monitoring phase, the project manager will typically control:
Quality of outputs and quality of performance
Risks – new risks, as well as those that were pre-determined in phase two
In fact, in this phase, most of the responsibility falls on the project manager, but teams and individuals can also control and monitor the project process. The project manager’s key responsibilities in this stage all center around ensuring that the project is progressing according to the plan and schedule approved in the second phase. This involves managing budgets and other resources and making sure every single step of the project is meeting deadlines.
During this stage, the PM will also be responsible for foreseeing and identifying any issues and bottlenecks, as well as acting quickly to fix them. A lot of assessment and analysis happens at this stage, including evaluating individual and team performance, calculating key performance indicators (KPIs), and performing quality control.
Though monitoring isn’t as active as the execution, it still demands a lot of involvement. As it runs alongside execution you won’t notice it as a separate phase as such, but you will need to balance the two phases. This is because each step of the project execution plan requires control and close monitoring.
The termination stage (also often referred to as the ‘closure’ stage) of the project is all about analysis and assessment. In this phase, the PM and teams will take stock of the project, what went well and what could’ve been improved, according to classic project management.
A project manager’s checklist for the closure phase of the project would typically look something like this – you’ll need to make sure you have it.
Released all deliverables
Tied up any loose ends and made sure that all aspects of the project have been completed
Evaluated group and individual performance
Sent reports to all key stakeholders
Performed a final analysis and evaluation of the project’s success
This stage is all about winding everything down and closing up the project by making sure you’ve completed all tasks and sent out final reports to key stakeholders.
What’s equally important in the termination is its evaluation aspect. One of the key distinguishing features of this stage is its heavy emphasis on post-project analysis. Were the project goals met? Was the initial problem solved? How about the team – did they meet their goals? Were they able to stick to deadlines and to what degree of quality were they able to complete their tasks?
You will need to consider all of these questions in order to give the team constructive feedback and boost their performance in future projects. In our project management-construction analogy, this final step would be you polishing things off and evaluating the work that’s been done, as well as listing what went well and what could’ve been improved.
From project managers to team members, having an understanding of the 5 phases of the project management life cycle is essential for everyone, no matter their level of involvement. Knowing what’s happening in each stage of the life cycle (and what’s coming next) gives your project more structure and organization, resulting in greater efficiency for all those involved and propelling the project to success!