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.
We’ll look at four critical topics relating to the Project Lifecycle:
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.
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.
There are lots of good reasons to describe a project as a lifecycle with 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 is illustrated below.
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.
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:
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:
Once you know what your project is about, the next stage focuses on the detail. You will answer three questions:
You may hear this stage called:
Do take a look at the second module of our free Project Management Fundamentals program on Planning Your Project.
Now you’ve designed your deliverables and planned how you’ll implement them, it’s time for the big chunk of work, called:
This is the stage where you will:
We have some great resources for you to help understand this stage.
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:
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.
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):
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:
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:
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.
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’.
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…
And this is how the US Department of Defense adapted it…
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.
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.
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:
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:
All this can reduce risk and form a sound basis for formal Project Definition.
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
I always welcome opinions, experiences, and questions in the comments below. And I will respond to every contribution.
And, for some additional ideas:
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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