Managing a new project from start to finish can be a daunting task. You may have to gain the approval of several people and operate within a tight budget. On top of that, all the teams involved will need to be in sync.
And when the project doesn’t go as planned, it’s usually the project manager everyone turns to for an explanation.
Without an established project life cycle catered to each individual project, it can be difficult to explain where things went wrong. This leads to uncomfortable conversations with senior leaders, and potentially major delays.
To avoid this problem, project managers can use project life cycle models to establish clear deliverables, designate responsible parties, and utilize the right tools.
And if your project still doesn’t stay on track, you’ll have valuable information you can use to identify what went wrong.
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What is a project management life cycle?
A project management life cycle 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 (or should) be completed, and who is involved in each phase.
The traditional project life cycle includes four phases, but the number of phases can vary greatly depending on needs and the steps required by your organization.
In heavily regulated industries — or very large businesses — project life cycles may have nine or more phases. Additionally, complex workflows may have a main project life cycle, but different departments and teams that are involved may have life cycles of their own.
What is the traditional project life cycle?
An example project life cycle diagram that includes possible deliverables for each stage
The traditional project life cycle includes four phases: initiation, planning, execution, and closure. However, project management best practices dictate that each project life cycle 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 that uses Waterfall project management may need to add additional steps, such as design, testing, and warranty.
What additional phases of the project life cycle should be included?
When designing your project life cycle, it’s important to consider what specific steps need to be taken, and in what order they need to be completed. There are a variety of steps to consider adding to the traditional life cycle 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 their own phases.
- 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 occur in a separate step and has its own set of deliverables, it should be included in a separate phase of the project life cycle.
To develop your project life cycle, 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 life cycle model to refer to for the duration of the project.
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Project initiation techniques
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 life cycle 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 needs, justifies the 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 life cycle. 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 life cycle – Once a project manager is assigned, they should begin developing the project life cycle document. The project life cycle 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 deliverables for each respective phase would be as follows:
- Project life cycle document for the initiation phase
- Project charter for the discovery phase
- Feasibility study findings for the feasibility stage
The planning phase and its deliverables
Once initiation is complete, projects move into the planning phase. In this phase, detailed project requirements are established and outlined in your chosen project management app. At the same time, all dependencies are identified, and the project budget is solidified.
During the planning phase, the project manager works with many different departments and individuals to finalize all the documentation needed for the execution of project requests.
Requirements and designs can be developed concurrently during the planning phase, or they can be separated out into two phases if there are requirements that 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.
Deliverables during the execution phase
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.
This phase is when the project manager tracks and reports on project progress and roadblocks. They may also seek resolutions, or keep notes on when blocking issues are expected to be resolved.
Development and testing can occur concurrently in the execution phase. They can also 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 roadblocks 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 they should make sure that these activities are occurring, and report any issues in status reports.
The final phase: Project closure reports and useful tools
In the closure phase, the project is completed and released. The closure phase can also include a support or warranty period where the 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 what they learned during the project life cycle.
The primary deliverable in the closure phase is the release of a functional product, but there are two other deliverables that the project manager may also be responsible for:
- Change request – If the 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.
Best project cycle management tools
When looking for project management tools to support your projects from start to end, look no further than this list of best apps.
Hubstaff Tasks is an Agile project management tool that lets you easily track the progress of each task, and streamline your project management process.
With sprints and visual Kanban cards, Hubstaff Tasks is an all-in-one project life cycle management app.
When you assign a task to anyone in your team, Hubstaff Tasks will automatically notify them so they don’t miss anything. They will also be notified when you mention them in comments, or include them in a task.
Hubstaff Tasks has all the features you need to effectively organize your tasks and keep your projects moving. You can create checklists, labels, and automate workflows, so all the tasks are completed and deadlines are met.
If you want to make sure that you’re as productive as possible, you should be able to track how many hours you’re spending on work, as well as how much time you’re spending on specific tasks. Hubstaff lets you do that, and more.
Hubstaff monitors your activity rate and has an optional screenshot capture feature. You can configure how many screenshots it takes every 10 minutes, or turn it off completely.
Hubstaff makes it easy to identify the most productive people in your team so no time is wasted. And, you can assign the right tasks to the right people.
Google Drive’s complete set of file management tools make it a valuable collaboration tool. It ensures that you have a safe place to store important project files that can be accessed or shared when needed.
You can edit documents, slides, and spreadsheets with your team in real-time. You can also add comments and suggestions for others to review, as well as mention them in documents.
Completing a project without communicating with your team is simply impossible. Slack lets you send messages and talk with your team in real-time. Its simple UI and threads within conversations make organizing team chats easy.
Slack supports file sharing as well, so you can send documents to your team without creating messy email threads.
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.
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.
Creating custom project management phases and deliverables
By taking the time to define your project life cycle up front and choosing the right project management system, 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, using traditional models is a good place to start. Expand it later if needed to support organizational workflows or siloed tasks.
The project life cycle 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 method do you use in creating your project life cycle models, and what tools did you use to execute tasks and move projects from start to finish? Did we miss anything, or do you have an effective approach of your own? We’d love to hear in the comments below.
This post was published July 21, 2017, and updated July 3, 2019.