Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 15, 2021 · 13 min read

Back to Basics: A Master Class on the 4 Phases of the Project Life Cycle

Back to Basics: A Master Class on the 4 Phases of the Project Life Cycle

If you build software for a living, you probably don’t think you have much in common with real estate developers, sculptors, or ancient Pharaohs. But every project–from redesigning a website to building the Colossus of Rhodes–follows the same four phases of the project life cycle:

The project life cycle is the ultimate guide to take you from idea to finished product. When you nail the deliverables and processes of each phase, you reduce risk, help your team collaborate effectively, and ensure that you’ll hit your goal (on time and budget).

While your job might involve pushing pixels and code more than hauling giant slabs of stone, you need to ingrain these four phases in your mind.

Jump to a section:

Whether you’re a new project manager in need of advice or an industry veteran wanting a refresher and some new templates and resources, this guide on the four phases of the project life cycle is for you.

What are the four (and sometimes five) phases of the project life cycle?

What’s the one way to guarantee business success?

  1. Put all your effort into one frantic moonshot idea in the hopes of becoming the next Uber or Facebook
  2. Consistently hit deadlines, set realistic schedules, and get 1% better every single day

While the first option is more exciting, in 99.99% of cases, you’re better off going with number two.

Good project managers thrive on consistency, workflows, and processes. They know that while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for running projects, there are plenty of one-size-fits-many options like industry standards, project templates, and proven workflows.

The project life cycle is one of those workflows that has been proven time and time again.

With a deep understanding of the four (and sometimes five) phases of the project life cycle, you go into every new project with a plan of action–even before you know what you’re building.

So let’s start with the basics. Here are the four phases that every project goes through:

  1. Initiating: Identify and roughly define the project scope and goals
  2. Planning: Develop a roadmap that everyone on the team will follow and get sign-off from key stakeholders
  3. Executing and monitoring: Monitor and measure progress, keep your team motivated and productive, and handle issues and roadblocks that come up
  4. Closing: Hold a post mortem, document lessons learned, and either hand off the project to another team for maintenance or create a plan for future work

While there are only four phases, each contains several steps and deliverables. Here’s a quick guide to what happens during each step (we’ll go more in-depth on each of these below!)

Project Life Cycle Phase Goals Resources & Deliverables (Click for templates and guides!)
  • Identify project objectives and deliverables
  • Uncover potential project risks, dependencies, and constraints
  • Start to establish a rough scope of work
  • Get buy-in and sign-off from stakeholders
  • Create a project timeline and set priorities
  • Break down milestones into actionable tasks
  • Identify success metrics and short-term goals
  • Address potential issues and how you’ll mitigate risks
Execution & Monitoring
  • Get started with a project kick-off meeting
  • Monitor and control progress with regular reviews or Agile ceremonies
  • Adjust tasks, goals, and timelines based on feedback
  • Communicate with stakeholders and your team
  • Check deliverables against your definition of done and hand over
  • Run a project retrospective meeting (and ask your client for feedback)
  • Document lessons learned
  • Release your project team and resources

And what’s this ‘sometimes fifth phase’?

Many project managers like to add a distinct control and monitoring phase between execution and closure. This ‘phase’ describes the process of monitoring and communicating progress, checking work against your initial plan, and adapting to changes.

It’s your choice whether you want to think of this as a separate phase. However, as monitoring is so tightly ingrained with the execution process, we like to keep things simple and group them together.

The project initiation phase: Uncover your purpose, priorities, and constraints

Every project begins with understanding a business need, how a new product or feature will solve it, and the risks, challenges, and priorities you’ll face along the way.

In the project life cycle, this phase is called Initiation.

Rather than jumping straight into a detailed plan, you’ll spend time on research, discovery, and discussion. This could mean talking to stakeholders if you’re an in-house team or digging into the hopes and motivations of your client if you’re an agency.

Regardless of your situation, the initiation phase includes a few key steps and deliverables:

Let’s dig into each.

Identify project objectives and deliverables

The most important question you can answer before doing any work is: Why does this project need to happen?

If you’re having trouble answering this question, try using one of these prompts:

An excellent place to start with identifying project objectives is within your product strategy.

Project Goals Table

Your product strategy goes beyond specific features and explains your overall vision, ideal customer, and market opportunities.

From there, you can start to uncover specific growth opportunities.

Are your ideal users not finding you? Or are they churning out because your competitors have better features? Has your growth stagnated in the past year?

All of these are viable objectives to start planning a project.

If you’re an agency working with an external client, you’ll get these same insights by digging into their needs, current issues, and history.

What have they done in the past that’s worked or hasn’t? Where are they struggling or see room for growth?

Once you have a few objectives defined, you can translate them into specific deliverables. (i.e., what you’re going to build to get the results you’re after).

Document these deliverables and keep a record of why they’re important. As you work through the project life cycle, it’s crucial to refer back to your original objective.

The best teams take any result - success or failure - and use it to move forward with the next project.

