How can you ensure your software projects are delivered to brief and can adapt to unexpected challenges, user feedback, and market development?

Software projects can be complex and unpredictable, which is why you need a solid grasp of the software development lifecycle, a suitable framework, and a powerful work management platform at your disposal. Project management systems for software development usually prioritize oversight, because that’s what managers need to lead projects effectively. But the best project plans, management frameworks, and software tools benefit entire teams, by: 

  • Creating transparency and showing how each task fits into the bigger picture 
  • Showing the task-tracking data teams need to plan their upcoming work 
  • Centralizing project documentation and assets
  • Providing a platform where the team can note and discuss issues 
  • Aligning the work they produce with other stakeholders like quality assurance and product marketing teams

In this guide, we’ll explain the challenges that make robust project management systems so important in software development. Then, we’ll break down the phases of a software project and show you how the most widely used frameworks can help you master each stage. 

We’ll also show you how project management software — specifically the top features of our work management tool, Wrike — can help you manage new and ongoing projects in the way that best suits your team.

Project management for software development: Key challenges

The challenges software teams face depend on the nature of the project, but there are some common issues that can put pressure on project managers and their teams.  

  • The projects can be more complex. Software products can demand a high level of technical expertise, and they often have to fulfill a long list of criteria before they can be sent for approval
  • The work can be more unpredictable. Software projects can have high levels of risk and uncertainty from issues like bugs, integration problems, requirements volatility, and unforeseen technical problems.
  • The landscape can change quickly. Rapid technological changes, advancements in the market, feedback from stakeholders, and new requirements can all mean the original plans have to be altered mid-project. 
  • The environment can be fast paced, due to the speed of change and the urgency of requests. This makes communication and efficiency even more critical to project success. 

In essence, software development teams often have to be more adaptable than other departments at a company in order to mitigate the unique risks. But to protect themselves from the rest of the standard project management pitfalls they face, it’s still vital to work within a structure that ensures quality control, welcomes feedback, and creates accountability. 

This robust framework comes from two key areas: 

  1. Understanding the phases that every software project should go through to ensure nothing is missed
  2. Defining an approach to the project that makes sense for the whole team and the assets they need to produce

Let’s start by breaking down the phases typical for software development project management. 

The software project management lifecycle: Tackling the 5 phases

Software engineering and development projects typically fall into five lifecycle phases: initiation, planning, execution, controlling and monitoring, and closure

When you view the software development lifecycle (SDLC) in these distinct phases, it’s easier to create, execute, and evaluate a project plan that streamlines your work — no matter what additional project management methodology you call on later. 

1. Initiation

Project initiation is usually the manager’s responsibility. During this phase, information is gathered for the project charter document, which serves as the business case for the project. It lays out the facts, explains why the work is meaningful, and creates a project plan that can be approved and referred back to later. 

A project charter for a software team updating an existing product might include: 

  • The project benefits, like generating new business, addressing new use cases, retaining customers, and contributing to company-wide goals, like establishing a reputation as innovators in the industry
  • The anticipated risks, like technical difficulties causing a delay or a new competitor reducing the company’s market share
  • The project budget, including the pricing of the tools and project management platforms they plan to use
  • The milestones, like due dates for a prototype, beta testing, the creation of promotional content in collaboration with the marketing team, and a final milestone for the product launch
  • Identify stakeholders and team members who could be approached for roles like lead developer, UI/UX designer, or customer support specialist

See more detailed examples of project charters here: Project Charter: Guide With Examples and Template.

Risk management during project initiation 

There are two primary risks during the initiation phase: 

  1. Neglecting the groundwork necessary for a successful project
  2. Failing to communicate the project’s advantages in a way that gets the charter approved

Applying the principles of SMART goal setting can help to mitigate these risks. Focusing on the specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals and benefits of the project can make the advantages clear before the money is invested — and set you up to create a realistic project roadmap in the next phase. product screenshot for wrike task view on aqua background

Measuring a successful project initiation

By the end of this phase, the project manager should have a high-level understanding of the project’s goals, requirements, and risks. 

