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The project life cycle describes the stages a project goes through as it progresses from start to finish. A well-defined life cycle brings order and structure to the project. This article will demystify the project management life cycle and help you run better projects.
Few things in project management are more hotly debated than this:
The project life cycle.
Pop into any PM forum and you’ll see a ton of questions about it. Does it have four stages or five? Are the stages merely functional? Or do they demand different approaches as well?
That projects should be broken down into separate stages is accepted wisdom.
How this breakdown should take place, and what should be done in each stage is still up for questioning.
I’ll help demystify the project management life cycle in this post. I’ll review what PMI says, the latest literature, and cover tips, tactics, and strategies from practicing PMs to make some sense of the PM cycle.
Before we dig deeper, let’s quickly review the project life cycle.
As I noted in an earlier guide on project management, the entire PM process can be broken down into five distinct stages.
Some PMs remove the ‘Control’ stage and fold it within the ‘Execution’ stage. The PMBOK itself a distinct Control stage which interacts with Planning, though you are free to include it within Execution to simplify matters.
This division into five stages is easy enough to understand. But there are a lot of nuances that can complicate matters.
I’ll look at these issues in detail below.
Going by the above definition, you might think that each stage is a distinct, compartmentalized entity. That once a stage gets over, the next one starts with no interaction with the earlier stage.
That’s not true of course. Project stages don’t exist in isolation. In actual projects, there is no hard line dividing stages. Activities, resources, and even objectives often bleed over from stage to stage.
For instance, the ‘Control’ phase is concurrent with the ‘Execution’ phase. Some activities from the ‘Initiation’ phase - such as defining the scope - fold well into the ‘Execution’ phase. And things that happen during execution alter the original plans.
The five distinct stages look a lot more like this in practice:
So what’s the real-world impact of project stages interacting with one another?
Let’s look at a few answers:
It’s important to think of these stages as dynamic categories. What happens in one stage impacts the other.
As you would know, activity and resource requirements aren’t really uniform across the five stages of the project life cycle.
Typically, there is little activity at the start of the project. It peaks as you move from initiation to execution before winding down at project closure.
The length of each stage isn’t uniform either. Initiation might take a few days, planning a few weeks, and execution several months.
If the requirements of each stage keep changing, shouldn’t your management approach change with the stage as well?
The basis of this argument is that different factors contribute to the success of each stage. You need clarity of vision in the planning phase, but the ability to marshal resources and keep the team motivated becomes a priority during execution.
In one survey, project managers ranked the success factors in each stage as follows:
This gives you an idea of what to prioritize in each stage.
Thus, your management style should change based on the stage the project is in.
Focus on the following in each stage to maximize project success:
Effectively, you’ll need to modify your management approach along with the project’s requirements. You’ll have to be empathetic and pragmatic during initiation and planning. But come execution time, you’ll have to forceful and disciplined.
Do this and you’ll see better results at each stage of the project life cycle.
The project life cycle, as it was originally formulated, was meant for projects where progress was linear and requirements were static. This is why it focuses so much on upfront planning. You’re expected to figure out what to do before you actually start executing.
Technical projects don’t work that way. Requirements, scope, and even objectives can change on the fly. If you use the Agile methodology, you can’t rely too heavily on strict plans.
To solve this problem, consider using the quality control model.
The traditional project life cycle is ideal for output that can be scaled, such as a factory producing widgets.
Scaling output is often a trivial matter in technical projects. If you can make one copy of a piece of software, you can also make a thousand easily.
Of bigger concern is the quality of the output. If the software is buggy, it will be reflected in every copy as well.
The quality-oriented model addresses this by distilling the project’s concepts into simpler, more achievable output. Once created, you expand the concept again to add new features and repeat the process.
For example, if you’re creating an app like Twitter, you would first create a public messaging system. Then you would expand the concept to add a login system, retweets, comment threads, etc.
Here’s an illustration to help you out:
This model divides the life cycle into three phases:
By breaking down complex ideas into simpler parts, you ensure that the output is actually functional. If a new addition breaks down the product, you can remove it easily.
One of the shortcomings of the project life cycle model is that it is too project-focused. It places the project in isolation and not as part of a broader business initiative.
This often creates a sense of “project myopia”. Project managers get an idea of what is right for the project’s success, but miss what they should do to meet the client’s needs.
Perhaps the project planning took too long and the client’s goals are now completely different. Or maybe there is new management at the client’s company that doesn’t support the original objectives.
The traditional project life cycle model wouldn’t tell you these things.
To solve this problem, you have to place the project in context. You have to see it in light of its broader business and organizational environment.
One approach is to use life cycle project management (LCPM).
LCPM fixes the shortcomings in traditional life cycles by involving the the following in project decision-making:
This creates a more integrated approach to project management. While you’ll still break the project into its five stages, you’ll constantly analyze it in terms of its financial, customers, and due diligence objectives.
For example, during the planning phase, you might analyze each planned deliverable in terms of its cost/worth ratio. Deliverables that don’t meet a baseline would be rejected. Those with the most favorable ratio would get priority during execution.
This way, you’ll not only run projects smoothly, but also ensure that they meet the client’s changing business needs.
Check out this article for further reading on life cycle project management.
The traditional project life cycle works great when resources are static and scalable (as in a construction project). You can create strict plans for these resources and switch right to the execution phase.
But what if you're dealing with resources that are neither scalable nor fungible - as in a creative project? If a designer makes one design in 1 hour, you can't extrapolate that to assume he'll make 10 designs in 10 hours.
The strict planning requirements in the standard life cycle make it inadequate for such projects.
In such cases, you can switch to the Professional Services Life Cycle.
This life cycle is designed for projects that involve complex human resources (such as designers, developers, etc.). For such projects to succeed, the involved resources have to understand the client's goals, agree on deliverables, and plan their work in a way to maximize creative output.
Consequently, the stages of the Professional Services Life Cycle are far more fluid. There is constant interaction between stages and you're encouraged to go back and forth until the client and your resources are in sync.
This model has five stages:
If you’re running a creative agency, you stand to benefit a lot from adopting this life cycle. You’ll get better insight into your project’s operations and make sure that you only take on projects with a positive ROI.
Despite its dominance in project management literature, the project life cycle is poorly understood, and even more poorly implemented. While it gives much-needed structure to your projects, it is also unsuitable when applied as-is, especially in creative or technical projects.
The approaches I outlined above should help demystify the project life cycle. Whether you’re running a technical project or handling a creative team, use these approaches to maximize your project success.
For even more strategies, tactics, and tips on running successful projects, check out our guide to creative project management below:
How do you handle the project life cycle in your organization? Share it with us in the comments below!
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