There are many ways to run a project. But to run a project successfully requires one to consider all aspects of the project, from scope and budget to the tasks and conversations that take place after the project is launched and executed.
Traditionally, there are five stages of project management. All of the five stages create what is known as a project life cycle. In this article we’ll define a project life cycle and cover each stage of project management.
What is a Project Life Cycle?
According to the Project Management Book of Knowledge® (PMBOK), the project life cycle is a series of phases that represent the evolution of a product - from concept to delivery, maturity, and finally retirement.
A project life cycle is made up of 5 essential stages:
In some ways, these phases show what goes on behind the scenes before a project might come to a project manager’s attention. Think of this as a roadmap to help you take a project from an idea to completion.
If this process feels too rigid for you, that’s okay! Pick up the fundamentals, understand how the steps are formalized, and make decisions on how the steps can apply to you, your team, or your organization.
Now, let’s dig in.
Stage One: Project Initiation & Conception
This is arguably the most critical phase of the project life cycle. The objective here is to identify the why behind the project and the project goals, usually the business case. Here you’ll do preliminary research on project feasibility. What happens here will set the tone and goals for what is to come.
A project usually arises from a business need or goal aimed at solving a problem, or exploring new ways to do business. For instance, if a company is looking to cut down the number of customer service calls they receive, they’ll research and explore what is driving the number of calls. That research will then inform what can be done to reduce the number of calls.
The best way to understand the challenges and goals is through a project brief that outlines the purpose and needs of the project in conjunction with the business case. This kind of background is invaluable to a team when kicking off a project. It’s also a great way to get all involved parties and stakeholders aligned on what’s to come.
While you can proceed without every detail documented, it’s a good idea to be in agreement on goals and intended outcomes.
Stage Two: Project Planning
The project planning phase is where you’ll layout every detail of the plan from beginning to end. The plan you create here will lead your team through the execution, performance, and closure phases of the project life cycle. As part of your project plan, you’ll want to consider these factors:
- Project scope
- Project estimation
- General workflow and process
- Team roles and responsibilities
- Key project milestones (like deliverable reviews and meetings)
- Approval processes
- How you’ll work with the stakeholder team to ensure you get it all done on time and under budget (the fun part!)
It’s recommended that you start by defining your project scope. There are several ways to define scope. Just make sure you have a sense for how much time you want to spend on the overall project. Projects tend to go off the rails without some level of constraint or control. There’s no problem with setting guardrails during the project planning phase and readjusting later if needed.
When it comes to estimating, you might want to use a work breakdown structure (WBS) to help identify tasks and effort. A WBS is a visual layout that breaks out the scope of a project. We discuss WBS in more detail in Chapter 4 of our Guide to Project Management.
Once you’ve made your time and effort estimates, you can create a project plan that lays out phases, tasks, resources, responsibilities, milestones, and deadlines. This is a critical step in managing your project, so take your time and think through every step with your team. To get more detail project planning, check out our Guide to Project Planning.
Using a tool like TeamGantt can truly help you to build a plan--and a gantt chartt--that is well defined, readable, and easy to update.
Because communications can make or break a project, you’ll want to think through and even document how you’ll communicate as a team. Communication plans are particularly valuable when your team is large or if you have stakeholders who work outside of your organization.
Your communication plan needs to set the expectations for how you will communicate as a team, what information they’ll receive or provide, and include dates check-ins, status reports, and other meetings.
Risk Management Plan
The last part of project planning is to make sure you’ve got a risk management plan in place. A risk management plan identifies foreseeable risks and how they can be avoided. It’s the project manager’s job to look out for risks and report them to the team. The best way to do this is to create a simple list that outlines:
- Title of the risk
- Details of the risk and why it exists
- A plan for how the risk can be avoided or solved
- Additional notes that might be important for the team and stakeholders to understand
Risk management is a conversation you want to keep going throughout the project. Keeping a list of risks on your status report helps keep them top-of-mind and allows the team to provide input.
