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The Fundamentals of the Project Management Life Cycle

The Fundamentals of the Project Management Life Cycle

9 minutes

July 1, 2022

Guide to the Project Management Life Cycle

To the uninitiated, looking into a professional kitchen on a busy Saturday night, it might appear frantic and unstructured.

But, those in the know understand that there’s a perfect system of order, designated responsibilities, and collaboration in play all focused on one goal, a delicious plate of food.

The same is true of projects.

They, too, can seem messy and complex. But, for successful projects, there is a well-worn system in place, pulling the strings to help deliver a successful outcome. That system is known as the project management life cycle.

In this article, we’ll look at the project management life cycle, its five distinct phases, and how software can improve your effectiveness at every stage.

What Is the Project Management Life Cycle?

The project management life cycle is a series of stages that each project should go through, from initiation to closing.

Various project activities should be completed during each life cycle phase, with specific documents created to help keep the project on track.

What Are the Benefits?

Following a structured project life cycle provides several benefits:

The four benefits of using the project life cycle
  • Lowers project risk: Following a standard approach to managing projects ensures that nothing gets missed that could impact success. It also helps clarify roles and responsibilities, so there isn’t duplication of effort.
  • Aligns with common methodologies: The project life cycle is used no matter which methodology you choose. It’s a tried and tested approach that ensures the correct actions are planned, executed, and documented throughout.
  • Improves the chance of delivering results: Projects are commonly measured against three core metrics known as the iron triangle. The iron triangle refers to the three key components of every project — scope, cost, and time. As you work through each stage of the life cycle, completing certain activities increases the likelihood of your project being on time and within scope and budget. For example, effective scheduling and resource planning improve the chance of you having the right people available when tasks need to be completed, keeping you on track to meet the project deadline.
  • Provides a shared language: Because the life cycle model is commonly used across all projects, it’s easily recognizable to the project team and business stakeholders. It offers a shared language and makes recognizing what needs to be done more straightforward and efficient.

The 5 Phases of the Project Life Cycle

According to the PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge, every project goes through five distinct life cycle stages.

5 stages of the project management life cycle

These stages are independent of the type of methodology you’ve chosen for your project — it’s as relevant for Agile projects as for Waterfall ones.

The main difference between the two methodologies is that Waterfall projects tend to work sequentially through the life cycle stages.

Agile projects will go through numerous iterations of the middle three phases as the main project deliverables are continually redefined to bring them closer to the end vision.

1. Initiation

During the initiation phase, business stakeholders need to decide on the overall project goal and the broad scope.

A business case should be created that identifies the project’s value and details what project success looks like in the form of key metrics. A high-level budget and schedule for the project will need to be agreed upon.

The business will need to decide whether the project will be led and resourced internally or externally.

This depends on the ability of company employees to deliver the project effectively, which will be based on their level of skill and experience with similar projects. A core project team can then be established.

The project team should identify stakeholders who are likely to be interested in the project and may influence its outcome.

All of this information should be documented in the project charter or Project Initiation Document (PID). At this point, the project team seeks official approval from governance to kick off the project.

2. Planning

During the project planning phase, the project team needs to use the high-level project scope agreed on during initiation and break it down into a more detailed scope statement.

The scope statement should contain information about the project’s objectives, deliverables, and key milestones.

The team will also need to decide which methodology they’ll work toward — Waterfall, Agile, or a hybrid model. Deciding which methodology to use is dependent on several variables, most notably how clearly the scope is defined during the planning phase.

The Waterfall methodology requires the scope to be clearly defined from the start of the project, whereas Agile allows for the detailed scope to emerge during project delivery.

To better understand the work that needs to be done, the project deliverables should be transformed into a work breakdown structure (WBS).

A WBS breaks down larger deliverables into smaller tasks. This is essential for estimating the time and budget required to complete the project and ensure effective task scheduling.

For example, here’s what a work breakdown structure might look like for a house build:

Work breakdown structure example showing tasks to build a house

A timeline should be created at the planning stage that details the project schedule and the order for tasks to be completed. Ordering the tasks appropriately is vital as some tasks may be dependent on others.

Marketing project timeline shown in SmartSuite timeline view

A Gantt chart is a popular tool used throughout the project life cycle to show tasks, their durations, their relationships, and how work progresses.

But it doesn’t have to be a Gantt chart. Any task management tool that helps you better understand the work that needs to be done will be fine.

The project schedule will inform resource planning and any required recruitment. It helps to identify which tasks may need specialist resources for their completion and when that resource will be required in the project.

During the initiation phase, the project team identifies key project stakeholders likely to be interested or influential in the project’s success.

A communication plan should be prepared in the planning phase that details how these stakeholders will be engaged. The communication plan should include which groups will be engaged, how frequently, and which communication channels will be used.

Finally, a risk management plan should be identified when detailing potential risks and how they will be captured and managed.

3. Execution

The project execution phase is where the rubber hits the road. The project manager will need to assemble their final team and begin to assign tasks based on capacity and capability. This is where the project plan swings into action, and work starts to happen.

The project manager will need to set up tracking systems and decide how to ensure everyone on the team has visibility of project progress.

