24 April, 2023

The Project Lifecycle: How to Build the Right Framework for Success

By Mike Clayton

life cycle, lifecycle

Predictive Project Management may be falling out of fashion in some domains. But understanding a basic Project Lifecycle model will always be important to Project Managers. At the start of a PM career, this is one of the first things to learn and understand.

And, as you progress, you need to be able to adapt, tailor, and hybridize the basic lifecycle, to serve the particular needs of each project you take on. So, in this article, I want to fill you in on all the basics of the Project Lifecycle.

The Project Lifecycle: How to Build the Right Framework for Success

Here’s How We’ll Tackle the Project Lifecycle

We’ll look at four critical topics relating to the Project Lifecycle:

  1. Why do We Need a Project Lifecycle – and What is it?
    We’ll start with the absolute basics; the what and the why.
  2. The Stages of a Project Lifecycle
    I’ll describe my basic Project Lifecycle model and then compare it with other well-known models.
  3. How to Adapt Your Project Lifecycle
    We’ll look at the principle of tailoring and some specific stages you can add to your Project Lifecycle to address particular needs.
  4. The Importance of Stage Gates in a Project Lifecyle
    I’ll introduce you to the idea of Stage Gates, before linking you to more in-depth information.

Let’s go…

Why do We Need a Project Lifecycle – and What is it?

Let’s start with the basics. And, although I should justify the need for a Project Lifecycle model before anything else, there may be readers who don’t know what exactly I am talking about, so I’ll start with the what, and then answer the why.

What is a Project Lifecycle?

Do you know that people start off as small babies? Of course! Babies don’t do a lot, but the love and care they get are vital to their healthy development. We then become children and then teenagers. Although few teenagers make a big mark on the world, they do start to think about the adult they want to be – and even make plans.

Then we become adults. And it’s at this stage of life that we do lots and make a difference to the people and things around us. It’s the longest part of our lives (we hope) and the most productive.

We end our lives with a period where we wind down our activities and reflect on what we’ve achieved. We pass on our wisdom and maybe our goods to the next generation. Finally, there is a hard stop when the project – sorry, your life – comes to an end.

A Project Lifecycle is just that: a series of distinct stages, spread over the time from the very outset of a project to its final conclusion.

Why Do We Need a Project Lifecycle

There are lots of good reasons to describe a project as a lifecycle with stages.

The Stages

Not least of the reasons is that each stage is different. It does specific things and needs particular resources – people, materials, and assets. Dividing your project into stages helps us understand what we need to do.

The Elephant

Like an elephant, a project is a big old thing. Eating a whole elephant in one sitting would be daunting (and also unethical, and probably illegal – Don’t). But, if we cut it into thin slices and eat one at a time… Splitting your project up makes it seem easier to understand and less daunting to tackle.

The Stakeholders

Another huge benefit of a lifecycle model is its value in explaining what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened to your stakeholders. It provides an easy metaphor for the structure of something that is often very complex.

The Control

For me, the real value of a Project Lifecycle model is not the stages, but the boundaries between them. We can control the progress of our project by examining our process and our progress at each boundary. This is a Stage-Gate process. I’ll talk more about it in Section 4 of this article and link you to more in-depth resources.

The Stages of a Project Lifecycle

There is no end of Project Lifecycle models. Indeed, every project should have its own tailored lifecycle. But, as you’d expect, there are a smaller number of well-known structures that are advocated for the purposes of:

  • Simplification
  • Standardization
  • Teaching and learning

None is objectively ‘better’ than the others. Each has a value in one or more of these three domains. I will start with the basic four-stage project lifecycle I use in teaching, in our OnlinePMCourses programs.

I consider this the simplest model that has all the features I need, to explain the basic concepts. We can then add additional stages and features. The four stages echo the Infant – Adolescent – Adult – Elder model I described in explaining what a lifecycle is.

The OnlinePMCourses 4-Stage Project Lifecycle

The OnlinePMCourses 4-stage Project Lifecycle is illustrated below.

