Projects can be difficult beasts.

With multiple workflows and dependencies as intertwined as the web of a caffeinated spider, all experienced project managers know that, at least once in every project, they’ll dream of a simpler life — becoming a blimp pilot, perhaps.

We get it: the ability to bring some order to the chaos of projects is appealing.

But, can dividing projects into 5 distinct phases really Marie-Kondo your project workflow, or is it just one more thing to keep on top of?

In this article, we’ll explore what the 5 phases are, when and why it’s most helpful to use them, and offer some great project management software tools for wherever you are in the project lifecycle.

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What are the 5 project phases?

First, let’s put to bed the argument around the actual number of project phases needed.

The five phases we’re about to introduce you to will make sure you cover the main elements of a project lifecycle. But, the Project Management Book of Knowledge (otherwise known as PMBOK or, the PM bible) is flexible about this.

It says the actual number of phases in a project’s lifecycle should be determined by the organization’s requirements. So take this as a guide and not a set-in-stone commandment.

With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

1. Initiation

Woohoo! Your project has formally started. Your project sponsor and other key stakeholders will need to be identified and brought on board and a core project team established.

Locking down an engaged project sponsor is critical. They are responsible for the effective governance of the project and for ensuring the output of the project meets the needs of the business.

Ineffective sponsors can cause any number of problems in the project lifecycle, even leading to a project’s eventual failure. Yet, research found nearly half of businesses were poor at holding them to account.

The project funding, and the high-level scope of what the project is going to deliver, also need to be agreed upon in this phase. It’s important that what you commit to deliver aligns with overall business objectives.

The project team and business stakeholders should agree on a project charter or “Project Initiation Document (PID)” before you launch into the next phase.

The PID is crucial as it defines the terms of reference for the project. It should describe roles, responsibilities and authority levels, and outline controls, reporting and communication procedures. This provides a touchstone for future clarity and, if needed, issue resolution.

2. Planning.

At this stage, the project manager will draw up the project management plan.

The project plan is a detailed document that outlines the scope and key deliverables for the whole project, how the project will be organized and resourced, the expected project costs and overall timeline, and the risks associated with the project and how they’ll be managed.

It’ll also describe what the project reporting requirements are and how progress should be communicated, and to whom.

It is important to take the time to get this phase right. Good planning is critical to the success of the project. It reduces project risk and is key to ensuring shared expectations of how the project will improve the business. It should be very clear after planning is completed what factors will make this project a diamond rather than a dud.

The project plan shouldn’t be confused with the project schedule which outlines the duration of various tasks and when they need to be completed. That’s also part of this phase, and usually a component of the overall plan.

3. Execution.

With every aspect of the project planned and re-planned, this is where we actually get to work. This phase should be focused on making sure that what was agreed in the project scope is actually delivered.

You’ll read this and see only a couple brief sentences, but don’t let that fool you. The bulk of your project is in the execution phase.

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4. Monitoring and Controlling.

While ‘Monitoring and Controlling’ is discussed separately from the ‘Execution’ phase, it makes sense to run the two in parallel.

Running these two phases side-by-side gives the opportunity to check, at any given moment, where the project is currently in comparison to where it should be.

screenshot of project roadmap showing project task status

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And this isn’t just about whether things are being delivered according to schedule or that quality meets your standards.

It’s checking that the project isn’t experiencing “scope creep” and delivering something that wasn’t originally defined. It’s also an opportunity to check how much money is left in the project bank and whether you need to tighten the purse strings.

*Note — the scope of projects does change and that should be expected. Just make sure you have a change control process and formally capture how the requirements are now different.

5. Closure.

The official end of the project. Hurray!

All the tasks are completed and the end product handed over to the business. Time for a big sigh of relief.

This is when you and your team can sit together and review what went well, and what could have gone better, during each phase of the project. Keep a record of these lessons and use them to continue improving in future projects.

How using project phases keep you on track

Projects tend to have a lot of moving parts. Tasks, timelines, and budgets all have to be kept in line. And, of course, there are people.