They will likely schedule status update meetings so the team can report on how things are going, ask questions, and flag any areas where they need support. For Agile teams using the Scrum framework, this will take the form of a daily stand-up meeting.

Dashboard showing key project execution information

As well as making sure communication is happening effectively within the team, the project manager will need to make sure other stakeholders are being appropriately engaged.

Business stakeholders can have a significant impact on project success, especially when it comes to business integration. Plus, a lot can be learned about what has made projects successful (or otherwise) in the past.

4. Monitoring and Controlling

In the monitoring and controlling phase, the project manager needs to be tracking key metrics.

These include whether task completion is on track against what was scheduled, what the actual budget spend is like vs. the forecast, and keeping an eye out for scope creep.

Progress against these project performance indicators should be regularly shared with the team and key stakeholders according to the planned reporting schedule.

Data gathered should be used to make adjustments to keep the project on track or trigger specific actions, such as risk mitigation plans.

During this phase, the team will also be checking to ensure that any quality standards are met. For Agile projects that are cycling through the middle phases of the life cycle, information gathered will be used to inform the next iteration.

5. Closing

The closure phase of the project life cycle is a time for consolidation and reflection.

The project manager should prepare final reports detailing the project’s outcome and identifying any lessons learned that can be carried forward.

They should also support any processes, training, or knowledge-sharing that’s required to hand over any remaining work to implementation or business teams.

During project closure, project documents will need to be appropriately labeled, organized, and stored. The project team will also need to be disbanded.

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate the work of everyone involved in the project’s success.

Using Software to Support the Project Management Life Cycle

Project management software can be a significant ally in the effective running of any project.

The best software makes organizing, managing, and reporting on your project simple. It should support effective team communication and collaboration.

Let’s look at a few reasons why project management software is so important.

1. Gaining Buy-In

Projects without business buy-in are doomed to fail. It’s crucial to engage stakeholders in your project plans, helping them clearly understand the value this project will deliver.

In larger organizations, they’ll also need to understand how the project fits within the wider portfolio, including any resource conflicts and how those will be managed.

Portfolio reporting showing several projects at different stages of review

Effective project management software should support building your project charter or business case and share them with stakeholders for input.

The more stakeholders are engaged from the very beginning of the project, the more invested they will be in its success.

Use SmartSuite to create and communicate your business case, capture requirements from key stakeholders, and obtain formal project approval from governance.

It’s simple to share documents and information. Just @mention people for their input and make annotations and updates in real-time.

2. Creating Clear, Well-Structured Plans

Most project management platforms have several tools and templates that make the project planning process easy.

Trying to generate a Gantt chart or timeline in a standard program like Excel can be hugely time-consuming and tricky to maintain.

In SmartSuite, we have a range of Project Management Templates to get you started.

A range of SmartSuite project management templates

There’s a project management schedule, risk register, and communication plan, so you’ll never have to develop anything from scratch unless you want to.

Need something customized? We provide all the building blocks you need to create the perfect solution for you and your team.

3. Enabling Effective Project Delivery

During project delivery, the whole team must be clear on what they need to be doing and when.

They’ll need to collaborate on tasks and effectively communicate progress, especially when other work is dependent on theirs.

SmartSuite’s Task Manager template makes it super simple to assign work and track the progress of individual tasks.

SmartSuite's task manager template showing work assigned to resources

Plus, we offer six different ways to view your project, including Kanban, Timeline, and Grid. This means your team can view progress in a way that works for them and clearly identify bottlenecks that need to be resolved.

And, with our in-platform collaboration tools, team communication is always in context, so you’re never left wondering what something means.

Project dashboard showing two conversations in comment boxes

Finally, our intuitive automations make it easy to automate routine administrative tasks so you can streamline your workflow and focus on delivering real value.

4. Providing Visibility on Progress

As a project manager or business stakeholder, you must be able to quickly and easily check a project’s status at any time.

Reporting tools enable you to generate progress reports that offer the information you need to make data-driven decisions about the next steps or course-correct as required.

SmartSuite offers full-featured reporting functionality. Engage your stakeholders with clear reporting dashboards that are simple to understand yet robust enough to provide everything you need to make effective decisions.

Engineering project dashboard with various metrics shown

5. Capturing Lessons Learned

When closing down the project, it's essential to record the lessons learned from the project — both good and bad.

This information grows the organization’s project management capabilities and ensures mistakes aren’t repeated. For Agile projects, this is considered so important it’s part of the 12 core principles.

In SmartSuite, it's simple to create the perfect record of lessons learned with our SmartDoc feature.

You can create and format tables to keep thoughts organized, add marked-up images to share improvement suggestions, and embed links to project documentation for future reference.

And because you have full activity history capability, it’s easy to review discussions, changes, and decisions to pull the most relevant lessons into a single document.

Use the Project Management Life Cycle to Bring Structure

Projects can be complicated. The project management life cycle brings a sense of order from their early beginning in the initiation phase through to closure.

Project management software can help execute the life cycle more effectively through increased transparency, clarity, and engagement.

Why not get started with SmartSuite’s simple project template today?

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