Project Life Cycle: Getting Chaos Under Control

So business is growing – new clients are being signed, new initiatives are kicking off, and new products are being developed. All good things, but every new offering comes with costs, deliverables, deadlines, and demands. If you don’t manage all of the moving parts, you could be looking down the road at lost money, wasted resources, and failed projects.

The good news is, following the project lifecycle can bring control to the chaos and make sure you are delivering expected results on time and within budget.

The project lifecycle is the end-to-end sequence of events that move a project from start to finish. It allows you to break your project into distinct parts that you can monitor, manage, and adjust as needed. You can set targets, and see how effectively your time, resources, and budget are being used. The lifecycle takes place in 5 phases: initiation, planning, controlling, execution, and closeout. There are also a couple of phases for more advanced project management (more on that later!). Each phase includes steps that upon completion will feed into the next.

Phase One: Initiation

Initiating a project

Every well managed project starts with analysis, discussion, and decision-making. This is initiation.

The Initiation phase is where you identify a business need or problem and a potential solution. You will analyze what it will take to execute the solution, and justify the project to leadership in order to get the green light to move forward.

Let’s say the Order Processing department of Company X is experiencing major performance issues due to the poor design of their order management tool. They have asked for some changes that will decrease call time and improve the customer experience. Your project team has a solution and needs approval to launch this development project, so the initiation phase begins. You will:

  • Conduct a feasibility study that will define the existing problem and determine whether the project will solve it
  • Identify the project scope to really define the demand of the project – how long and demanding will it be and what kind of impact will it have on the business?
  • Define project deliverables which describe the product or service that the project team will provide
  • Identify your project stakeholders; they are the ones with the most skin in the game. Knowing their priorities will help you set your own.
  • Create the business case that justifies the need for the project based on the cost and resource demand
  • Write a Statement of Work (SOW) for the client, that describes the activities that will be performed, the time commitment and the deliverables

Once the initiation phase is completed and the decision makers have greenlit your project, it is time to start mapping out the project details in the next phase: Planning.

Phase Two: Planning

Second phase of a project life cycle

The Planning phase is where the work that you described during initiation gets broken into smaller, manageable chunks. The project team is formed, specific tasks are defined, responsibilities get assigned, and the project schedule is created. Here is what you’ll do:

  • Design the project plan and timeline. Document project milestones, deadlines and deliverables. Create a workflow or process map for a visual representation of the entire project.
  • Create the budget. This is a deeper breakdown of how funds will be allocated, including resource costs, tools, and any other expenses that should be billed to the project.
  • Choose your resources and assemble your team. Look at the project’s deliverables and choose (or hire if the budget allows) the best possible people for each task.
  • Once the team is formed, hold a kickoff meeting, where you will share the details from the project plan and budget and get everyone aligned on the project goals.

Its looking pretty good at this point – your project is approved, you’ve built your team, and the plan is perfectly mapped out. Now it’s time to spring into action in the next phase: Execution.

Phase Three: Execution

Execution: The third step in a project lifecycle

The Execution phase is where the true project management work happens. You will be touching base with resources, watching the timeline and budget, and reporting back to stakeholders. You need to be ready to make adjustments and put out fires. For example, If one of your developers turns out to be slower than you expected, you are losing money on that resource and will need to make a personnel change or reprioritize their deliverables. That same flexibility will be needed to adjust the scope, budget or schedule as needed. Your steps include:

  • Hold weekly team meetings, where you will ask for task updates from the team. Encourage collaboration by asking for input. Listen to issues and offer solutions to overcome roadblocks.
  • Meet with individual resources, to track progress and monitor the quality of their performance. You can talk through any issues you or they prefer to address privately.
  • Conduct team-building activities to support morale and encourage communication.
  • Release regular communications – Weekly emails providing project updates are a great way to keep everyone on the same page and set expectations for the next stage. Create weekly update messages that are internal to the project team and broader messages that can be distributed company-wide.

So now your project is in full swing – and it’s up to you to make sure it stays as close to that beautiful plan you created. The Controlling phase is where that happens.

Phase Four: Controlling

The controlling phase of a project

The Controlling phase is where you will hold a microscope to every part of the project, to see what is falling off track. To be most effective, this the controlling and execution phases should actually be happening at the same time. You will:

  • Conduct weekly budget reviews to see how closely the project is performing to cost. If any money is being wasted, this is where you will see it.
  • Touch base with the client to keep them in the loop and to make sure they are not requesting services outside of the SOW (this is known as Scope Creep – a BIG project management No No!)
  • Report back to stakeholders to provide regular status reviews and answer any questions

At this point, your team has moved through the project timeline and your deliverables have been delivered. Its time to wrap things up and determine if the goals have been met as promised, on time, and within budget. The Closeout phase is where you figure that out.

Phase Five: Closeout

Closing a project

The Closeout phase is where you review the experience to determine the success of the project. This is not only critical for demonstrating the value of the project to stakeholders and clients, but it gives you a roadmap for the future. Here’s what you’ll do:

  • Document project completion, checking off all deliverables and their status
  • Hold a post-mortem meeting to review everything that happened during the project. Ask for input on what went well, what should be improved and what should never happen again.
  • Analyze the performance of each resource and the team as a whole. Use the post mortem meeting to congratulate the team, and recognize people for their accomplishments and contributions.
  • Create a project review and lessons learned report that includes what came out of that meeting.
  • Do a final budget review to identify where the budget was met and where it was strained

So the project is complete, and now you know how to move from beginning to end with structure and organization. The project management lifecycle is your most reliable tool for setting standards and avoiding repeat mistakes.

Oh yeah! Remember those advanced phases mentioned earlier? As you gain more experience managing projects, you will want to offer your stakeholders and clients even greater assurance of quality. Strategizing and Maintenance are bookend phases, taking place at the beginning and end of the project.

Strategizing actually happens pre-project, and usually takes place without the project manager. But including the PM in those discussions increases the potential of the project being aligned with business goals and objectives. Attend meetings, document the outcomes of those meetings and use those to define the project scope, set deliverables and develop the timeline.

Maintenance takes place after the project has been completed. It is a check in to see how the product or service is performing, and to assess customer satisfaction. This serves many purposes – it can pre-emptively address problems, resolve issues, inform future projects, and identify future opportunities.

No phase of project management is easy, but all are necessary to make sure the company makes the best use of its time, resources and money, and delivers a superior product every time.