If the manager can:

  • Show the clear objectives of the project
  • Prove the work is feasible
  • Decide on metrics or KPIs to measure the project’s success 
  • Present a realistic timeline 
  • Implement the tools and build the team to do it well

They can safely move on to the next phase of the project. 

2. Planning

The project planning phase takes the objectives laid out in the charter and creates a detailed roadmap. The planning phase is still mostly down to the project’s management team. They’ll complete the foundations, start to assemble more staff, and prepare to share the project plan so the work can begin. 

For example, if the project charter for the software update was approved, the project plan could include: 

This phase culminates in the kickoff meeting, where management presents the project plan, introduces the team, and invites the questions that can create a smoother project start. 

Risk management during project planning

The anticipated risks during the planning phase are similar to the initiation. In the rush to start work, it’s possible to overlook steps or processes that will become vital later. 

For example: 

  • Failing to consider potential delays or create contingency plans could lead to future bottlenecks.
  • Assigning tasks without assessing the capacity and skills of the team can mean reassigning tasks in the middle of the project. 
  • Launching into the project without identifying the first action items can make it harder to start on the right foot. 
  • Overlooking the Q&A section in the kickoff meeting can make it harder to clarify expectations and get the team on the same page. 

Measuring successful project planning

When the concerns are ironed out, the feedback has been heard, and the team is on board, this stage of the project can be considered complete. The team can start the software development process with clear accountability and expectations, and the project manager can trust in the framework and the communication methods they’ve decided on.  

3. Execution

After the project is launched at the kickoff meeting, the team begins working on the assigned tasks. 

Now, the role of the team is to prioritize and complete their work. Their roles also involve effective communication, sharing the latest versions of resources, feeding back on areas for improvement, and continually updating the tools they’re using to track task progress

The manager’s role now shifts to providing leadership and clarity. For example, during the execution phase, they’ll likely: 

  • Provide the team with the resources they need, like tools, action items, and links to the project plan
  • Build momentum by helping remove the roadblocks and ensuring the project team can complete the work to schedule

4. Controlling and monitoring

The controlling and monitoring phase is the next phase, though it should go hand in hand with the execution phase. Once the workflow is established, the team continues to complete their tasks and send them for approval. 

Whether your team tackles a list of tasks set at the beginning of the process, addresses them as they arise, or saves tasks in a backlog to work through in a sprint cycle, controlling and monitoring is the longest phase of a project. 

Remember, the structure of this phase — and the project management solutions you choose — can be customized depending on the work the team has to complete. 

For example, a team tackling bug fixes will uncover new tasks and create tickets as they progress, but each one will have a relatively linear workflow. They could measure their performance by looking at the amount of time each ticket takes or the number of tickets they’ve closed in a certain time frame.product screenshot of wrike report widgets on aqua background

On the other hand, a team building a new app from scratch will probably see their tasks move backward as well as forward in their workflow. This is because they’re learning more, trying new approaches, and getting feedback from their stakeholders. Here, Agile project management practices (which we’ll explain in more detail later) can help manage the work to be done. 

During this phase, the project manager continues to coordinate and support the team, adjusts the project plan if necessary, and takes responsibility for the outputs being delivered on time and on budget

For example, the project manager might: 

  • Track the team’s performance over time and compare their progress to the original plan 
  • Address risks and bottlenecks by reallocating resources, reassigning tasks, or providing additional support
  • Hold status meetings or communicate project updates in another form 
  • Create ongoing reports about the team’s performance to inform their decisions

Risk management during execution, controlling, and monitoring

Software development projects can have different risks than other types of work. For example, while a house-building project could be derailed because of materials shortages or inclement weather, software projects encounter bugs, cybersecurity issues, or changes in requirements as a result of stakeholder feedback. 

That said, risk mitigation during the software project management process is still a case of identifying issues and finding the best way to course correct. 

