Managing a new project from start to finish can be a daunting task. There may be many approvers, many different teams involved, and a tight budget that must be closely managed.
What’s even worse: when the project doesn’t go as planned, everyone turns to the project manager for an explanation.
Without an established project lifecycle catered to each individual project, it can be difficult to explain where things went wrong. This leads to uncomfortable conversations with senior leaders.
To avoid this problem, it’s important for project managers to understand the different phases of a project management lifecycle. By creating a defined lifecycle, establishing clear deliverables, designating responsible parties, and employing some helpful tools, you can ensure that your project stays on track.
And if it doesn’t stay on track, you’ll have the information needed to explain exactly what went wrong.
What is a project management lifecycle?
A project management lifecycle is a detailed breakdown of the major phases of a project from beginning to end. It dictates the tasks and deliverables that must be completed in each phase. In doing so, it becomes a roadmap that details what work must be completed, when that work will be completed, and what individuals or teams are involved in each phase.
The traditional project lifecycle includes four phases, but the number of phases can vary greatly depending on needs and the steps required by your specific organization.
In heavily regulated industries—or very large businesses—project lifecycles may have nine or more phases. Additionally, complex workflows may have a main project lifecycle, but different departments and teams that are involved may have their own separate lifecycles that they follow.
What is the traditional project lifecycle?
An example project lifecycle diagram that includes possible deliverables for each stage
The traditional project lifecycle includes four phases: initiation, planning, execution, and closure. However, project management best practices dictate that each project lifecycle should be designed individually in a way that reflects actual business processes and operations.
For example, a company operating in Lean methodologies could combine the planning and execution phase since those two phases occur concurrently. On the other hand, a company working in a more Waterfall approach may need to add many additional steps, such as design, testing, and warranty.
What additional phases of the project lifecycle should be included?
When designing your project lifecycle, it’s important to consider what specific steps need to be taken, and in what order those steps need to be completed. There are a variety of steps to consider adding to the traditional lifecycle if they more accurately reflect business processes:
- Discovery – The discovery phase can be used to provide more detail about project scope. It can encompass the development of the project charter and may lead to more accurate estimates.
- Feasibility – A feasibility phase should be added when there are concerns about technical, regulatory, budget, or other constraints.
- Design – A design phase should be added if system designs are created in a process that’s separate from requirements definition and maturation.
- Development – If development and testing occur in silos, the execution phase can be broken out into a development phase and a testing phase.
- Testing – Any testing that occurs in isolation from development—business testing, system integration testing, or user acceptance testing—warrants its own phase.
- Warranty – A warranty phase covers the period before project closure where the development team is responsible for resolving any defects or incidents discovered after release.
If any of these activities occurs in a separate step and has separate deliverables, it should be included in a separate phase of the project lifecycle.
To develop your project lifecycle, first define the order of each phase. Next, define the participants for each phase. Finally, establish the deliverables that signal phase completion.
When these three steps are completed, you’ll have a functional project lifecycle to refer to for the duration of the project.
The initiation phase and its deliverables
The first phase of any project is initiation. During the initiation phase, high-level project requirements are established and feasibility is evaluated. It’s also where a project lifecycle is developed, deliverables are defined, and individuals or teams are assigned to project tasks.
For complex projects, the initiation phase can be further broken down into initiation, discovery, and feasibility phases.
There are several deliverables associated with the initiation phase:
- Project Charter – The project charter is a document that defines the business case, goals, scope, and stakeholders for the project. It establishes need, justifies budget, explains what’s being requested at a high-level, and defines the individuals who will provide final sign-off. It can be used for high-level budget estimations.
- Feasibility Study – If there’s concern about the practicality of project requests, a feasibility study should be one of the earliest tasks completed in the project lifecycle. This prevents issues down the line if it’s determined that a project cannot be completed, and reduces the risk of waste related to allocating budget to an impossible request.
- Project Lifecycle – Once a project manager is assigned, he/she should begin developing the project lifecycle document. The project lifecycle defines the project timeline, phases, participants, and deliverables. It should be customized for each project and can be revised—if needed—as a project progresses.
If three separate phases are defined, the deliverable for the initiation phase would be the project lifecycle document, the deliverable for the discovery phase would be the project charter, and the deliverable for the feasibility stage would be the feasibility study findings.
Project initiation tools
- Google Docs : Creating a project charter generally requires input and approval from multiple individuals and stakeholders. With Google Docs, many different individuals can collaborate on a single document in real-time, making changes, leaving comments, and adding suggestions. Google documents also maintains a complete history of revisions.
- GanttProject : GanttProject is a free, open-source tool that can be used to create Gantt charts and roadmaps, track dates and dependencies, and designate individuals and teams responsible for tasks in different phases. It provides high-level and detailed views of project progress, and it can import and export to Microsoft Project.
- Slack : Slack is a communication tool that allows for instant messaging, group chats, and video calls. Create project teams within Slack to eliminate email silos and long reply-all threads, and access a long history of conversations and decisions. Setting up Slack at the beginning of a project allows for better communication throughout the lifecycle.
The planning phase and its deliverables
Once initiation is complete, projects move into the planning phase. In the planning phase, detailed project requirements are established, all dependencies are identified, and project budget is solidified.
During the planning phase, the project manager works with many different departments and individuals to finalize all documentation needed for execution of project requests.
Requirements and designs can be developed concurrently during the planning phase, or they can be separated out into two separate phases if requirements must be completed before design begins.
