The project management life cycle: 4 essential stages

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Every project has a life cycle: At minimum, a project has a start and an end. Those points and everything in between form the life cycle of a project.

The real question is whether a business will plan that life cycle strategically through project management — or let the life cycle happen to them instead. If you ask us, we’ll tell you the first option is the way to go. Letting the project run the team rarely ends well, while proactive project planning frequently leads to success.

The project management life cycle contains four life cycle stages that are nearly universal in every industry and for projects of any size and scope. No matter which project management methodology you use, you’ll find some version of these four phases embedded somewhere within the methodology:

  • Initiating phase

  • Planning phase

  • Execution phase

  • Closure phase

Let’s jump right in and discuss the project initiation phase.

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1) Initiating phase

The initiating phase of a project is a pre-planning period where stakeholders and project managers identify what problem needs to be solved (or which opportunity needs to be capitalized on), turning that core idea into a goal. It’s a period of defining the project in broad, rough terms, seeking to build clarity on what the project seeks to achieve — and why the project is worth doing.

The project initiation phase stays pretty high level, and there can be a great temptation or pressure to skip it and jump straight into project planning. But this is part of what makes project management so important: To create the greatest chance for success, someone needs to think about the pre-planning parts of a project. 

Essential steps during the initiating phase

The steps involved in the initiating phase can vary depending on the scope and focus (and even industry) of the project, but most initiating phases share at least these steps:

  • Conduct a feasibility study (more common with larger projects).

  • Define goals for the project.

  • Establish an initial project scope.

  • Make a business case.

  • Draft a project charter.

  • Develop a list of stakeholders.

  • Develop a draft statement of work.

If you’re new to the project management field or could use a refresher (or an entire crash course) on some of these terms, check out our extensive project management guide.

Key tools for this phase

  • Project charter (and an appropriate template)

  • Feasibility study (if needed)

  • RACI chart: An acronym for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed, RACI charts map out who carries what level of responsibility on every task, milestone, or key decision within a project.

Quick note: Depending on where you get your information, you may see that RACI charts are often implemented mid-project (and on troubled projects specifically). This is true — many times, a project gets into trouble because team members don’t agree on roles and responsibilities. This is why we recommend using a RACI chart early on in the life cycle, so that savvy project managers can sidestep the dysfunctions experienced on many projects.

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2) Planning phase

If the initiation phase was mainly about why the project is worth doing, the planning phase of the project management life cycle is the nuts and bolts of how the team will accomplish the project. You already know the broad strokes of what needs to be done, and this phase is where you break down large objectives and milestones into smaller tasks.

In this phase, you’ll build out timelines and milestones for a project along with a detailed schedule of how various resources will contribute to those milestones. In other words, a project schedule.

You may also evaluate potential risks, build your team, set budgets, and source the materials necessary for completing the project. These are all classic project management elements, though how exactly they take shape on your teams and projects can vary based on seniority or authority level and how formalized your project management processes are.

Essential steps during the planning phase

Most project planning phases include these steps:

  • Build a project plan, including a detailed project timeline.

  • Complete workflow diagrams (such as swimlanes).

  • Build a project schedule.

  • Gather resources (human) and materials (procurement).

  • Catalog project risks and proposed solutions.

  • Hold the project kickoff meeting.

Key tools for this phase

  • Risk management software: For high-value projects, a standalone predictive tool can analyze metrics and estimate risk.

  • Appropriate project planning software: Once you reach this stage, keeping track of a large project manually or in a spreadsheet becomes overwhelming. Teamwork offers better project planning solutions.

  • Gantt charts: These are powerful timeline-based charts that map out work over time, revealing overlap and resource allocation (check out Teamwork’s free Gantt chart maker).

  • Work breakdown structure: For some projects and methodologies.

  • Swimlane charts: For workflow diagrams.