Interested in learning more about status reports and how to include risks in yours?
Download our free Project Status Report Template.
Having these plans in place will make the following stages of your project easier.
Stage Three: Project Execution
In this phase, the team is off and running! The execution phase is typically the longest in the life cycle because it’s when the actual work is done. You’ll find teams collaborating, reviewing work, presenting to stakeholders and revising.
In the previous project planning phase a project manager does a lot of heavy lifting. During the project execution phase a project manager guides the team--and stakeholders--through a series of milestones. In this phase, a project manager is typically responsible for:
- Budget management
- Timeline management
- Resource planning
- Change management
- Risk management
- Quality management
- Internal deliverable reviews
- Communications and facilitation
- Meeting management
That’s a long list! How do project managers handle all of it? They stick to the plan. As was mentioned in the previous section, a project brief, scope, and plan serve as their source of truth. Project managers use those documents to make their decisions.
At the same time, a project manager needs to be tuned-in to what’s happening with the team. This can be done through regular team check ins, conversations, status reports, and timeline review and budget tracking.
Having a single platform to track your budget, timeline, resourcing, and communications certainly makes managing a project easier. Lucky for you, TeamGantt does it all.
Stage Four: Project Monitoring & Control
Stage four is all about making sure the project runs smoothly and ensuring that things go according to plan. As part of the project monitoring phase, you should keep an eye on:
- Project goals
- Quality of deliverables
- Team performance
Be sure to fully understand and embrace the project goals. Use those goals to help make decisions about design, functionality, and any new requests. Sometimes it’s okay to stray a bit. Just be sure to keep the lines of communication open with the stakeholders and bring new ideas to the table with enough time to rework them as needed (yup, it happens).
Quality of Deliverables
When it comes to quality, you need to consult with leadership on company standards. As a best practice, review all deliverables before they are sent out or presented for review. First review them as a team and then individually as the project manager. Be the person who not only manages process, but also cares about the work. Your team and stakeholders will love you for it.
As a project manager you are not typically responsible for the management of people. Your role is to look out for the project. But the success of a project depends on the team working on it. If you see someone slacking or even unintentionally dropping the ball, it’s your job to address it. Just make sure you find the right avenues to address the problems and be empathetic when handling performance issues with team members.
Stage Five: Project Closure
When your project is complete and everyone is happy with what’s been delivered, tested, and released, it’s time to wrap up. In the project closure phase, the team will complete the steps needed to close tasks, hand off the project to stakeholders, finalize any reporting, and celebrate the project.
Many organizations move from one project to the next and do not take the time to properly close down a project. It’s a smart move to take a few hours to properly close, reflect, and even celebrate a project. Here are a few steps to consider:
- Celebrate the project. Organize a small party over lunch or after work to get the team and stakeholders together to acknowledge the hard work done and the great product produced.
- Hold retrospective meeting. Conduct a meeting where you discuss what did and did not go well. Record the outcomes and share the notes within your company to improve your next project.
- Create a project closure report. Write a one page report on the project with details that might be useful for your organization. Information to include might be:
- Project name
- Stated goals
- Date of initiation
- Stated deadline vs. Actual date of delivery
- Project budget vs. Actual budget used
- Team members involved
- Stakeholders involved
- Project issues and pain points
- Project wins
- General comments
Don’t just move on to the next thing. Take the time to reflect on your work so that you can continue to be better. And never forget to celebrate. If there’s no budget, that’s fine. A high five, or a nice message to the team works really well when it comes to team morale. As the project manager, the more you can be a cheerleader for your team, the better experience you will have working with them.
Put the Project Life Cycle To Work
Processes and frameworks are great to have in your back pocket. But remember, every organization is run differently. You have to consider the people, institutional history, challenges, and existing practices before you roll something out. Motivations and empathy are everything in project management. So carry on, attack those projects, and do what’s right for everyone involved.
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