The development team at JERA puts this into real terms. With the right tools in place, JERA’s team leaders find it easier to identify the projects that are falling behind schedule, follow up, and identify the cause.

We spoke to Tomonori Sato, a Unit Manager in the ICT strategy department, about his experience. Sato’s team works in Wrike, using real-time visualization features like time tracking, Kanban boards, and Gantt charts to maintain the overview they need to manage the risks to their project success.

Author Avatar

In the past, we couldn’t see the current situation until the report came up in Excel, so we were always lagging behind. Now, we can take action before the project goes up in flames.

Tomonori Sato, Unit Manager in ICT Strategy Department

Measuring project progress successfully 

There are several ways to measure success as your team completes the bulk of the project work. For example, a project manager could monitor (and share): 

  • The percentage of the subtasks completed, approved, or live
  • The likelihood of meeting the milestones along the project roadmap and the number of milestones remaining 
  • Status reports on productivity, like the number of hours that have gone into a task vs. the hours originally planned

Then, when all the tasks have been approved, the project can move on to the final stage. 

5. Closure

At the end of the controlling and monitoring phase, the deliverables are accepted and the software team moves into the closure phase. 

This phase is particularly important for software teams with ongoing project cycles rather than a one-and-done deliverable because it focuses on honing your approach for future projects.

During this phase, the team members evaluate the work and their experience of the project process, identify what worked well, and look for opportunities for improvement. Meanwhile, management hands over the finished project and ties up the loose ends. This can include: 

  • Taking inventory and storing the files associated with the project 
  • Sharing the results with the team or other stakeholders
  • Asking for feedback and assessing the learnings from the project
  • Thanking the team and celebrating their achievements

Risk management during project closure

Just as the risk in the initial phase was skipping the proper planning and preparation, the final phase of the project can be compromised if you rush through the evaluation and miss the important lessons. 

Again, development projects are unique, and the way you report on your final data should fit the way your team has worked. But creating reports — and sharing them with your team and stakeholders — is an effective way to measure the results, identify areas for improvement, and set up to tackle larger or more complex projects in the future. 

Read more: Project Management Reports: Examples and Writing Tips

The software development lifecycle can come with some unique challenges, especially for complex projects. But whatever your workflows look like, breaking your plan into these five distinct phases can take you from initiation to delivery more smoothly and help build a culture of continual improvement. 

Now, we’ll turn to some most common project management frameworks to help software teams approach each phase successfully and create a roadmap that works for them.

Software project management: Choosing the best framework for your team 

Because of the rapid changes in software development and the wide range of jobs developers tend to undertake, there’s a wide range of methodologies for visualizing and working through the steps described above. 

For example, some teams need an approach that prioritizes collaboration and leaves room for spontaneity, but others work better with a fixed structure suited to repetitive tasks and exacting sets of criteria.  

Whatever your preferred approach, the methods we describe here can anticipate problems, clarify roles, ensure accountability, gather learnings, and identify areas where you can adjust your project management style to serve your team better. 

Agile project management frameworks 

We’ll begin with the most popular Agile frameworks because this methodology started with — and is still widely used by — software development teams. 

Agile workflows emphasize flexibility, collaboration, and continual improvement. Plus, the iterative approach allows software teams to respond quickly to change and deliver high-quality, innovative solutions to their end users. 

Whether you prefer to use one Agile project management tool for your project or implement the methodology across every aspect of your work, there are four key principles to keep in mind: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools 
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation 
  • Responding to change over following a plan

This leaves you with a project management framework that prioritizes delivering value to the customer, creates space for the team to collaborate, and gives you the flexibility to change the deliverables if it becomes necessary as the project progresses. scrum cycleWhy Agile works for software development

Agile project management: 

  • Works cyclically, with a backlog structure that suits the way tasks are created and completed during software development. For example, releases of new products or updates become projects, which are divided into shorter “sprints” with predefined items.
  • Creates space for collaboration, both within a team and with the client or customer. This encourages the teamwork it takes to build the best version of the product. For example, the tasks in the backlog can be inspired by user stories your team collects. 
  • Focuses on evaluation and improvement for future projects, with a review stage for every sprint. 