Project Lifecycle - OnlinePMCourses Model - Definition, Planning, Delivery, Closure
Project Lifecycle – OnlinePMCourses Model

The diagram represents (crudely) the level of activity through time. But I don’t intend it to be quantitatively correct. So, don’t worry about how we measure activity on the vertical axis (although it may be measured in resource hours or expenditure per time unit, for example). And, as for time, on the horizontal axis… Projects can span anything from hours to years.

Definition

The first stage is the stage where you will define what your project is – and what it is not. This stage can have many alternate names, like:

  • Start or Start-up
  • Initiation pr Inception (smart words for start-up)
  • Scoping or Assessing
  • Proposal or Development
  • Concept or Conception (this latter sounds more fun than it usually is!)

I like the term ‘Definition’ because it captures the essence of our task here. Take a look at my articles and videos on the Definition stage:

Planning

Once you know what your project is about, the next stage focuses on the detail. You will answer three questions:

  1. What precisely will you deliver?
    This leads to:
  2. Why will you do this?
    You’ll create a Project Proposal or Business Case that sets out the benefits and costs, to establish the net value.
    Take a look at:
  3. How will you do this?
    This, of course, is where you create your Project Plans (which answer how you will deliver your project) and your Project Controls (which answer how you will stay on plan – or get back on plan in the case of problems). Take a look at:

You may hear this stage called:

  • Planning – in most business-led projects
  • Design – often in architecture-led projects and also IT projects (both hardware and software)
  • Mobilization – in resource-intensive projects like construction
  • Initiation – in some areas of the UK public sector, where PRINCE2 is the dominant methodology (I’ll say more about this below)

Do take a look at the second module of our free Project Management Fundamentals program on Planning Your Project.

Delivery

Now you’ve designed your deliverables and planned how you’ll implement them, it’s time for the big chunk of work, called:

  • Delivery (most common term and my preferred)
  • Implementation (almost as common)
  • Execution (sounds brutal – the PMI uses this term)
  • Deployment
  • Roll-out (in some projects – usually ‘Roll-out projects’)

This is the stage where you will:

  • Follow the plan to deliver your products
  • Monitor and control progress
  • Adapt to changes
  • Resolve problems
  • Keep your stakeholders up-to-date

We have some great resources for you to help understand this stage.

Close

Finally, you need to close your project down in an orderly fashion. Most Project Lifecycle models name this stage with words that mean close, closing, closure, finish, or completion. Some refer to one of the primary activities, and call it some variant of ‘review’.

Whatever it’s called, the emphasis is always on a short stage that ties up loose ends, completes admin and governance responsibilities, and transitions the project’s deliverables into beneficial use.

Here are our resources:

Alternative Lifecycle Models

As I have already indicated, there are more Project Lifecycle models than you can shake a stick at. But here, I will outline some of the best-known and, therefore, most important. Note, however, that this does not make them ‘better’ than any others. Any one of them may be a better starting point for developing your own.

The 5 PMI Project Processes Groups

Perhaps the most widely known model globally is the four or five-stage model used by Project Management Institute (PMI) in its Process Groups Practice Guide. These come down through the first six editions of the PMI’s Guide to the Project management Body of Knowledge, before PMI dropped them from the revolutionary 7th edition. The Practice Guide is very nearly a straight lift from the 6th Edition.

These stages are described as Process groups, rather than as lifecycle stages. This is why two of these overlap in time (hence my reference to 4 or 5):

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling (largely parallel to Executing)
  5. Closing

APM

The UK-based Association for Project Management (APM) also produces a Body of Knowledge. The 7th edition offers a four-stage linear lifecycle, consisting of:

  1. Concept
  2. Definition
  3. Deployment
  4. Transition

The 7 PRINCE2 Processes

The most widely-known proprietary Project Management methodology is PRINCE2. It was designed to serve the need for high levels of accountability in the UK public sector. PRINCE2 has a detailed guide and is also a two-tier certification.

PRINCE2 has 7 processes, with an implied 5-stage lifecycle. But do note that PRINCE2 describes this as ‘The PRINCE2 Journey’ and the processes do not map uniquely onto these five steps:

  1. Pre-Project (roughly: Starting up a Project process)
  2. Initiation Stage (roughly: Initiating a Project process)
  3. Subsequent Stages (roughly: Managing Project Delivery process)
  4. Final Stage (roughly: Closing a Project process)
  5. Post-Project

And yes, I know that the word ‘initiation’ means starting up. It seems that, after many years, successive authors have either not noticed or not cared about this linguistic idiocy.

