The 4 Project Life Cycle Phases (Full Easy Guide)

Project Life Cycle Phases

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If you are approaching Project Management, one of the best places to start are the project life cycle phases. These phases make it easy to understand how a project evolves over time, and they help to plan the effort you need accordingly. While knowing the project life cycle phases alone is not enough to draft the perfect project, it can surely help quite a bit. In this guide, we will give you a complete explanation of these phases.

Project Life Cycle

Before we dive into the project life cycle phases, we should define the project life cycle itself. Well, much like humans, projects also have a life, and this life is limited in time. This does not mean the life of a project is short – it just means that it has an end. In fact, a project can last several years or even decades, but it always has an end: a goal that you want to reach and that, upon reaching it, will mean the project is complete.

This is different from “operations”, the day-to-day activities of a company. For example, answering customers’ calls in a help desk is not a project: you will never be finished. Instead, upgrading the computers of the people working in the help desk is a project: you will finish when you have upgraded all the computers.

Having a finite life means that the project will go through several stages, or phases, until it reaches the end. The goal of this post is to explain these phases: the 4 project life cycle phases.

As we dive into the phases, take in mind that completion is just one reason to end the project – possibly the best. Yet, we also have many other reasons: we realize midway that the project is useless to the company, we find it no longer economically viable, the budget is cut, and so on. For this article, we focus on understanding these phases, so we do not really care whether we succeed in the project or not. That is a whole different story.

Project Life Cycle Phases

We can divide the life cycle of a project into four phases, which we approach in order: initiating, planning, executing, and closing. Just by the names we can have a general idea of what each phase may look like. Before diving deeper into each, we can have an overview.

  1. Initiating Phase – here the company realizes it has the need to do the project, and it starts to marshal resources to do the project (hire the PM, set aside a budget etc.)
  2. Planning Phase – here we develop the plan, defining when we expect to complete each part of the project. We start to create the team that will work on the project.
  3. Execution Phase – this is the biggest phase; it is the time when we actually do the work to get the project done.
  4. Closing Phase – in this final stage, the project is completed (or it has ended for some other reason), so we can formalize the closure and release any resource we used.

Just by knowing this, we can define the correct effort curve. This simple chart shows how the effort (that is, the amount of work) is distributed over time and across phases. On the horizontal axis, we can see the time, while on the vertical axis the effort. The more people are working (and the more hours each is putting each day), the higher on the y axis we will plot the effort.

Correct Effort Curve for the Project Life Cycle
The Correct Effort Curve. Note that effort also tends to decrease as execution reaches an end.

We call this correct effort because that is what we want. If planning takes twice the effort as execution, it could be that we have some problem. Of course, actual amount of effort and duration of each phase is arbitrary in this drawing.

Now, we can dive into the project life cycle phases, one by one.

1. Initiating Phases

This is the first phase of the project. In this phase, the company realizes that, for some reason, it needs to execute some project. Such reasons may be to comply to regulations, to reduce costs, to expand revenue, or any other business need.

Initiating Phase is the first of the Project Life Cycle Phases, and it is where everything begins
If you work in a fast-paced organization (and who doesn’t?), initiating a project may feel like starting a race.

As the need becomes clear enough, we will make a project charter. That is a document that summarizes what the project would look like, why it is important, and what how to go about doing it. In this general description of the project, we want to outline the key objectives that our project must meet, as well as potential risks we may face.

The goal of the project charter is to provide a general overview of the project, so that we can make a high-level decision whether to proceed or not. In most context, this document is what you need to request a budget from your company to do the project. As such, you should include some economic details in this charter. These economic details are generally related to costs only. The benefit the project will bring, in terms of economics, are generally forecasted in another document: the business case.

The business case is a simpler document that assumes at very high level the cost of the project and forecasts its economic benefits over time. It answers the question: is it worth investing? This is generally created by who commissions the project, so before the initiating phase. Often, here some consultant may get involved, maybe someone from McKinsey or AT Kearney.

Instead, the project charter is the document we create during the initiating phase. If that gets approved, we start to get the budget and form at least the project management team, that we will need in the second phase.