Uncover project risks, dependencies, and constraints

With these high-level objectives and deliverables mapped out, it’s time to think about the resources you have at your disposal.

Every project has certain constraints and risks to consider before you can commit to any work. In most cases, that means thinking about:

For now, keep this part high-level and use it to help define your scope of work. Later on, you’ll create a complete risk management plan.

Start to establish a rough scope of work

Now that you know what you want to complete and the constraints and risks that might get in the way, you can start to define your scope of work.

Based on your available resources, start to set boundaries on your project’s scope.

Use this information to start to put together a PRD–product requirements document. Unlike a more in-depth project plan, a PRD is a high-level breakdown of the purpose, features, functionality, and behavior of the product you’re about to build.

We’ve put together this in-depth guide and free PRD template you can use.

Get buy-in and sign-off from stakeholders

Finally, it’s time to get feedback on your proposal. Use your PRD as a guide to show project stakeholders what you’re proposing, why it matters, and how you’ll be building it.

Get sign-off on the high-level plan before you commit any time or energy to a detailed plan.

The project planning phase: Turn your ideas into an actionable plan

Next, it’s time to turn your goals, needs, and constraints into a plan of action. This phase is called Planning.

The project planning phase: Turn your ideas into an actionable plan

During the planning phase of the project life cycle, you’ll create a detailed plan that will become the source of truth throughout the project. Typically, you’ll want to:

Doing this amount of work upfront can be intimidating. However, the importance of a project plan can’t be understated. Let’s dig into how to create a project plan that will keep your team on track.

Create a project timeline and set priorities

As a project manager, it’s your job to set a realistic timeline and roadmap for your team.

This is arguably the most critical part of the project life cycle as you’re creating time constraints for each deliverable, which you can then use to track progress and make decisions about any changes to the scope.

Start with rough dates: your project’s proposed start and end date and when you want to complete specific milestones or tasks.

If your team uses a traditional project management style (aka ‘waterfall’), you can visualize this timeline on a Gantt chart.

Gantt charts show the timeline of each task stacked on top of each other so you can see dependencies or identify where team members might be overloaded with work.

Gantt Chart issues and timeline

A project management tool like Planio can automatically create Gantt charts for you based on the start and end dates you set for each task.

However, if you’re on an Agile team, you won’t be planning out all of your project’s work at once. Instead, you’ll be balancing this planning aspect with regular feedback sessions that may change the scope of your entire project.

We’ve written in-depth about the process of long-term Agile planning here.

Break down milestones into actionable tasks

Your timeline is built around larger milestones–collections of tasks or issues that will move the project forward. However, your project plan needs to go into more detail about what each milestone includes.

So how do you figure that out?

The process of collecting those details and breaking down larger milestones is called task management. Here are a few ways you can start to organize and break down your milestones into tasks:

  1. Start at the end and work backward: Imagine your finished project and work back to the beginning. Write every step you can think of on a whiteboard or mind map and then start to build a path back to the start.
  2. Engage your team to see what you’ve missed. Show your team your big list and ask them to fill in any holes or add context.
  3. Break multi-step tasks down into single steps. Look for any large tasks (aka ‘mini milestones’) and break them down into individual steps. For example, don’t write ‘build onboarding flow.’ Instead, include each step you need to take.
  4. Ask an expert. If you’re working on a brand new project, you and your team might miss crucial tasks or steps. If you can, bring in someone more experienced to go through your list.

Finally, as you fill out your task list, you should ensure that each issue includes any and all relevant information and context.

Any team member should be able to look at a task and know what it is, how important it is, who’s responsible, and who’s working on it.

In Planio, every issue includes space for detailed information, including estimated time, task priority, and even files and links to code repositories.

Issue Criteria

You can even create custom fields or templated checklists for your specific project.

Custom Fields list created by administrators

Identify success metrics and short-term goals

How will you know when each issue or task is ‘done’ and you’re ready to move on?

Your project plan should include your definition of done–the criteria that a task will be judged against. Not only does a definition of done ensure you hit the quality level you expect, but it also creates a shared understanding across your team.

Think about the ‘done’ criteria at different stages of your project:

A great way to organize your ‘done’ criteria is to create a templated checklist in Planio.

Creating a New Checklist

This way, every new task or milestone automatically has a space for a definition of done.

Address potential issues and how you’ll mitigate any risks

The final part of the planning phase is identifying and addressing any project risks.

Earlier, you put together a list of high-level issues and constraints. Now, with a completed project plan, it’s time to look at those risks and see which ones are still a possibility. Then, plan for how you’ll work through them.

This is called a risk management plan (you can read our complete guide and download a free risk management template here!)

The project execution and monitoring stage: Keep your team on track

Now that you have a clear business goal and a detailed project plan, it’s time to get down to work. This phase of the project life cycle is called: Execution and monitoring.