Within Agile, there are further subgroups of project management styles, which are also widely used across the world of software engineering. 

1. Scrum

Scrum is a relatively simple Agile framework that most teams can implement. Scrum teams generally work in short sprints (two to four weeks) where the team tackles a backlog of tasks. 

Throughout the sprint, the team meets daily in a “scrum” to update each other on their progress, identify issues as they arise, and request the resources they need.

2. Extreme programming (XP) 

XP is another offshoot of Agile with more scope for change during a sprint. If work hasn’t started on a feature in the backlog, for example, it can be swapped out. This is designed to enhance software quality and make it easier for teams to adapt to their customers’ needs. 

Why Scrum and XP frameworks work for software teams

Scrum frameworks:

  • Focus on clearing roadblocks, which can speed up development and testing 
  • Prioritize communication and accountability to keep teams on the same page 
  • Bring more flexibility to project plans, which suits new approaches and unexpected issues

Note: Our work management platform, Wrike, includes a sprint planning template to help structure your sprints, prioritize work, and hold an effective retrospective at the end of each iteration of the development cycle.  

3. Kanban method

With Kanban boards, cards representing tasks move through columns representing the stages of a workflow. These boards centralize teams and provide a visual way to represent capacity and task progress.

product screenshot of wrike board view on aqua background

While Kanban started with paper cards moving across a physical board, Kanban software creates and assigns digital cards with detailed briefs, attached files, and a record of the comments and discussions your team has had around the tasks. 

Why Kanban methodology works for software development

Kanban methodology makes it easier to: 

  • Visualize sprint backlogs (with cards in an initial “backlog” column), and achievements your team has made during a sprint (with cards in a “complete” column)
  • Move tasks freely between different statuses, so the method can be applied even if your software team’s workflow is typically non-linear
  • Gauge your team’s workload, as the location of the cards offers an at-a-glance overview and can even help you identify bottlenecks as they start to develop

Note: Wrike includes a Kanban software template. Switching your workspace to Kanban view gives you an instant overview of where your tasks are in your customized workflow.

Sequential project management frameworks

Sequential methods are a more traditional way of streamlining project management. They tend to begin with a fleshed-out plan for the deliverables the team wants to create and a list of the fixed, connected, and chronological steps needed to reach that goal. 

While the project manager always needs to spend time on the initiation and planning phases, this is extra important for a sequential method, as there’s much less scope to adapt the project plan later. 

4. Waterfall 

A Waterfall framework is one of the simplest project management styles to get your head around. 

Typically, the manager gathers the project requirements in the initiation phase and plans the workflow to achieve the goals. During implementation, the team begins working through the steps in the plan, testing each element as they go to make sure they can move on to the next phase.

This creates a project with a predictable timeline, and it’s very easy to repeat a task using the same outline later. 

5. Critical path

Like Waterfall, critical path frameworks acknowledge that some tasks can’t be started until the previous task is complete. Stringing these dependent tasks together — for example, by visualizing them in a Gantt chart — shows the team the “critical path” to signing off on the deliverables.

product screenshot of wrike gantt chart on aqua background 6. Critical chain project management 

Critical chain project management (CCPM) helps the project manager make more accurate decisions by adding resource availability to the critical path and building time buffers around the essential tasks. 

Note: With Wrike, you can easily view the critical path within your team’s project timeline. Simply open Gantt Chart view in your workspace, click on the menu button, and select Critical path. Any task where a delay to one task would push the project deadline turns red. 

When sequential methodologies can work for software teams

For some teams, a sequential methodology can: 

  • Help project managers to focus and allocate resources to the most important work 
  • Show teams how their work fits into the bigger picture, while still making the most important goals clear
  • Ensure predictability as the team works toward the outcome, including a more accurate capacity assessment from removing the need for WIP limits that can become necessary with, for example, a Kanban structure

Pitfalls of sequential frameworks

Software teams can work successfully with sequential project management techniques if their deliverables have a clearly defined functionality. For example, methods like Waterfall can suit software jobs with well-documented requirements, or “mature” technology that’s already well understood. They can also work for small or short-term projects where all the team needs is a way to ensure they’ve checked the boxes before signing off. 

