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Project Management Life Cycle: The Complete Guide

By 27/12/2016Features, General
project management life cycle

Confused about what the project management life cycle is all about? In this complete guide to the project management life cycle, we’ll give the lowdown with handy links to more information on managing the different parts of the process. Project Management Life cycle is really just a highfalutin way of describing the life of a project. It’s how projects happen; how a project is taken from brief through to delivery. Every project has a start and end; it’s born, matures and then ‘dies’ when the project life is complete.

The PMI (Project Management Institute) took what’s really common sense and called it the project management life cycle. It’s the de facto standard for project delivery which you can find in their fascinating  589 paged 5th edition Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). That’s a really long, and to be honest, a deathly boring read – so here’s a condensed version of the project management life cycle which contains all the important takeaways.

The project management life cycle describes the high-level process of delivering a project and the steps you take to make things happen. And while the project management life cycle might not sound that interesting,  it is important because the project management life cycle is what we as project managers lead and facilitate.

The crux of any project life is the same: defining a project’s objectives and then making stuff happen to meet those objectives. Different project managers or agencies may use slightly different terms to describe the project management life cycle phases, but fundamentally, they’re pretty much the same.

A project life always has to start somewhere, and the problem that needs fixing needs to be defined (initiating). A solution to fixing that problem and an approach to doing it then has to be created (planning). That plan has to then be put into action (executing) while being tracked to make sure it does what it’s supposed to (monitoring and controlling). The project is then deployed, performance is evaluated and the project is then over (closing). That’s the essence of the project management life cycle.

Project Management Life cycle phases

The project management life cycle phases

The PMI have defined these five process groups which come together to form the project management life cycle.

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring & Controlling
  5. Closing

In this article, we’re going to look in detail at what these project management life cycle phases consist of, the key project management steps, and how they can help deliver a successful, well-managed project.

The project management life cycle

1. Initiating: Defining what needs to be done

Initiating, the first phase of the project management life cycle, is all about kicking off a project, with your team and with the client and getting their commitment to start the project. You bring together all of the available information together in a systematic manner to define the project’s scope, cost and resources. The goal of the initiation phase is to take a loose brief of a project and define it in terms of what it needs to do and achieve in order to be successful.

You bring together all of the available information together in a systematic manner to define the project’s scope, cost and resources. The goal of the project initiation phase is to take a project and define it in terms of what it needs to do and achieve in order to be successful.

That usually necessitates identifying the project stakeholders and making sure they all share the same perception of what the project is and agree on the business case – the problem that the project is trying to solve. It’s during project initiation phase too that you decide whether it is feasible to deliver the business case. As a project manager, you will need to conduct adequate research to determine the goals of the project, and then propose a solution to achieve them. Once approved, you move on to the next phase.

Key project management steps for initiating a project:

  • Make a Project Charter – What is the vision, objective, and goals of this project?
  • Identify the High-level Scope and Deliverables – What is the product or service that needs to be provided?
  • Conduct a Feasibility Study – What is the primary problem and its possible solutions?
  • Ballpark the high-level Cost and create a Business Case – What are the costs and benefits of the solution?
  • Identify Stakeholders – Who are the people this project affects, how, and what are their needs?

Typically for Prince2 or PMI methodologies, these are summed up in a Project Initiation Document (PID) but in an agency, the information is usually captured in an initial statement of work (SoW) which covers the initiation phase only.

2. Planning phase: Defining how to do, what needs to be done

After approval to proceed from initiation, you can begin project planning. This is arguably the most critical phase in the project management life cycle. Get it wrong, and you’ll scupper your chances of delivering the project on time and budget. Planning is where you define all the work to be done and create the roadmap that you follow for the remainder of the project to get you there. It’s during planning phase that you figure out how you’re going to perform the project and answer the questions – what exactly are we going to do, how are we going to do it, when are we going to do it, and how will we know when we’re done?

At this point in the project life cycle, you take the goals of the and expand on those goals to decide how to attain them. It’s worth keeping evaluating those goals with three criteria: what’s Possible, Passionate, and Pervasive? 

