What you should know about project management life cycle

In today’s fast-moving business environment, most business initiatives or changes are project-based. Even if you don’t have the “Project Manager” title, you probably still manage projects. Everyone should have a basic understanding of baseline project management theories to help establish best practices for structure, planning and monitoring.  

Arguably the most foundational of such theories is the project life cycle, a start-to-finish blueprint for the average project management process. Here are six things you’ll need to know to start implementing in your day-to-day.  

1. How many variations of the project life cycle are there? 

There are several prominent frameworks to choose from, with each offering a different set of guidelines and use cases. The most commonly accepted, however, is that of the Project Management Institute (PMI), which offers both a generic project life cycle and more specific models that stretch across a variety of project styles.  

The generic project life cycle is based on four encompassing phases that cover the entirety of the average project’s existence: 

  • The project start
  • Preparing and planning
  • Doing the work
  • The project’s end

From there, PMI evolves its generic model into more specific implementation styles. Each of those styles has a fundamentally different approach to the importance and interaction of the generic life cycle’s individual components:  

  • The predictive life cycle approach, which is rigid and sequential (waterfall projects) 
  • The adaptive life cycle approach, which can be segmented down into the following: 
    • Iterative: Projects are broken down into smaller, progressively iterated phases 
    • Incremental: Similar to iterative, but phases are more sequential and timebound 
    • Adaptive: Agile-style projects, where 2-4 week “sprints” advance and guide the work 
    • Hybrid: Mixing together predictive and adaptive approaches to fit a project’s needs 

A key semantics point to consider is the term “project life cycle” versus a project’s phases. The overarching project life cycle model is designed to cover the start-to-finish blueprint that every kind of project must progress through. That life cycle is made up of phases, which will vary in length and intensity based on an individual project’s needs.  

2. What are the different phases of the overarching project life cycle? 

Again, we’ll turn to the most widely-accepted model – the five-phase framework laid out in PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge, all designed to operate within its various life cycle blueprints: 

  • Initiation: Reaching an alignment on the project’s purpose and feasibility, based on its business case, stakeholders and needs 
  • Planning: Developing the project plan and scope, including the chosen project management process, road map, schedule and end objectives 
  • Execution: Performance of tasks include resource allocation, regular status meetings and actual product development by key teams 
  • Monitoring and controlling: Oversight of work performed – through documents like a burndown chart – and measurement against key objectives 
  • Closure: Evaluating the performance of the project and its teams, with the intent of compiling key lessons to optimise future projects 

Like PMI’s overarching generic project life cycle model, these phases are designed to apply to almost every kind of project in some way – it’s uncommon to find a project that doesn’t have to progress through each of these unique but interlacing periods. What does vary, however, is how they manifest across the project management process spectrum.  

3. Are the five project phases different for an agile versus a waterfall project management process? 

Broadly, they are roughly the same – the difference is in how much they overlap, the time spent per phase and the intent of each phase. In waterfall methodology, for example, a project’s schedule and intent are highly rigid, placing greater importance on the thoroughness and accuracy of its Planning phase. In agile projects, the Execution phase is far more fluid, adapting in response to lessons and decisions compiled in each sprint.

4. Are these project phases completely sequential? 

Rarely, and that’s by design – by nature, the Monitoring and controlling phase must overlap with the Execution phase.  

But on a broader level, larger projects are almost guaranteed to need a certain degree of overlap amongst their phases. Even the Initiation and Closure phases can bleed into their neighbouring segments – a certain degree of planning may be needed to flesh out a project’s feasibility, for example, or some part of a project may require managed closure before others.  

In other words, moderately blurred lines are not necessarily a flaw in your process – indeed, they are often needed.  

5. Are both the project life cycles and their phases applicable to all industries? 

To a certain degree, yes – but there are areas where some are more applicable than others. 

A predictive life cycle, on one hand, is best suited for projects that must run in a rigid sequence. Road lanes can’t be painted, for example, until the road is paved. Adaptive life cycles, on the other hand, are designed for projects that demand a high degree of flexibility or lack key data at their inception. Such models have become highly popular in fast-moving fields like software or creative development. 

As for the five phases, certain elements will be highlighted based on the product being developed. Companies that must continually mass-produce the same or similar objects may have reduced Planning needs, though such variations are more project-specific than industry-specific.  

6. What events signify my project is moving from one project life cycle stage to the next? 

These are largely up to the project manager and their key project stakeholders. While many projects share key triggers – an approved project charter usually means the Initiation phase has ended, for example – each project should have unique and thought-out objectives for each phase. Once those objectives have been met, it’s time for the next phase to begin. 

Use good judgement

The project life cycle and its component phases are certainly foundational to an effective project management process. But they are also just broad-based guides, meant to provide a general architecture for approaching a new project – not one-size-fits-all requirements.  

Use good judgement when applying such theorems to your day-to-day project management. With the right life cycle approach and proper planning, you’ll be starting your project off on the right foot.  

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