However, these methods might not be well suited for software teams with complex workflows, simultaneous tasks, or teams who are creating entirely new software. 

Specifically, Waterfall can: 

  • Lack flexibility to adjust the plan when the team discovers something new
  • Cause feedback from users and stakeholders to disrupt the project framework, rather than fuelling progress

From simple Kanban tools like Trello, to complex workspace systems like Jira or Microsoft Project, there’s plenty of project management software that can help you implement some of these project planning methods for your team. 

In the final section of this piece, we’ll look at some of the features of our platform, Wrike. These features are widely used by project managers and software development teams. With easy setup and an intuitive user interface, you can start using these features in your tailor-made Wrike workspace today. 

Build the perfect project space for your development team with Wrike 

Wrike is a complete, customizable work management tool with a host of project management features to benefit project leaders and their teams. 

Here, we list some of the best. 

Unrivaled task and workflow management 

Wrike’s user-friendly workflow management software builds tailored, repeatable workflows for your tasks. You can track your tasks in detail, visualize your priorities, and maintain control of your projects.

As Wrike tracks your development tasks, the data on your progress, the assignees, and the approval status are tracked and translated into the workspace views you build for your team.  

With all this valuable data brought together and stored as a central source of truth for your project, you can easily switch between Wrike’s Table, Chart, Gantt Chart, Kanban, or Board view to see the headlines and drill down into the granular data that informs your decision making.product screenshot of wrike gantt chart on aqua backgroundPlus, with a personalized dashboard option for every member of your team, you can support your developers to deliver their best work, on time and to brief. 

Process automation 

While the end results are often innovative, development teams are also up against a host of repeatable tasks. Wrike’s groundbreaking automation systems create rules, triggers, and auto-approvals to accomplish these time-consuming tasks more quickly and push your project team toward their goals. 

From creating dynamic forms to automate task intake, to instantly notifying team leaders when a new fix is ready to be approved, Wrike’s automation can boost productivity and remove the friction from all your project processes. 

Risk monitoring 

Wrike’s innovative Work Intelligence® AI model is a game changer for risk management in any type of project.product screenshot of wrike project risk report on aqua backgroundBased on data like your team’s capacity, the historical complexity of similar tasks, and the time you’ve tracked so far, our risk management features will flag the tasks at medium or high risk of missing their deadline. When you view this data in an automatically generated report, you can easily tag the assignees in a comment, reallocate a task, or adjust your project schedule to account for the delay.

Resource management 

Alongside real-time dashboards and analytics data to inform your decisions, Wrike teams enjoy additional features for effortless resource management

With a clearly defined system of team and project folders, you can store your assets securely, eliminate information silos, and ensure that everyone on your team has the resources they need to complete their tasks. Plus, with our unique cross-tagging system, the same tasks or files can exist in multiple contexts simultaneously. 

For example, a bug report can be represented as a task in a Kanban board with the necessary files attached, while also waiting in your sprint backlog, and forming part of an upcoming scrum agenda. Thanks to cross-tagging, you know you’re looking at the most up-to-date version of that task, and you eliminate issues with crossed wires and version control

Template plans

With Wrike, it’s easy to create template tasks and blueprints for the jobs that are regularly part of your team’s project cycle. Plus, you can build your workspace with template plans from our library, making every phase of project management simpler. 

For example:

Software project management: The final word 

Though the roadmap for a software project can look complicated and the risks can be more unpredictable, a thorough understanding of the software development life cycle, a solid Agile framework, and the right software tools can centralize your team and put you on course for a fantastic result. 

Wrike’s award-winning workspaces are perfect for managing complex projects. Contact our sales team to find out what Wrike can do for your team — we’ll be in touch within 24 hours.