5 phases of the project life cycle: An end-to-end guide
If you've ever been responsible for planning and delivering a project, you know just how many moving parts fall into a project life cycle.
First, you have to decide why this project is taking place and what it will accomplish.
Then comes the task of planning, assigning, and setting deadlines. Of course, your project milestones need to be tracked every step of the way. Finally, the entire project needs to be delivered to your client on time and on budget.
That’s a lot to plan and manage.
There is good news. Breaking down each part of the project life cycle and carefully planning tasks makes the process so much easier. It helps you stay on top of your deadlines, progress, and goals so you deliver a product your clients will love.
In this guide, we’ll share the five phases of a project life cycle and teach you how to tackle each phase like a pro. Let’s get started.
What is a project life cycle?
A project life cycle allows the project manager to further break down every task and request into smaller parts so it's easier to carefully plan and deliver everything.
Learning a project life cycle (and why it is so useful) gives leaders a framework to plan, execute, and deliver every project like a smooth operator.
5 phases of a project life cycle
Much like you would break down the life cycle of a customer or a product, there are phases to the process to help you stay on track. Here, we'll explore each project life cycle phase and how to execute each one effectively.
Phase 1: Project initiation
Every project life cycle starts with the same question: why are we doing this project in the first place?
This phase of the life cycle is called project initiation. Here, teams discuss the problem that the project will solve and how they plan to achieve their goals (whether internally or for a stakeholder).
Suppose your client is having problems turning landing page visitors into leads with their latest marketing campaign. In that case, the initiation phase will analyze the problem and brainstorm how to overcome the roadblocks.
To do this, your team will need to:
Break down the problem in detail so you can figure out whether or not your plan will actually fix or solve the project
Calculate how long the project will last, how many resources you'll need, and whether or not your agency has the capacity to take it on
Identify the individual deliverables for the project (i.e., landing page audit to track conversions, new strategy implementation)
Write a detailed description (project charter) of what the project work will look like (including a project timeline and costs) for the client, so they can see if it fits with their budget and time constraints
Don't spend a ton of time and resources on the project initiation phase. It’s likely that you (and your client) are still deciding whether or not the project is a good fit. Try to think of it as a contract rather than a scope of work.
Once a project charter is delivered outlining your plan, you’re all set! Now, you just need to wait for their answer.
Boxes to check within Phase 1 of the project life cycle:
✅ What is the problem the client needs to be solved and can you fix it?
✅ Have you got a rough idea of the project's goals, milestones, and budget?
✅ Does your agency have the bandwidth to take on the project?
✅ Has the client received a project charter and given the green light for the project to go ahead?
Once the project has been given the green light, move on to Phase 2 of the project life cycle — planning.
Phase 2: Project planning
Project planning is an important part of any project life cycle. This is where ideas, deadlines, milestones, and expectations are put onto paper. It's also where the timeline is put into place.
Before sitting your team down to start brainstorming about what the project timeline will look like, the project manager has some specifics to work out. For example:
Who will be working on the project?
Which team members will be responsible for delivering each task?
What are the key project milestones and goals and when do they need to be delivered?
Will the project's timeline rely on dependencies? (i.e., what task needs to be finished before this other one can start?)
Where should your team communicate and collaborate once the project kicks off?
Which metrics will you use to measure project success once work begins?
As you can see, there are a lot of project pieces to organize before you can even meet with your team with a solid plan. The next part of the planning phase is to build an in-depth project plan that acts like your team's "north star."
This is where task lists, milestones, deadlines, and expectations are written in black and white to keep everyone aligned. However, building a project plan can be a time-consuming process.
If you don't already have one, you can easily make your own, save it, and use it to plan future projects. Or simply download our free project plan template to help your team manage projects more efficiently to complete them on time and stay within budget.
Automate your processes with templates
Use project and task list templates to ensure your team never misses a step at each phase of your product development process, and use triggers to automatically add due dates or reassign tasks for smoother, more efficient team handovers as you move through the project’s life cycle.
Once you've got a project plan in place, the next step is to call a team meeting to get feedback from the people working on it. This meeting will hash out some finer details, like whether the project deliverables and timelines are realistic.
Boxes to check within Phase 2 of the project life cycle:
✅ Have you completed a detailed project plan that clearly outlines deliverables, milestones, and deadlines?
✅ Have you allocated each task to a team member? Does everyone know what their individual responsibilities are for the project?
✅ Is the project plan available for the team to view so they can check deadlines, task details, and collaborate with each other?
✅ Is everyone on the same page when it comes to project expectations?
Now that your team is up to speed and your plan is in place, it's time to begin the project work.
