Every project your team works on feels drastically different. Different team members. Different timelines. Different requirements. Different goals.
But, those varying projects have more in common than you might think. They all have a beginning, middle, and end that follow a repeatable process.
So how can you make the most of this consistent sequence and nail each and every stage, regardless of the specifics of your project? Let’s explore the typical project management life cycle and how you and your team can maximize the phases of project management.
Project management life cycle phases
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines the project life cycle as “the series of phases that a project passes through from its initiation to its closure.”
The standard project life cycle diagram is made up of five phases:
- Controlling and monitoring
While the phases of project management are generally performed in order when starting a new project, they don’t always have to be. For example, if a change comes up that slightly alters the course of your project, you’d probably return to the planning stage to account for those adjustments but not go all the way back to project initiation.
It’s this exact level of flexibility that makes change management processes during the project life cycle that much easier to manage.
What’s the importance of the project life cycle? This series of phases might seem like a formality, but they can actually be quite helpful. They provide a structured approach to manage a project from start to finish, which means you’ll have clearer roles and responsibilities, streamlined communication, and ultimately a repeatable formula for project success (with fewer dropped balls and forgotten tasks!).
Now that you’re familiar with the nitty-gritty, let’s look at each phase in detail, along with some project life cycle examples.
Phase #1: Initiation
To fully understand each stage of this cycle, let’s step away from a work example and instead think about building a house. During the initiation stage of your home construction, you’d be doing things like conducting soil tests, figuring out permit requirements, and determining if your neighborhood has any restrictive covenants you need to follow.
In other words, you can think of this as the groundwork phase — where you’re ensuring that a project is actually worth your team’s time before you invest too much energy into planning or actual related tasks.
Thinking about this in a work context, this stage includes things like defining the project, building a business case for it, identifying your key stakeholders, and getting it approved by the appropriate parties.
Ace this phase:
Don’t underestimate the importance of this initiation phase. It’s tempting to think that no real work is getting done, but this is where you lay the foundation (whether you’re sticking with our home-building metaphor or not!) for a successful project.
That vision piece of the puzzle is especially important since it’s easy to lose sight of why a certain project matters when you start to get wrapped up in tasks and deadlines. In fact, only 55% of people involved in projects — team leaders and project managers — feel that the project’s business objectives are clear to them.
Your project charter also requires that you point to a real business benefit associated with your project. Not only does this help you and your team keep your eyes on the prize, but it also forces you to ensure that the project is a good use of your team’s time upfront.
Pulling together a project charter now means you’ll have a much easier time presenting the facts and getting your project approved by leadership.
Phase #2: Planning
Let’s stick with our example of building a house. During the planning phase, you’d be drawing up blueprints, ironing out your budget, and establishing a timeline for moving in.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of careful planning, yet too many teams and businesses skip this stage in favor of getting right to work. A study by the U.S. Government Accounting Office found that 49% of 840 federally funded projects were poorly planned, poorly performing, or both.
It’s well worth investing time and energy into the planning phase. Rest assured, it’ll save you tons of time and headaches as your project moves forward. After all, would you start swinging a hammer without a blueprint to guide you?
Ace this phase:
A thorough planning phase requires that you give careful thought to numerous elements related to your project, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Key roles and responsibilities
- Metrics for success
- Potential risks and bottleneck
- Expectations for team communication
- Timeline for project completion
All of these logistics should be pulled together into a detailed project plan that you’ll share with the entire team at the kickoff meeting, and then continue to reference throughout the duration of your project.
Speaking of kickoff meetings, those sit-downs deserve some special attention as one of the most important pieces of nailing this planning stage.
During your kickoff meeting, you and your entire project team will talk through some of those key elements of your project plan (including responsibilities, communication guidelines, and how you’ll know when your project is successful). You can also figure out what project life cycle management software or other tools you’ll use to streamline the process.
Remember that this meeting isn’t just a chance for you to broadcast your message and dole out directions. Leave plenty of time for questions and feedback from other project team members so you can proactively clear up confusion and address concerns. You’ll all walk out of there with shared expectations about how to knock that project out of the park.