IPMA and IAPM

As far as I am aware, the International Project Management Association (IPMA) does not have a Project Lifecycle model of its own. This is because, I suspect, it is largely an umbrella organization for many country-specific Project Management associations. And many of these will have their own preferred lifecycle model.

The International Association of Project Managers also does not have a lifecycle model. Its PM Guide 2.0 explicitly recommends creating a Project Phase model as a team, and simply adds that a standard phase model is useful here.

Waterfall Project Management

The other well-known Project Lifecycle model is Winston Royce’s ‘Waterfall’ model. There is a lot to say about the validity and history of this framework, but this is not the place.

What I will say is that, on the face of it, the ‘Waterfall’ lifecycle is for software projects. But, of course, now we do most software projects with a large component of agile working methods.

To learn more, check out our article, What Really is the Waterfall Method?

This is Royce’s original model…

Waterfall Project Management - Winston Royce Stages

And this is how the US Department of Defense adapted it…

Waterfall Project Management - US DoD Stages

How to Adapt Your Project Lifecycle

I hope that, by now, you have already picked up on the importance of tailoring your Project Lifecycle to adapt it to the very specific needs of your project.

Perhaps the best printed resource on how to do this is in the 7th Edition of the PMI’s PMBOK Guide. However, do take a look at our article for my interpretation and summary: Tailoring: How to Determine Appropriate Project Methodology, Methods, and Practices.

Specific Special Stages

A big part of tailoring is adding in whatever stages you will find useful to help understand, explain, resource, and control your project. Let’s look at four examples of stages (pr groups of stages) you can use.

Discovery

You can think of a Discovery Stage as either the first part of the Project Definition Stage, or as a stage before it. Either way, it has a simple purpose: discovery. That is, to explore and learn about:

  • What the business needs
  • …and what it already has
  • What solutions are available
  • …and which may be suitable

As part of the Discovery Stage, we also do a little development work, like building a prototype, testing some technology, or crafting a small part of the product you’ll go on to deliver. We might do this to gain knowledge of:

  • Which solutions might work – and which will not
  • The likely pitfalls
  • Clarity of requirements
  • Customer or user priorities
  • How long things may take
  • Parameters for cost estimation
  • Evidence for your business case

All this can reduce risk and form a sound basis for formal Project Definition.

Procurement and Tendering

Where you need to procure goods or services, you may have one or more stages in your Project Lifecyle, to accommodate the procurement process.

For more information, take a look at:

Piloting and Prototyping

As an early part of the Delivery Stage – or as a separate stage in its own right, you can sometimes run a pilot or construct and evaluate a prototype. This is a great way to:

  • De-risk your project
  • Engage customers, users, and other stakeholders
  • Strengthen commitment and enhance your business case

Testing and Remediation

Many projects have a need to test the products they produce. And none more so than IT projects. Often, they will have numerous different stages of testing and I explain these, in the video below:

The Importance of Stage Gates in a Project Lifecyle

I said much earlier on that the most important purpose – for me- of stages is the boundaries between them. And a metaphor I particularly like is that, to cross a boundary fence, we need to pass through a gate. In Project Management, these are known, variously, as:

  • Stage gates
  • Gateways
  • Boundary gates
  • Or just Gates

Stage Gates are both a valuable part of project governance and an important project control mechanism for the Project Manager. At each Gateway, reviewers make an objective assessment of:

  • Looking backwards…
    Has the project completed what it needs to have completed, to be ready to move to the next stage?
  • Looking forwards…
    If it is ready to move on, is this still the right thing for it to do?

There is so much I could say about the Stage Gate process, how it works, and why it is so valuable. But, once again, here is not the right place. So, instead, I shall refer you to:

What is Your Experience of the Project Lifecycle?

I always welcome opinions, experiences, and questions in the comments below. And I will respond to every contribution.

And, for some additional ideas:

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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