2. Planning Phase

Planning is the second of the project life cycle phases. It is also the second biggest in terms of both effort and duration (the first being execution).

Project Life Cycle Phases: The Planning Phase is the second phase, where you create the Gantt like this one
An example of Gantt, a common deliverable of the Planning phase.

Here, we know the project is approved and so we need to decide how to do it. This is exactly the purpose of this phase. Here, the project manager and her team will have to work hard on many documents. Generally, the first document we create is the project management plan. This document tells how we approach project management itself. What are the project management strategies and methods are we going to use? What will the project management do to ensure the success of the project? Most of the times, this document is a standard company template that we only need to readapt to the project.

Once we are clear on how we will manage the project, we need to define how we will do the actual work. That is, we need to define all of the deliverables and activities that are part of the project, how they are interrelated (e.g., in order to activity B, we may need to complete activity A first), and estimate the efforts. You will need to estimate the resources: what equipment, capital, and people are you going to need for each activity and so on. We have many documents that we can produce at this phase, but the most important is the Gantt, the sequence of activities with durations, dependencies, and owners.

In this phase, almost all the work is done by the project management team. Furthermore, we can start to do some preliminary execution activities in parallel such as start hiring some specialized staff we know we are going to need.

3. Execution Phase

The execution phase is the biggest of the project life cycle phases, both in terms of total effort and duration. This is natural, as this is phase when we do the real work.

Here, the people actually working on the project will do the activities defined in the plan to create the desired deliverables. This does not mean the project manager is free and may move to another project. Quite the opposite, the project manager and her team are tasked to monitor and control that everything is going according to plan. Monitoring the status is about understanding if we are getting what we planned for, at the planned expense and within the planned time.

Execution is the third and biggest among the project life cycle phases, both in terms of effort and duration
During execution, real work gets done.

Beyond just monitoring, the project manager will have to understand the status of the project and report it to stakeholders, managing communications and ensuring that potential roadblocks are raised to key people who can remove them.

Junior project managers just starting out sometimes get confused about which activities are part of planning and which are part of execution. The classical example is the construction of a building, and in that the common mistake is to include the design of the building by the architect as part of planning. In reality, that is part of the execution as well. Planning is about defining the sequence of activities, such as saying that for the first 4 months it will be the architect to work and prepare the blueprint of the building, and then the construction company will kick in.

4. Closing Phase

The closing phase is the last of the project life cycle phases. It is generally the shortest, both in terms of effort and duration. Here, we only need to pause for a second, ensure the project is properly finished, and then move on with our lives.

Closing is the last phase of Project Life Cycle, here we conclude all the proejct activities
The closing phase is often about documentation and signing documents.

To do this, we will have to work on two aspects. The first aspect is the most evident: release resources. This means that the team we formed to execute the project will cease to exist, and people will go back to their “home” departments in the company. If we hired some consultants, it is time to let them go. Even more importantly, we had some contracts with third parties for the project, we need to ensure contracts are closed and all the parties met their obligations.

The second aspect is about documenting the outcome of the project. In fact, the goal of this project life cycle phase is also to help the organization in the undertaking of similar projects in the future. As such, you will have to create a lessons learnt document, indicating the challenges faced during the project and out to overcome them. Ideally, any other project manager in the organization should have easy access to the lessons learnt of all other projects, so that he can quickly incorporate them in his project.

You will also want to formalize the closure to all the stakeholders, often with a project closure meeting or go-live (if your project creates a deliverable that is then used by people, so it can “go live”).

Project Life Cycle Phases in Summary

Project life cycle phases are a simple yet fundamental project management concept. If you understand them right, you will know how to navigate through the life of your project, and you will be equipped to better understand more advanced concepts, such as knowledge areas.

Even if you are not a project manager, understanding the project life cycle phases is key if you must work on a project. Most notably, it is something you must know if you want to step-up in leading projects organically. If that is your case, you may also want to learn about referent power, a wonderful tool to get your points across and drive change in the organization.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio



Project Management