There are several deliverables associated with the planning phase:
- Requirements – Depending on the project you’re working on and the methodology you’re following, requirements can be compiled in multiple forms. In Agile, user stories are created to define requirements. In Waterfall, you may use a Software Requirements Specification (SRS) document. For technical service integrations, interface specifications may need to be defined.
- Designs – Designs build on or help elicit project requirements. The deliverables may consist of wireframes, design comps, style guides, accessibility requirements, and/or layouts. In some cases, annotated wireframes or comps are used to combine requirements and designs in the same document. Copy decks may also be created in the design stage.
Even if the requirements and design phases are separated, it’s likely that participants in both phases will need to collaborate to ensure that designs and requirements meet project expectations. Often, a final stakeholder review is conducted at the end of the planning phase to approve all project artifacts.
Project planning tools
- Hubstaff Time Tracker: Once project budgets are finalized, all team members will begin billing the time they spend to the project. With the Hubstaff time tracking tool, team members can automatically bill their time to projects. Project managers get a comprehensive view of billed time so they can protect their budgets with time caps and predictive spending tools.
- Workfront: If you’re unable to control how individuals track their time toward projects, Workfront provides a solution to monitoring project budget. With Workfront, individuals can manually input hours worked towards each project. Project managers can name and assign the tasks, which enables tracking and reporting on the costs related to each phase of a project.
- Jive: Most projects have a lot of documentation: status reports, requirements documents, designs, etc. Jive is a collaboration tool similar to SharePoint, but it’s more modern, user-friendly, and intuitive. Each project can have its own site where all project documentation can be uploaded and managed, creating a central source of information and reference.
The execution phase and its deliverables
In the execution phase, all tasks related to implementing the project are completed. This may include development of the project and testing of all developed components.
During the execution phase, the project manager tracks and reports on project progress and impediments. He/she may also seek resolution for impediments, or keep notes on when blocking issues are expected to be resolved.
During the execution phase, development and testing can occur concurrently, or they can be broken down into separate phases if they occur at different times during execution.
There are several deliverables associated with the execution phase:
- Status Updates – In regular increments, the project manager is responsible for communicating project status, progress, and impediments to stakeholders and company leaders.
- Demonstrations – Demonstrations highlight incremental progress being made toward project completion. This enables feedback from stakeholders, and helps ensure that the final product matches expectations and requirements.
- Test Cases – System, component, quality, user acceptance, and business testers compile test cases to be executed alongside development or after completion of development. These test cases can be reviewed by stakeholders if necessary to ensure comprehensive testing plans.
The project manager is not necessarily responsible for test case creation or demonstrations, but he/she should make sure that these activities are occurring, and report any issues in status reports.
Project execution tools
- Trello: Trello is a free platform that uses a Kanban-style approach to task management. Project managers can list, track, and manage project issues and impediments. Open a card for each issue in a project status Trello board, assign resolvers, and establish recommended resolution dates to keep projects on track.
- Asana: For less rigid projects, Asana is an effective tool for documenting requirements, goals, bugs, and impediments. With many different views available—including a list view, board view, and calendar view—Asana makes it simple to track progress, identify overdue tasks, and discover places where more help may be needed to move tasks forward.
The closure phase and its deliverables
In the closure phase, the project is completed and released. The closure phase can also include a support or warranty period where project budget is used to resolve any issues or defects discovered after a project is released.
During the closure phase, the project manager ensures all release tasks are completed successfully, provides a final status and budget report, and conducts a review meeting—or retrospective—to discuss lessons learned during the project lifecycle.
The primary deliverable in the closure phase is a functional, released product, but there are two other deliverables that the project manager may also be responsible for:
- Change Request – If all project scope couldn’t be completed in the allocated time frame or budget, the project manager may need to complete change request documentation to secure additional budget for requested features.
- Project Retrospective – While typically a standard for Agile teams, a project retrospective can help teams improve in the future by discussing what went well during the project and what didn’t go well. It also provides a forum for team members to suggest ways that future projects or workflows could be improved.
The project manager may also be responsible for overseeing any incidents, problems, and bugs discovered post-release, tracking those issues, prioritizing them, and ensuring resolution. For this reason, warranty may need to be a separate phase that’s conducted before the closure phase.
Project closure tools
- Basecamp: Basecamp is a task management tool that makes it simple to track task lists, assignees, and completed tasks. It’s an excellent tool for tracking and prioritizing discovered issues after projects are released.
- Usersnap: Usersnap is a tool that can be used on released websites, features, and apps that helps collect user feedback and allows users to submit bug reports at the exact moment that they’re discovered. It can be an extremely useful monitoring tool during the warranty period.
- IdeaBoardz: If you’re planning to host a project retrospective, IdeaBoardz is an excellent retro tool that allows participants to submit suggestions anonymously if desired. This enables collection of ideas and issues from everyone involved in the project.
Creating custom project management phases and deliverables
By taking the time to define your project lifecycle upfront, you can simplify the process of managing new projects, and define the expectations and outcomes of each phase so everyone knows what to expect.
If you’re new to a company or department, simply use the traditional model at first. Expand it later if needed to support organizational workflows or siloed tasks.
The project lifecycle is a guideline. As such, it should be revised, updated, and refined as necessary so that—over time—it becomes an accurate representation of your project’s progress from idea to release.
What tools have you used that were especially helpful in defining the project lifecycle or executing any tasks required along the way? We’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below!