Phase #3: Execution
Within our homebuilding analogy, this is when the concrete is poured, walls are being framed, and windows are being installed. During the execution phase, you’re putting all of your careful planning into action to actually roll up your sleeves and get the work done.
Sounds like the easy part, right? But, surprisingly, this is a spot where the wheels can really fall off. Planning to take action is a lot easier than actually taking action.
Think about it in a personal context for some clarity: Creating and scheduling your ideal workout routine was easy. It’s actually following that plan and dragging yourself to the gym after a long, hard day that’s way more challenging.
That’s probably why, according to Project Management Institute’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession survey, executive leaders said that only 60% of their strategic initiatives met their original goals.
Ace this phase:
The kickoff meeting (which we discussed in detail in the previous section) actually marks the start of the execution phase. When everybody exits that meeting room, it’s time for them to take those marching orders and get to work.
But be aware that things don’t magically fall into place just because you have a plan. You need to ensure everyone is sticking with it and doing their part.
Following that kickoff, send out supporting resources, action items, links, and your project plan that people can reference. Doing this right away keeps the momentum going so there isn’t a big pause in the action.
Phase #4: Controlling and monitoring
This phase often happens simultaneously with project execution. Going back to our example, as the crew is hard at work building your house, you’re stopping by the building site to keep a close eye on progress and also referencing your budget and timeline to ensure things aren’t veering off track.
Keep in mind that the project management life cycle requires some flexibility.
During the controlling and monitoring phase, some things might come up that require you to adjust your original project plan. That’s okay — and it’s even why this phase exists! While your project plan is a helpful roadmap, it’s definitely not set in stone.
Ace this phase:
Your project kickoff meeting shouldn’t be the only conversation on the calendar. It gets the ball rolling, but you should also have frequent check-in meetings to monitor progress and course-correct when necessary. These meetings are also a great chance to ask for real-time feedback so you don’t let frustrations or issues fester.
Using a work management platform (like Wrike!) offers some much-needed transparency into the entirety of the process. With this sort of tool, you can get a bird’s-eye view of how the project is moving along while also zoning in on individual tasks and workloads — without clogging up people’s calendars with more meetings or update sessions.
As you’re monitoring progress, make sure you keep a close eye on your project resources (which includes everything from time to materials). Are those being allocated appropriately, or are they starting to get stretched? They’re important to manage proactively, especially when the Project Management Institute’s 2018 survey found that 21% of projects fail due to limited or taxed resources.
Phase #5: Closure
This is it. Your house is built. You’re dusting off the moldings, signing the final paperwork, and moving all of your furniture in.
The closure phase marks the end of your project, and it’s easy to leave loose ends instead of tying them in a neat bow. However, last impressions matter, and true closure requires that you check some final boxes to get that project all the way across the finish line.
Ace this phase:
Rather than just checking off that project as “complete” and washing your hands of it, there are a few final tasks you’ll want to take care of during the closure phase, including:
- Delivering the project to the client or team who will be using it from here on out
- Organizing all of the documents and resources you used in a centralized location (that you can reference in the future, if necessary)
- Performing a postmortem to learn from that project’s wins and setbacks, and improve for next time
Finally, don’t forget to celebrate! Finishing a project involves a lot of hard work, and it’s an accomplishment that deserves some recognition. Celebrating those achievements is important, particularly when 54% of respondents in one survey said that they feel underappreciated in the workplace.
So go ahead and order that pizza and blow off some steam with your project team members. You’ve all earned it!
Master the project management life cycle
When you think about building a home, it makes sense that most projects — regardless of their specifics — rely on a similar system for completion. There’s a fairly standard order to follow to manage a project from a full end-to-end life cycle.
There are plenty of project life cycle models out there, but the most prevalent one includes five unique phases:
- Controlling and monitoring
- Closure (end of project management life cycle)
Whether you’re launching a new ebook, revamping your employee onboarding process, or — you know — building a house, working your way through each of those stages will help you take a structured approach to getting the work done while reducing headaches and hassles, and ensuring that you aren’t skipping anything important.
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