A butterfly, representing the project life cycle.
What Is the Project Life Cycle?
A butterfly, representing the project life cycle.

What Is the Project Life Cycle?

If you’ve only just heard the term ‘project life cycle,’ it might have caught you a little off guard. 

Life cycles are all about dramatic concepts, like metamorphosis and reincarnation. What does that have to do with a field like project management?

Don’t worry. Your project isn’t about to turn into a butterfly or ascend to the next plane of enlightenment. The project life cycle covers the different phases your project moves through on its way to success.

Today, we’re here to make those phases crystal clear.

What is the project life cycle?

Large or small, simple or complex, projects nearly always move through the same basic stages. Project life cycle management is a way of looking at those stages, from planning to action to completion. 

This life cycle can be used to frame nearly any type of project, from a single person learning a new skill to a team of thousands launching a new product.

Whatever the nature of your project, understanding the typical life cycle gives everyone a sense of what to expect. That makes it much easier to communicate and evaluate how you’re progressing.

Why is the project life cycle useful?

When you don’t understand how your actions fit into the larger picture, it can be difficult to work efficiently. Failure, delays, and negative outcomes often result from poor communication, especially on projects that require cooperation from many different people.

Using the project life cycle, project managers (or PMs) can frame everyone’s contributions in a way everyone understands. That way, people know that they need to deliver a certain level of work, by a certain time, in order for a project to move on to its next phase.

Let’s get some clarity with a practical example. Imagine you work at a fashion company designing next year’s winter coats. It’s time to get that project moving and the manager is reaching out to set expectations.

Which of the options below gives you more information about that project?

  • “I need you to provide me with the data from your market research by Thursday so that I can give it to our outerwear designers.”
  • “I need the data from your market research by Thursday, so that we can go from planning this project to executing and release it in time for the next Fall/Winter season.”

The second example shows you exactly what’s at stake. Your manager is telling you what phase of the project you fit into, and that it can’t move forward without your help. They’re also sharing why that task needs to happen now, instead of setting what might seem like an arbitrary deadline. 

That’s why the project life cycle is so valuable. It connects everyone on the project to the greater purpose behind their contribution, so they can make informed decisions that line up with the project’s goals.

The 5 project life cycle phases

The five phases of the project life cycle are: 

  • Initiation 
  • Planning
  • Execution 
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closure

Different projects will move through this cycle differently. For example, you might spend less energy in the planning phase if your project is similar to many others your team has executed before. On the other hand, if the goal of your project is to draft up some strategic goals, you might find it requires very little monitoring and execution.

Here’s what you need to know about each phase of the typical project life cycle. 

Initiation: what’s the goal?

This is the time for big-picture, high-level planning. What are you trying to achieve? What’s the business problem you’re trying to solve or the opportunity you need to take advantage of?

Outline the goals and outcomes you’ll be working towards, and key metrics and indicators (KPIs) that will measure your progress.

Bring all the project stakeholders together, and make sure they’re on board with your vision for the project. Then, you can move ahead confidently, knowing that the project’s basic goals are decided.

Planning: how will you get there?

Next, you’ll get specific and tactical about how you’ll achieve the goals you outlined in the first phase.

What resources do you have to work with, and what constraints are you under? Create a detailed budget and schedule, and assign all tasks and deliverables to specific people.

You might also want to plan ahead for possible risks, and set some rules for clear communication, such as a weekly team meeting or a dedicated Slack channel.

Execution: putting plans into action

Once plans are in place, everyone can start on their contributions according to the schedule you’ve designed. 

At this stage, the project manager’s job is all about leadership and coordination. The PM will be briefing people on what’s expected, and giving them the resources they need to do their jobs. They might also be signing off on finished work, and moving the project forward as jobs are completed. 
Many project managers use dedicated tools, like Asana or Trello, to oversee the project’s execution and keep everything organized in one virtual space.

Monitoring and controlling: staying on track

Generally, this phase runs concurrently with actually executing the project. But rather than involving the entire team, it’s really the domain of the PM.

Managing a project isn’t just about organizing the people working on it; it’s also about making sure it’s moving forward as planned, and getting it back on track when it’s not.

Usually, that means assessing if the project is over budget or past its deadline. Depending on the project, PMs might quality-check individual deliverables too.

Often, progress reporting is an important part of this phase. Reports help the PM assess how a project’s going, then share their findings with stakeholders.

Closure: how did you do?

Congratulations, your project’s completed! But it hasn’t gone through its full life cycle yet. This final stage is about looking back and evaluating whether you reached your goals.

Often, the project manager will compile and present a final report on the project’s outcomes. Depending on how the project turned out, they might suggest certain next steps or go over what went wrong.

The team might also hold a retrospective to talk about what they learned through the project. Which strategies brought them the most success? Which challenges would they tackle differently next time?

The closure phase is crucial; it can lead to the whole organization collaborating more effectively. Instead of just rushing on blindly after the project wraps up, you’ll look at it more closely, and assess how it should shape your work in the future.

It’s always a cycle

These project life cycle phases might seem a little obvious in retrospect. Of course, every project needs to be planned, executed, and monitored! But hammering out these phases and systemizing them improves the chances that your project will succeed.

Great project management is all about efficiency and organization. The clearer your plan, the greater your chances of success. Understanding your project’s life cycle is the best first step for streamlining your plan.