  • Possible – strive for something that is achievable. Ask yourself, does this solution match the budget? Does my team have the ability to do this? Do we have enough time? Setting unrealistic goals is setting yourself up for failure.
  • Passionate – Projects are tough, so you want a team that is emotionally engaged in the project. Ask yourself, Is this a project that your team can be passionate about? Is it something that can bring them together to collaborate to achieve the same goal? Even though it might be their job to do what you tell them to do, no one is going to invest into something they don’t think is worthwhile
  • Pervasive – Does this have the potential to become a ground-breaking success? Is this something that is a complete solution to the problem that was given to you or is it really just a band-aid temporary or partial solution? Does it have the potential to be improved on, developed and to become a permanent way of working?

I like this ‘3 P’s Goals Lens’ but you might also be familiar with the principle of setting CLEAR goals – this is a helpful framework to ensure goals are Collaborative, Limited, Appreciable, and Refinable. Read more about them, and their benefits over SMART goals, here.

All of the planning feeds into a project plan and typically a statement of work that outlines the activities, tasks, dependencies, and time frames as well as costs – the three fundamental components of the planning process. In addition, it’s prudent to develop a plan for resources, quality, risk, acceptance criteria, communication, and procurement.

Key project management steps for planning a project:

3. Executing: Making a project happen

This is the part of the project management life cycle where you finally get to execute on your awesome project plan – it’s where planning gets turned into action. You bring your resources onboard, brief them, set the ground rules, and introduce them to one another. After that, everyone jumps in to perform the work identified in the plan. Easy peasy.

As the project manager, you shift from talking about a project and creating documentation to get the green light to proceed with the project execution  – to leading the team and managing them toward delivery. You’ll spend your time in briefings, meetings, and reviews to lead the team, and keep the project on track.

Key project management steps for executing a project:

4. Monitoring & Controlling: Keeping a project on track

This is where it can get tough. In parallel with the project execution, as a project manager, you report performance, and monitor and control the project. That means monitoring the project life to ensure the project is going according to plan, and if it isn’t, controlling it by working out solutions to get it back on track.

First, that means ensuring you capture the data (usually derived from timesheets and tasks completed) to track progress effectively against the original plan. Secondly, it means taking the data and comparing the task completion, budget spend and timeline allocated in the original plan. By comparing the plan against actuals you can establish whether or not you’re hitting the objectives for timeline, cost, quality and success metrics.

And when you realize that things aren’t quite going to plan (they rarely do) it’s figuring out the options for pivoting the project so that it still delivers something the client is happy with while meeting the budget, timeline and quality constraints. Pro-tip: usually that means reducing scope!

Key project management steps for monitoring and controlling a project:

  • Cost & Time Management – Review timesheets and expenses to record, control and track against the project’s budget, timeline and tasks
  • Quality Management – Reviewing deliverables and ensuring they meet the defined acceptance criteria
  • Risk Management – Monitor, control, manage and mitigate potential risks and issues
  • Acceptance Management – Conduct user acceptance testing and create a reviewing system, ensuring that all deliverables meet the needs of the client
  • Change Management – When the project doesn’t go to plan, managing the process of acceptable changes with the client to ensure they’re happy with necessary changes

5. Closure: Ending a project

In this final phase of the project life cycle, your project is essentially over and your job as project manager on the project comes to a close. But the project’s not over yet – check out our article on How to manage a project when it’s over. At this point, before everyone forgets, it’s useful to hold a meeting post project review or post-mortem to discuss the strengths and weaknesses or the project and team, what went wrong and what didn’t go so well, and how to improve in the future. It’s a great opportunity to recognize and acknowledge valuable team members and celebrate the successes.

Key project management steps for closing a project:

  • Project Performance Analysis – This is an overall look at how well the project was managed, and whether the initial estimates of costs and benefits were accurate. Were there unforeseen risks? What issues arose and how well were they dealt with? Has the project plan been changed, and how?
  • Team Analysis – Did everyone do what they were assigned to do? Were they passionate and motivated enough? Did they stay thorough and accountable? Was the communication within the team healthy and constructive?
  • Project Closure – Document the tasks needed to bring the project life to an official end. This includes closing supplier agreements, signing off contracts and handing in all the necessary project documentation.
  • Post-Implementation Review – Write down a formal analysis of successes and failure, and resulting lessons learned and suggestions for the future. At the end of every successful project, you will learn that room for improvement always remains.

Simple, right?

Ben Aston

About Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and VP of Client Services at FCV, a full service digital agency in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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