The project life cycle, just like a good story, has a beginning, a middle, and (hopefully) a happy end. The beginning involves the ever-so-important planning; then comes the middle, where teams complete various tasks to move the project closer to completion; and finally, an end to review what went well and what didn’t.
This, in a nutshell, is the project life cycle: the phases a project moves through from start to finish. It’s a useful way to think about projects, as it helps teams successfully navigate them from initiation to closure, no matter how big or small the project is.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more to it than this. And so, in this guide, we leave no stone unturned, exploring almost everything you need to know about the project life cycle, including:
What is a project life cycle?
The project life cycle is a framework project managers use to help them plan and execute projects strategically and effectively to meet project goals.
Project life cycle definition
The project life cycle consists of a series of steps, phases, or stages a project goes through from beginning to finish—sometimes linearly and sometimes not. There are usually five phases of the project life cycle: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure.
Characteristics of the project life cycle include:
- A start and finish with distinct phases
- Project objectives defined at the beginning
- A plan for achieving the objectives
- Deliverables and tasks to be completed
- Systems for managing projects
- A list of stakeholders
Types of project life cycles
While the project life cycle stages are widely recognized, there are variations in how project teams use and follow them. Some follow them linearly, while others go for a more flexible approach.
There are different types of project life cycles teams can make use of depending on the type of project they’re working on.
Here are five of the most common types of project life cycles:
1. Predictive (or waterfall) life cycle
Also known as the waterfall or fully-plan-driven project cycle, the predictive life cycle is the most traditional and easiest to understand.
The plan is created upfront, with a defined schedule, scope, and costs. A single product or service usually gets delivered at the end.
The project follows a linear progression through the five steps of the project cycle: initiate, plan, execute, control, and close. The team moves on to the next phase only once the previous stage is complete—and performs each phase once.
This approach provides a solid project plan that’s easily replicated.
2. Iterative life cycle
The iterative life cycle also consists of the five project phases, but there’s no linear progression. Each stage in the cycle is performed as many times as needed. For instance, a project team may move between the execution and monitoring phases multiple times before moving on to closure.
This life cycle is ideal when the project scope is unclear, but the customer still wants the best solution. Customer feedback is received at the end of each phase and informs the next stage, so planning continuously happens throughout the project’s life.
3. Incremental life cycle
During the incremental life cycle, the project is delivered in multiple increments or sets. Each set consists of progressing through the five project phases linearly until completion. And each phase must be completed before moving on to the next.
At the end of each set, a deliverable is produced, with feedback informing the next set. This means that the cycle of moving through the five phases happens multiple times.
As with the iterative life cycle, the incremental one is ideal for unpredictable scopes and where timely delivery is crucial.
4. Agile (or adaptive) life cycle
Also known as the change-driven or adaptive approach, the agile life cycle combines iterative and incremental life cycles. This type of cycle is more open to change and adaptation and doesn’t follow a linear progression. The initial phase only happens once—with planning, execution, and control stages happening in iterations, usually multiple times.
Each iteration delivered is followed by feedback that informs the next iteration or set. This life cycle is ideal for projects where feedback is essential, timely project delivery is crucial, and the scope is unclear.
5. Hybrid life cycle
The hybrid life cycle is a combination of project management approaches. An example is the agile life cycle, which combines iterative and incremental project management approaches.
Hybrids are ideal for when any of the other approaches aren’t suitable.
Okay, now that we’ve got the hang of different types of project life cycles, let’s dive a bit deeper into the phases and what happens in each.
The phases of a project life cycle
The diagram below shows the five stages of the project life cycle, which we will discuss in more detail next. Just keep in mind that not everyone uses five stages. Some choose to focus on a four-phase project life cycle while others may opt for something entirely different.
As we mentioned earlier, the choice mostly boils down to personal preference and the needs of the project. For instance, some PMs may prefer the 5-phase cycle because it’s more detailed, while others may pick four phases because it’s more straightforward.
If you’re dealing with a complex project, you might want to opt for the 5-phase cycle, whereas if you’re in a time crunch, you might want to opt for the 4-phase cycle.
Phase 1: Initiation—kicking things off
Initiation is the project kick-off phase, to get the full download of information from key stakeholders. At a high level, this phase defines the problem, details what needs to be done, and is an opportunity to define all the stakeholders.
The initiation phase will vary depending on the size of the project. For a freelancer working with a client to write a few blog posts, the initiation phase may involve one brainstorming meeting to clarify the details.
For a project team working on a large project with many deliverables over months, this phase will be more comprehensive—and will probably involve producing a business case and feasibility study.
