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The Project Life Cycle: Five Steps to Know by Heart

February 28, 2019

You know the cycle of the moon, and the cycles of your washer and dryer, and the cycle of emotions you go through when watching Grey’s Anatomy.

But do you know the steps involved in the project life cycle, a major tenant of project management

The project life cycle is the four, or five, phases project managers follow that take a project from inception to completion. It is the framework by which project managers are able to measure their progress. The five stages are ideation, planning, execution, control, and closure. 

Project managers go back and forth on whether the life cycle is made up of four steps, or five. Let’s skip the argument in this article, talk about all the possible steps, and I’ll let you decide which ones comprise your final life cycle.

Steps in the project life cycle

Before we begin, let’s answer the question: what is a project life cycle?

The project life cycle is the four, or five, traditional project management phases that take a project from inception to completion. It is the framework by which project managers are able to measure their progress. 

The five possible components of the project life cycle are: initiation, planning, execution, control, and closure. Those who recognize the project life cycle as a four step process have typically combined the execution and control stage into one. 

Let’s discuss the steps one by one.

The initiation stage

The initiation stage of the project life cycle can also be referred to as the ideation or conceptualization stage. They all mean the same thing. 

In this stage, management or other authority figures have determined a business need that will require the work of a project manager. The project itself could improve business processes, create revenue, or otherwise fill a need in the organization. 

ideation example

Image courtesy of SIS International Research

During the initiation stage, the project manager (PM) would determine and clarify the project’s objective. It is during the initiation stage that the project manager develops the project charter.

TIP: It's important to know the difference between goals and objectives as a project manager. Learn more here!

A project charter is a statement of the scope, objectives, and participants involved in or necessary to the completion of a project. You could also call this a statement of work (SOW). 

project life cycle project charter exampleImage courtesy of LucidChart

Some project managers use this phase to draft any contracts necessary to the completion of the project. Additionally, it's common to conduct a feasibility study during this time that helps to determine the likelihood of success before potentially wasting valuable resources in the next phase.

The planning stage

In the planning stage, a project manager creates a map for the course their team is soon to follow. The PM’s job is to formalize the steps their team will take to accomplish the overall end goals. 

During the planning stage, a PM will answer questions such as:

  • What is the mission statement of this project?
  • What are my deliverables?
  • How is our success being measured?
  • What steps should we take, and in what order?

Planning requires a deep understanding of what you need to accomplish your goals. It is in the planning stage that a PM would determine what resources are needed and develop a budget.

Project management software can help every team member manage their personal goals, stay organized with long-term projects, and coordinate individual tasks. 

View the Easiest-to-Use Project Management Software →


The execution stage

After the planning stage is complete, it’s time to begin doing the work. Hence the execution stage, or the stage where a project is carried out. A PM has assigned tasks to their team and, during this stage, the team gets to work. 

A PM's job is not done here, however. They are responsible for ensuring all parts of the machine continuously run smoothly. 

project execution

If the project consists of developing 40 tires per month in a factory, for example, a PM would check the weekly, daily, hourly tire production to ensure their employees are performing on pace.

Some PMs prefer to split up execution and monitoring into two stages: execution and control.

The control stage

The control stage, should you choose to think of it separately from execution, runs parallel to execution. It is the process of consistently monitoring progress during execution to ensure your team is performing as they should.

As a PM, you’ve created a timeline for the project as a whole. During the control stage, you monitor your team’s milestones and accomplishments to determine if that timeline is accurate.

If your predictions turn out to be wrong, closely monitoring progress should leave you with time to course correct.

The closure stage

If you think of a relationship, we often don’t find closure until months after a break-up. Project closure, also referred to as termination, is the final stage of the project life cycle, and it begins after a project has been completed.

project closure example

During the closure stage, a PM is responsible for disbanding the team assembled for the project and returning any resources back to their owners. If applicable, team members are assigned new responsibilities or begin their next project.

It’s important for a PM to use the closure stage to wrap up any loose ends and reflect on and record how the project went. Did the team ultimately meet their goals? If not, how could they do better?

Have you begun a project closure report? This type of document is used by senior management to determine whether a project was ultimately successful. This report would contain reflections from the project that might improve future practices. This report officially ends the project.

project lifecycle project closure report

Image and document courtesy of CITool Kit 

Have you scheduled a project post mortem? Also called a project retrospective, this process helps PMs and stakeholders evaluate whether a project succeeded or failed to meet the business goals that were originally established.

These are all important tasks to accomplish in the closure stage.

And the cycle continues

The project life cycle can be reused and recycled month after month and year after year as PMs aim to continually make businesses better. This strategy is trusted by many and has led countless projects to success. 

Those interested in learning more about project management should read 13 Strategies on How to Manage Multiple Projects in the Workplace, as well as Business Case Examples for Every Industry.

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