The five steps of the project management lifecycle explained

The five steps of the project management lifecycle explained

Whether you’re planning a months-long journey or a day of sightseeing, having a plan helps you pace yourself.

The same goes for projects. Knowing key milestones helps you figure out what needs to be done and by when. Not only is does this make it easier to assign resources, plan budgets, and ensure timely delivery, but emotionally, it makes the whole thing more manageable because you can tackle it piece by piece.

The conventional name for this planning is the ‘project management lifecycle’. But before we tell you the benefits, let’s take a quick look at how poor management can impact your project.

How poor planning can derail your project

Communication breakdowns

One of the biggest threats to a project is breakdowns in communication. No one really knows what’s expected of them, who’s doing what, or when their deadlines are.

Moreover, frequent communication breakdowns take an emotional toll, and over time, can build frustration and resentment.

Wasted money

Having a lack of structure means you won’t be able to assign budgets and resources effectively. Throw a few communication breakdowns into the mix and you’ll waste precious time and money fixing preventable issues.

Project failures

If you miss your deadline or go over budget, your stakeholders won’t be happy, and your project could be classed a failure.

OK, I’m convinced. How do I figure out my project management lifecycle?

We’re glad you asked! A project management lifecycle is broken down into four/five phases: initiation, planning, execution, controlling/monitoring (as an optional fourth stage), and closure.

As with most project management processes, a good place to start is with a diagram. Visualizing your data gives you a bird’s-eye view of everything in one go. It also gives you a map through your project, with key stages and dates marked up for everyone to see.

You can draw a diagram by hand or in MS Office, but your best bet is to use a diagramming tool that lets you start from a template, collaborate with your team, and share easily from your browser. That way, everyone can have a real-time view of your project, and you’re not wasting time with formatting or hunting around for different versions.

Stage 1: Initiation

Once you’ve got all your tools lined up, you’re ready to start planning your lifecycle.

First up, it’s the initiation phase. This is where you work out your project’s reason for existing. What’s your business problem? How will you solve it? Is it feasible? What’s the scope, and what are the major deliverables? And who needs to be involved? You may want to map out some SMART goals to help organize your thinking.

Many projects also require investment — whether that’s resource commitments from your boss or financial support from stakeholders — so you’ll need to collate this data methodically, and present it as a well thought out project proposal, and then turn that info into a statement of work. It takes a lot of time up-front, but as with everything, the more you plan, the easier your project will be later on.

Stage 2: Planning

Next is the planning stage. This when you break your entire project down into chunks based on your statement of work.

You need to look at things like resources, budget, and schedules, and translate these into a schedule. You may find it helpful to create a workflow diagram for this stage, which will help give you a top-down view of all the individual tasks that make up the project, as well as the flow of information between different individuals or teams. It’ll also help you see the order in which certain tasks must be done.

It’s a good idea to involve your team at this stage to hear their thoughts on capacity and timings. Decide whether you want to employ a bottom-up or top-down management approach — or something in-between. Which you choose depends on your own personal preference, but a good rule of thumb is: choose a bottom-up approach if it’s a long, complex project. If you’re on a tight timeframe, then go top-down.

Here’s a ‘planning stage’ checklist:

  • Create a project plan, which should include all your timings and key dates.
  • Then create a workflow diagram, which should include timeframes, scope, and possible constraints.
  • Create a financial plan, including investments, estimates, and estimated returns.
  • Gather resources, including assembling a team and assigning roles, liaising with other departments, enlisting external help, and working out what kind of software/training you or your team need to perform tasks to the best of their ability.

Stage 3: Execution

This is the exciting bit: it’s where your project comes to life. If you’re a manager, it’s your job to manage timelines and budget and generally make sure everyone’s sticking to the plan (and adapting quickly when you’re thrown a curveball).

Likewise, you’ll need to assign projects to your team members and brief everyone to make sure they fully understand all expectations. Good organizational communication skills are key here: make sure your instructions are accurate, easy to understand, and in-line with business objectives.

Stage 4: Monitoring and maintenance

After project kick-off, you need to keep track of everyone to make sure they’re sticking to the plan, coping with the work assigned to them, working to a high standard, and feeling motivated. You’ll also need to keep track of budgets and keep a line of communication open with any stakeholders.

If you’re developing software or a new product, this stage will include iterative prototype testing, development, and review.

Stage 5: Project closure

Congratulations! That’s a wrap… almost. Before you can really call it a day, you need to officially close the project and review it to evaluate its success.

  • Did your project meet its goals? And were they delivered on-time and on-budget? You can use this information to inform subsequent projects, so make it detailed and present it in a format that’s easy to understand (visually, via a diagram or chart is best).
  • Did your team members perform to the best of their ability? If not, is it a performance issue on their part, or could your briefing and support have been better?
  • Have you done all your housekeeping? Make sure to archive all your documentation (in case you need it at a later date) and prepare your reports to present back to the wider team and stakeholders.

Final thoughts

The Project Management role is synonymous with multitasking. There are schedules to organize, team members to keep motivated, budgets to balance — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As with all projects, knowing where you’re going and how you’ll get there helps you and your team pace yourselves. Working out your project management lifecycle, and presenting it in a clear, accessible way is just one step towards and ensuring your project is sustainable and attainable — with a clear path to success.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).