Regardless, these are the types of tasks you can expect to tackle during the project life cycle initiation phase:
- Create a project charter that details the scope and project objectives
- Identify the stakeholders, which includes the project team, project managers, project sponsors, and clients
- Conduct a feasibility study to determine if it’s possible to tackle the project
- Create a business case to see if the project is worth pursuing: analyze benefits, costs, and risks
- Build an estimate of the project costs to guide budgeting
You’ll usually capture all this information in a Project Initiation Document (PID).
Phase 2: Planning—the foundation of your entire project
Once you have the green light for the project, it’s time for planning. Planning lays the groundwork for the rest of the project and helps you move intelligently through it.
You’ll detail all the work and how you plan on doing it. More specifically, the project life cycle planning phase involves:
- Creating a project plan that includes project objectives, deliverables, timelines, project constraints, a project schedule, and project dependencies
- Preparing a project budget by building a financial plan with cost estimates for labor, material, and equipment
- Specifying resource requirements like labor and materials to help with resource scheduling and allocation
- Managing risk by identifying potential problems and creating contingency plans
- Creating a communication plan that details the information you’ll need, who needs that information, how often you’ll communicate, and how you’ll communicate
- Setting quality targets and control measures via a quality plan
- Listing the criteria for what customers deem a completed project
- Detailing the processes, systems, and tools you’ll use to manage and track your projects. How will you manage and schedule your team? How will you track resource utilization to ensure you’re making the best use of those resources? Workload planning tools can help.
Workload planning tools for happier teams and smoother projects
The right workload planning tool like Resource Guru helps you identify, categorize, and better schedule resources by seeing who’s overloaded and underutilized. From there, you can:
- Identify bottlenecks where demand (for people) is higher than supply, so you can plan ahead and hire more people if needed
- Assign the right people to the right projects to prevent overload and burnout, while improving employee retention
It’s as simple as dragging and dropping to rebalance workloads. Et voila! Resource scheduling is done.
Phase 3: Execution (or implementation)—getting the work done
The execution or implementation phase is where you put planning into motion. The aim is to complete deliverables to achieve the project objectives.
The project manager will typically carry out these tasks during the project execution phase:
- Allocating resources and budget
- Scheduling tasks
- Briefing the project team
- Coordinating and managing the team and schedule
- Attending client reviews and regular team meetings to share progress
Phase 4: Monitoring (or controlling)—tracking progress against the plan
The monitoring or controlling phase goes hand-in-hand with the execution phase. It’s about monitoring the project’s overall progress to see if you’re meeting project objectives and are on track.
You’ll need to track performance metrics like budget, cost variance, resource utilization, and client satisfaction. Where there are deviations from the original plan, always first try to get the project back on course. If this isn’t possible and you need to modify the plan, take note of this, so you have a record to refer back to later.
Ways to track project progress, include:
- Regular team meetings to get feedback on how things are going.
- Client review meetings where you answer questions. This helps create a constant feedback loop that allows you to include client changes earlier, rather than later when it may be difficult to backtrack and can become costly. Make sure you compare these change requests against the initial project scope to control scope creep before it gets out of hand.
- Using tools like resource management software to track resource utilization to ensure you’re getting the most out of your team and preventing team burnout.
Phase 5: Closure—wrapping things up
During this phase, the project winds down and comes to a close. You’ll spend time wrapping things up by handing over project documentation, releasing final deliverables, terminating contracts, and informing everyone that the project is complete.
You can also conduct a project post-mortem to assess what worked and what didn’t. This could be a wrap-up meeting with all stakeholders or a project report you deliver to everyone.
Regardless, use this information to learn from mistakes and build on the wins to ensure the success of future projects.
Advantages and disadvantages of project life cycle
Now that you have a thorough understanding of the phases of the project management life cycle, let’s look at the pros and cons.
Take note: The following is a high-level look at the pros and cons of the project life cycle and doesn’t involve a one-to-one comparison between the different types of project life cycle models.
Advantages of project life cycle
- A reliable structure for managing and delivering projects helps teams navigate and deliver projects on time and on budget
- The framework, which is usually visible to all, makes it easy to define roles, so everyone knows what to do
- You can easily track the project’s progress against the phases. Everyone can easily stay updated on the project’s status
- Clear steps, deliverables, and project goals foster better communication and collaboration
- Planning for risks is easy so that you can minimize their impact
Disadvantages of project life cycle
- The project life cycle consists of distinct phases, making it rather rigid. This rigidity is not suitable for all projects. It may be why there are different versions of the cycle to accommodate different project types
- A rigid project approach can stifle creativity, particularly moving through the project linearly
- Some teams overcomplicate the stages of the cycle, which leads to slow project delivery and unnecessary costs
- Moving through the life cycle can be overly time and resource intensive
- Teams can waste time, money, and resources if the need or problem isn’t properly defined
Critical success factors across the project life cycle
- Specific and measurable project objectives. For instance, the objective of “increase total organic traffic by 20% by the end of August 2023” is much better than “increase traffic.” It provides a precise number for the increase, so you know what to aim for and you aren’t choosing a number arbitrarily during the project. It’s also measurable; you can pull stats to see if you’ve reached your goal. Finally, there’s a deadline, so you’re not aimlessly tracking a metric indefinitely.