Phase 3: Project execution
The execution phase of the project life cycle is where the rubber meets the road, and your team will start tackling tasks and milestones. You've already decided who is responsible for what tasks and when they need to be done, so the project execution phase is about making sure things go according to plan.
Your responsibilities in this phase of the project include:
Task management and conducting regular meetings with your team to make sure everything is on track
Ensure milestones are hit and allocated resources aren’t stretched beyond capacity
Talk to your team regularly to set expectations, provide updates on project progress, and give the next steps to keep the project moving smoothly
Even with the smallest projects, keeping tabs on both individual and project-wide progress can be tough. Fortunately, most of this process can be automated with the right tools.
Project reporting solutions like Teamwork can be used to track milestones and flag them when they are at risk of being missed. Each project milestone is tracked automatically and kept inside a Planned vs. Actual Milestone Report you can access from anywhere.
This report breaks down the percentage of tasks completed within each milestone (and when they’re due) so project managers can easily see whether they’ll be finished in time.
Using the time period dropdown in the top right, you can switch between week, month, and quarter views.
If deadlines are at risk of being missed, the report will alert you so that additional resources can be allocated to get your timeline back on track.
Boxes to check within Phase 3 of the project life cycle:
✅ Has your team completed all of their tasks on time and hit the planned milestones?
✅ Has your project stayed on its budget?
✅ Have you held regular meetings so everyone on your team is on the same page?
✅ Have you looked for issues in the project’s workflow and solved them before they turn into major problems?
With everything running smoothly, it's time to take a closer look at the project numbers and make sure budgets and productivity are on pace. This is phase four of the project life cycle— control.
Phase 4: Project control
Progress is fantastic but not without the budget, deliverables, and client expectations aligning every step of the way. To ensure they do, it’s time to dig into some critical metrics.
For project managers, this means:
Tracking resource utilization and task competition rates to ensure everyone is working at the predicted productivity rate
Measuring spent vs. remaining budget while also calculating if you need to cut costs to meet the forecasted project spend
Keeping in regular contact with the client and updating them on progress, as well as getting feedback about any issues they have throughout the project
Once again, doing all of this is hard without the right project management software. Manually keeping tabs on which tasks are getting done or how much money is being spent can easily take up most of your day.
Teamwork’s health report solves this by giving project managers a real-time snapshot of the most critical parts of a project.
Automatically track everything from task progress to milestones and budgets as Teamwork combines all this data into a dashboard. Project managers can quickly see which deliverables may be at risk if they don't take action.
This phase is also where you need to be strict about where your team is spending their time.
Let's say that your team is conducting a six-week website audit for a client. After two weeks, it's clear that there is a lot of work to do on their site—more work than in the original project outline.
It's up to the project manager to talk to the client and outline that if they want the extra problems tackled, the project charter needs to be updated to reflect the extra work (and extra costs). Communicating with the client before your team does any extra work is the only way to ensure the project doesn’t fall victim to scope creep.
Boxes to check within Phase 4 of the project life cycle:
✅ Is your team’s productivity meeting what you originally forecasted?
✅ Is the project staying on budget?
✅ Have you communicated with the client about possible problems with the project charter? (i.e., extra work your team has come across that needs to be completed before the project can move forward)
✅ Are you monitoring possible risks to your project’s health and dealing with them so the work will still get delivered on time?
When all the work for the project has been completed, it is time to deliver it to the client and wrap everything up.
Phase 5: Project closure
Don’t be fooled by the name.
The final phase of a project life cycle—the project closure—is more than just delivering files to your client and waiting for your check.
First, you need to conduct a smooth handover with your client and make sure they're happy with your team's work. Ask for their feedback and if they've got any suggestions on improving it if you work together again.
Then the team needs to complete a project retrospective to see what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be improved. This should include:
A meeting with team feedback on what worked best or how it could improve
Analyzing report analytics to see how the project budget, resource utilization, and timeframes matched up to what was originally planned
Planning to fix any problems in the next project
Post-mortems don’t just help your team work better on the next project—they also show your clients that you're serious about doing your best work for them. This (hopefully) gets them jazzed about using your agency again.
Boxes to check within Phase 5 of the project life cycle:
✅ Have you asked your client for feedback about the project process?
✅ Has the team on the project given their post-mortem feedback?
✅ Is there a plan to implement any necessary changes to improve the lifecycle?
Mastering the project life cycle makes your pipeline more efficient
Any project—no matter how big or small—has lots of moving pieces.
The project life cycle begins the moment a client contacts you and asks to work together. From writing project charters to tracking progress and preventing scope creep, you'll need to plan everything to make sure the project is a success.
When you understand each phase of a project's life cycle, this becomes a lot less daunting. Breaking each phase down into manageable pieces will help you navigate your project pipeline successfully and deliver every project on budget and on time.