Ahh, people.

Having a way to organize these moving parts (and people) will help you to reach the end of your project without a hitch.

Project phases allow you to take one, big, unwieldy project and break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks.

There are key project management documents and checklists at every stage which can help you keep track of what should be happening when, so you have a clearer picture of whether you’re on track or need to make changes.

screenshot showing plan in each project phase

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This is especially important in a larger or more complex project, or those with more formal governance structures and less devolved decision-making.

Navigating formal governance can be a laborious process and sometimes boards or committees might only sit once a month or even once a quarter. Missing committee dates or not having approval documentation ready on time could delay your project by months.

Building a bit of a time buffer to allow for approval processes means your project timeline isn’t going to disappear, never to return.

Breaking up your project into smaller tasks can also be useful when significant change is necessary to fully realize the benefits of the project. People often find change difficult and may resist attempts to move from the status quo.

Indeed, poor change management is the key reason for failure in nearly a third of projects.

Successfully completing smaller tasks and reaching project milestones are ‘quick wins’ that build project momentum and reinforce the vision that life will be better after the project than it was before it.

Having a ‘journey’ to take your client on makes project implementation easier as the change doesn’t feel so abrupt.

But what about Agile?

As one of the most tried and true project management methodologies, you may be wondering how Agile fits into our five-phase system. Because of the apparently sequential nature, splitting a project into phases seems to be associated with more linear, or waterfall, methodologies.

However, an Agile approach can also use project phases, though planning and execution become more integrated and may be cycled through a number of times.

Like other methodologies, Agile also starts with a high-level plan.

The difference is that, in an agile project, there is an understanding that the requirements don’t have to be fully defined before work can begin.

The “Execution” phase is done as a series of short sub-phases, usually called “Sprints”.

At the end of each iteration, the requirements are refined to bring the deliverable closer to what the client actually needs. The refined requirements are added to the “Backlog” which lists work still to be completed.

screenshot of sprint planning template for an agile project

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Monitoring is core to agile projects, with opportunities to test and adjust the output at the end of every sprint.

And, because customer feedback is required after every iteration, engagement, theoretically at least, should be higher.

Agile projects don’t go on forever either. They eventually come to an end and go through the same “Closure” phase as any other project.

Bottom line: Every methodology and framework should take you through each of these 5 phases at least once per project. They just might not be clearly laid out in a project plan.

How can project software help?

Throughout the project lifecycle, there’s a need to plan, monitor, and report.

Project software, like monday.com, can be an extremely useful platform to help keep your project organized and on track and to help you effectively communicate project progress to your stakeholders.

Our calendar view means there’s no excuse for missing governance meetings and monday.com even syncs with other calendars like Outlook and Google if you need the extra reminders.

And we’ve plenty of other things to help. For example, a Gantt chart can be a useful project management tool for both project planning and to track progress.

A Gantt chart shows all of your project tasks and their deadlines laid out against the project timeline. It’s easy to see what’s been completed, what needs finishing next, and if any tasks are overdue.

screenshot showing project information laid out in a Gantt chart

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If you’re following an agile methodology, using digital Scrum or Kanban boards is a great way to help you organize and display project tasks.

Project management tools can also help you record lessons learned during the project as you go along.

One key benefit of agile projects is the chance to incorporate feedback during every iteration.

For waterfall projects, which tend to wait until the closure phase to record lessons learned, these tools mean the review process isn’t a scramble to remember what worked and what didn’t.

screenshot showing tool to capture lessons learned during a project

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Using phases brings structure and organization

In this article, we’ve discussed the value of using the 5 project phases and shown how they fit into both waterfall and Agile methodologies.

Good planning and timely stakeholder feedback is the key to a successful project whether your journey is a strict A to B, or something more fluid.

Happily, monday.com is flexible enough for wherever your project takes you.

Why not start here, with monday.com’s totally customizable project roadmap template?

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