5 phases of the project life cycle: An end-to-end guide

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If you've ever been responsible for planning and delivering a project, you know how many moving parts fall into a project management life cycle. 

First, you need to decide why this project is taking place and what it will accomplish.

Then comes planning, assigning, and setting deadlines. Of course, you should track your project milestones every step of the way. Finally, you must deliver the entire project to your client on time and within budget.

That’s a lot to plan and manage.

Breaking down the project life cycle and carefully planning tasks makes the process much easier. It helps you stay on top of your deadlines, progress, and goals so you deliver a successful product.  

Today, we’ll explore the five phases of a project life cycle and how to tackle them like a pro!

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5 phases of the project life cycle

What is a project life cycle?

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A project lifecycle is a series of phases that define the process of taking a project from its inception to completion. It provides structure — or, rather, a roadmap — to help you organize, manage, and track progress.

Each phase has its own objectives and deliverables that build on the next and eventually lead to the successful completion of a project. This allows the project manager to break down every task and request into smaller, manageable chunks 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.

What are the 5 phases of the 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. Knowing each phase's key milestones and deliverables will help you plan and manage your projects effectively. Here, we'll explore the five stages of the project life cycle phase and how to execute each one effectively.

1. Project initiation phase

Every project life cycle starts with the same question: Why are we doing this project in the first place?

This phase of the project management life cycle is called project initiation. It helps determine the vision, goals, and scope of the project. This is where you set up the roadmap for success and decide whether it’s feasible. 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 aproject charter is delivered outlining your plan, you’re all set! Now, you just need to wait for their answer. 

Project objectives during the initiation phase

  • Feasibility study: What problem must the client solve, and can you fix it?

  • Identify project scope: Outline the project's goals, milestones, and budget.

  • Establish the success criteria: Does your agency have the bandwidth to take on the project?

  • Identify the project stakeholders: Who will be involved in the project? How does the project affect them? What are their needs and expectations?

  • Prepare and deliver a project charter: Outline the project timeline, budget, and deliverables to your client for review.

  • Gain stakeholder approval: Get the client's sign-off to move forward.

Once the project has been given the green light, move on to Phase 2 of the project life cycle — planning. 

2. Project planning phase

The planning phase is where your team goes from "How do we solve this problem?" to "Here's how we're going to solve this problem."

This is where ideas, deadlines, milestones, and expectations are put onto paper. It's also where the project schedule is put into place.

Before sitting your team down to start brainstorming about the project timeline, 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 must 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. You'll also need to consider the project's budget and timeline to ensure the client gets what they want within their specified time frame and budget.

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.

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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.

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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. 

Project objectives during the planning phase

  • Complete a detailed project plan: Clearly outline deliverables, dependencies, milestones, and deadlines. Devise a work breakdown structure to break tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.

  • Allocate tasks: Assign tasks to team members based on each person’s skills and availability. Ensure everyone understands their roles, responsibilities, and expectations and they have access to the resources they need.

  • Create a financial plan: Map out the project’s budget and add in any contingencies for unexpected expenses — detail allocations for every cost associated with the project.

  • Establish timelines & expectations: Outline the project timeline, communication protocols, and rules of engagement. Set your quality targets, review points, and success criteria.

  • Devise a risk mitigation plan: Identify potential risks and create mitigation plans. Detail how to handle scope creep, unexpected delays, and other disruptions.

Now that your team is up to speed and your plan is in place, it's time to begin the project work.

3. Project execution phase

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The execution phase is where the rubber meets the road. This is where your team puts in the work to bring ideas and plans to fruition. 

You've already decided who is responsible for what tasks and when they need to be done, so it's time to get rolling. This is where the project manager keeps a close eye on progress, reviews team members' work, and ensures everyone stays on track.

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 the team hits milestones 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, you can automate most of this process with the right tools. 

Project reporting solutions like Teamwork.com 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.

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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.

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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.

Project objectives during the execution phase

  • Monitor progress: How is your team progressing against the project plan? Has your team completed all of their tasks on time and hit the planned milestones?

  • Provide feedback & support: Give consistent updates, recognize a job well done, and provide timely feedback. Encourage, support, and motivate your team to keep them engaged.

  • Manage risks & bottlenecks: Review the project plan, task list, and timeline regularly to spot any risks or bottlenecks. Is anything holding up progress? Are there any tasks that need to be reassigned or scheduled differently? Refer to your risk mitigation plan to address any issues quickly.

  • Communicate progress: Hold regular meetings with your team and other stakeholders. Give updates on project progress, answer questions, and address any potential issues.

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. 

4. Project control phase

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Progress is fantastic, but not without the budget, deliverables, and client expectations aligning every step of the way. In other words, you need to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks and that you stay on track with your original targets. To ensure this happens, 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 rightproject 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.com’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.com 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 project team spends 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. 

Project objectives during the control phase

  • Review progress: Track project progress, resource utilization, and task completion rates. Is your team’s productivity meeting what you originally forecasted? Did any tasks slip through the cracks? 

  • Analyze budget: Review your budget and ensure the project spend aligns with your initial predictions. Is the project staying on budget? Are there areas where you can cut costs?

  • Client communication and change management: Keep your client informed 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). Address any issues they have and get their feedback.

  • Risk management: Are you monitoring possible risks to your project’s health and dealing with them so the work will still get delivered on time? This is critical to preventing costly delays and maintaining client relationships.

When all the work for the project has been completed, it is time to deliver it to the client and wrap everything up.

5. Project closure phase

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Don’t be fooled by the name.

The final stage of a project life cycle — the project closure phase — 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 as per the initial statement of 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. 

Project objectives during the closure phase

  • Project performance analysis: An overview of the project management process, including how the project was managed, whether it met the cost and benefits, and any unforeseen issues that arose during the execution. How did the team perform? Did everyone meet their expectations, and was the communication plan effective?

  • Document project closure: Assess and outline all the tasks you need to do before the official project delivery. Sign off contracts, close open supplier agreements, and allocate unused budget for future projects.

  • Post-implementation review: Every project is a learning process. Document successes, failures, and suggestions for future projects. 

Mastering the project life cycle makes your pipeline more efficient

The multi-step process of a project life cycle can be overwhelming if you don't have a project management plan in place. You'll need to plan everything from writing project charters to tracking progress and preventing scope creep to ensure a successful project.

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. 

With Teamwork.com, it’s easy to track every phase of your project from start to finish. Try it free for 30 days!

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