- Proper planning. Planning is the foundation of any project as it guides your actions. It includes your project plan, budget, communication plan, schedule, and systems for success.
- Scope control. Scope control helps keep a project on track and on budget. Without it, you risk the project going beyond what was agreed. A real possibility considering that nearly 50% of all projects experience scope creep. Scope creep causes project delays, resource allocation issues, and budgeting problems. Control scope creep by having a clear project schedule and a change management plan.
- Proper project tracking. Tracking progress against the plan helps you stay on track. Weekly status meetings can help steer the ship.
- The right project management tools. The right tools help simplify project management, keep you organized, and help you stay on track. Use them for task scheduling, resource allocation, budgeting, and compiling cost estimates.
- Proper communication. Regular communication between stakeholders ensures everyone stays aligned and is working together.
- Management support and buy-in. Without management agreement that the project is essential, you’ll struggle to progress. Create a business case to get buy-in.
- Resource allocation. Project success depends on allocating the right resources to the right areas and in the right amount. If you have too few resources, your team will be spread thin. Too many, and you may blow your project budget out of the water.
- Strong leadership. PMs must be competent and effective leaders who inspire and can get the most out of their teams.
- Risk management. No project is without hiccups. There need to be contingency plans.
Project life cycle examples
Below are two project management life cycle examples: one for a smaller project and another for a larger one.
Example 1: Website redesign
Initiation: A web designer (Joe) has a project kick-off meeting with a client to understand the problems with the existing site and the goal of the new one. One of the objectives is to modernize the site.
Planning: Joe completes the creative brief, which includes the scope, milestones, and costs. The milestones allow for client feedback. Both parties agree on the number of changes allowed at each milestone and what the definition of a change is, so there’s no confusion.
Execution: Joe produces wireframes and mock-ups for delivery at different milestones. Feedback at each checkpoint informs the next phase.
Monitoring: Joe uses the checkpoints to track project progress and control scope creep. For instance, at the first checkpoint, the client wants to change the placement of an icon. This change is minor, so scope creep is not a concern. For the remaining checkpoints, the project proceeds without a hitch.
Closure: Joe delivers the final prototype. The client is happy and signs off.
H3: Example 2: Developing software
Initiation: A moving company wants to create an app to help price their moves because the team is making math mistakes that are costing the company thousands of dollars. A business case is created to detail the problem as well as the benefits and costs of the software. The project gets the green light, and a project manager (PM) is appointed.
Planning: The PM creates a project plan highlighting the costs, deliverables, timelines, scope, and resources. One new resource is a specialist app developer the team had not initially discussed. The PM flags this to the CEO, who approves the extra budget. They hire a developer to work in-house.
Execution: The PM works with the developer and implements checkpoints across design, development, and testing. After milestones one and two, the project is moving ahead as planned.
Monitoring: The third milestone arrives, and the team needs to confirm if the app is ready for testing. But they need more development time and want to add an extra feature.
The PM, again, flags this to the CEO, who approves and agrees to a budget increase of $40,000. The PM adjusts the project schedule to account for the changes—and pushes it out by two months.
Closure: The team deploys the app and starts using it. The developer helps train everyone, so they understand how to use it. The PM conducts a project post-mortem with the team where they recognize they were flexible and adaptable but could’ve better defined the requirements.
The bottom line on project life cycles
Sure, the inflexibility of the life cycle makes it an unsuitable framework for certain projects. But it’s still a valuable way to think about them because it provides structure to otherwise chaotic projects.
Now, you definitely don’t need to follow this structure blindly—it’s not the be-all, end-all for project success. Instead, use the underlying concepts, ideas, and information from this guide and adapt them to build your own.
Maybe your projects will follow a more linear progression and closely resemble the traditional predictive cycle? Or perhaps you’ll lean toward a more hybrid model and embrace adaptability?
It’s your choice.
As a project manager, you know your project, resources, and team better than anyone else. So view these life cycles as an adaptable framework and apply them when needed—you know what’s best for your project.