Here’s a quick rundown of what your tasks and responsibilities look like during this project phase:

There are two distinct parts of this phase. First, you’ll be helping your team do their best work by keeping them organized, motivated, and productive. While at the same time, you’ll be monitoring progress, checking work against your plan, and modifying your timeline or plan accordingly.

Let’s dive in and look at how to handle both aspects of this phase effectively.

If you do it right, your project life cycle will run like a well-oiled machine.

Get started with a project kick-off meeting

Even though you’ve spent all this time initiating and planning the project, the rest of your team doesn’t have that same level of context and understanding.

A project kick-off meeting is a great chance to build context, motivate your team, and explain the purpose of your work. If you’re an agency, the kick-off is an integral part of client management and an excellent place to get final sign-off on the work.

Use your project plan as a template for how to run a great kick-off meeting:

If you need help, we’ve put together some sample project kick-off meeting agendas and templates here.

Monitor and control progress with regular reviews or Agile ceremonies

Throughout the project, you’ll want to set time aside to review progress and check work against your plan. There’s pretty much a 100% chance that the work won’t go exactly to your plan. And that’s OK. As long as you catch it early and make adjustments.

If you’re on an Agile team, you’ll be able to do this during your sprint retrospective and sprint planning meetings. Otherwise, set time aside weekly or at least for each milestone when you check in.

Adjust tasks, goals, and timelines based on feedback

No one likes when the scope of work changes during a project. The dreaded scope creep happens all too often. However, rather than ignoring new information and feedback that could improve your final project, you should have a clear process for how and when you adjust the scope.

This is called a change control process. In its simplest form, this process involves five steps:

  1. Propose the change. Set guidelines for how a change is proposed. What information do you need to consider it?
  2. Give a summary of its impact. How will this change impact your timeline, budget, or other dependent work?
  3. Decide what to do about it. Know who the decision-maker is for adjusting the scope.
  4. Implement the change. If the change is approved, how will you adjust your task list?
  5. Close the change. Once it’s been included, the change needs to be ‘closed’ so you can move on without further discussion or interruption.

Communicate with stakeholders and your team

Throughout the execution phase of the project life cycle, you’ll be communicating progress to stakeholders and other teams. Again, this process benefits from a thought-out workflow rather than just ‘winging it.’

A communication plan outlines who needs progress reports, the frequency of communication, and what level of feedback you’re expecting. (We’ve put together a communication plan guide and template for you here!)

communication plan guide and template

Communication plans are essential for agencies working with clients. However, they’re just as important for internal teams with multiple stakeholders or dependent teams.

The project closing stage: Hand-off deliverables and document lessons learned

If you’ve successfully navigated through the project, hit your deliverables, and got sign-off from your stakeholders, it’s time to close out the project officially. This phase is called Closing.

Depending on your next steps, the closing phase may look slightly different. You could be handing work off to another team for maintenance, using the results of a project to plan new work, or even just trying to understand what went wrong.

The steps of the closing phase, however, will follow a similar pattern:

Let’s dive into each of these.

Check deliverables against your definition of done and hand over

Remember the definition of done you recorded earlier for the overall project? It’s time to go through them and see if the completed work meets the criteria for release.

If it does, you can release the feature or pass the work to a different team. If not, you’ll need to understand why and what should happen next.

Run a project retrospective meeting (and ask your client for feedback)

Once you’re happy with the deliverables, it’s time to step back and formally assess the work. As an internal team, this process involves meeting with your team to review the work and answer a few simple questions:

If you’re an agency, you’ll go through a more formal presentation of work to get sign-off and feedback.

Document lessons learned

Every project outcome–success or failure–is a chance to build your team’s knowledge.

Make sure you set aside a bit of time to document any lessons learned to help future teams work on similar projects. Make sure these lessons are stored somewhere they can be easily accessible, like in a Planio wiki.

Creating a new Lessons Learned Issue

Release your project team and resources

The final step of any project is to release your team and resources. Releasing your team is essentially a symbolic act, but it helps clarify that the project’s done and it’s time to move on.

How can Agile teams use the four phases of the project life cycle?

The four phases of the project life cycle apply to pretty much any project you can imagine. However, the strict structure can sometimes feel inaccessible (or unnatural) to Agile teams.

Agile Teams using the 4 phases of the project life cycle

Sources: Vistabuzz Product Life Cycle Phases and Moodah Agile Development

If you’re used to continually shipping features and gathering and applying feedback, it’s strange to think of a closed-loop process for building software. However, Agile projects can benefit from following the project life cycle phases with a few minor tweaks.

If you do it right, your project life cycle will run like a well-oiled machine

No one wants to be a one-hit-wonder. If you’re going to stand out in a crowded and competitive market, you need to consistently deliver projects on schedule and in line with your goals.

But the thing about the product life cycle is that it should never really end. Whether you successfully launch a product or hit a wall and have to reassess, you’ve learned something you can use in the future. The best teams take any result–success or failure–and use it to move forward with the next project.