Before we move on to the project execution phase, let’s dive further into project planning software. Across industries, fewer than 25% of businesses use any kind of project management software. This is in spite of proof that mature processes drastically improve outcomes.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) finds that businesses with mature project management capabilities see drastically more successful projects that meet goals, come in on time, and stay within budget — over 20% more often in each of those categories than low-maturity organizations.

What does this mean for your business? Simple: Switching to capable project management software and maturing your processes can put you far ahead of the competition! 

See Teamwork’s project planning capabilities.

3) Execution phase

The execution phase is the “what” of the project — the actual day-to-day work that project team members do to complete the project. It can look like writing, coding, editing, discussing, creating, problem-solving, assembling, etc.

During this phase the project manager shifts gears from the central planner to the traffic cop. Where before you were designing a beautiful blueprint for your project, now you’re keeping the various builders, electricians, architects, painters, and all the other team members on task and on track to complete their responsibilities in the right time frame.

Project managers oversee every element of project execution, including building and implementing the schedule, making adjustments where necessary, problem-solving when team members can’t find agreeable solutions, and communicating up and down the chain about the project’s progress.

Essential steps during the execution phase

During the execution phase, project managers perform tasks like these:

  • Track project progress using project management tools and software, Gantt charts, burndown charts, and other tools.

  • Deal with roadblocks and bottlenecks as they occur.

  • Motivate team members to stay on task and work efficiently.

  • Document and respond to project risks.

  • Inform stakeholders of project status and progress.

  • Track budget compliance.

Key tools for this phase

  • Project or task planning software: Even more than in the planning phase, you need a central location for planning, organizing, and assigning tasks. See how Teamwork performs in the crucial area of task planning software.

  • Appropriate communications tools: Provide clear lines of communication with stakeholders.

  • Burnup and burndown charts: In Agile or scrumworkflows, these charts measure work remaining within a sprint and cumulative work completed.

  • Change requests: Goals can change mid-project as can scope, but these changes must be documented and requested. Create a template and a process for submitting and tracking change requests.

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4) Closure phase

Usually the shortest and simplest phase, project closure includes the various wind-down activities that occur at the end of the project. Organizations that want to improve processes over time from project to project should invest in the closure phase — it’s where teams, project managers, and businesses stand the greatest chance of learning how to improve.

Usually, the project manager is responsible for handing off project deliverables to the next owner (internal or external customer). If project-specific contractors contributed to the project, now is the time to wrap up those contracts and deal with the resulting paperwork.

You’ll also want to schedule one or more meetings during the closing phase. In addition to a celebratory meeting to commemorate a successful completion, project teams usually conduct postmortem or reflection meetings to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and what could improve for next time. These meetings provide valuable insights for future projects and can surface mitigation strategies for problems that occurred.

Essential steps during the closure phase

The type and scope of project you manage will influence what your project closure looks like. These are some general steps applicable to most types of projects.

  • Deliver the project to the customer or new owner.

  • Communicate project completion to stakeholders.

  • Analyze the successes, challenges, and failures within a project and document for future growth and continuous improvement (postmortem).

  • Create post-project documents such as an impact report, postmortem document, or project closeout report.

  • Celebrate success!

Key tools for this phase

  • System for saving project management documents: You may be asked to pull data in the future, or you may want to use previous projects as a template for upcoming ones.

  • Impact report: A report aimed at project stakeholders that provides statistics and KPIs on the project’s impact.

  • Postmortem: For cyclical or recurring projects, this report and/or meeting documents project successes, challenges, and failures, with an eye toward process improvement on the next iteration.

Project management made simple by Teamwork

Projects can be complex endeavors, but a skilled project manager can bring order to chaotic processes and turn an unclear or disorganized project into a smooth one.

The right project management software remains consistently valuable through the entire project management life cycle, giving you a centralized base of operations where all your project data lives.

Teamwork is project management software built for teams of all sizes. It works especially well for creative teams and those who deal with client work. The Teamwork platform is powerful and robust, yet the interface is so easy to learn that many customers praise the platform’s shallow learning curve.

Teamwork can simplify your project management efforts. Try it for yourself today —  sign up for free.

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