Project Life Cycle

The Project Life Cycle (see figure below) refers to a series of activities which are necessary to fulfill project goals or objectives. Projects vary in size and complexity, but, no matter how large or small, all projects can be mapped to the following life cycle structure:[1]

  • Starting the project
  • Organizing and preparing
  • Carrying out project work
  • Closing the project

Project LifeCycle Graph
source: U Akron

Phases of a Project Life Cycle[2]
A standard project typically has the following four major phases (each with its own agenda of tasks and issues): initiation, planning, implementation, and closure. Taken together, these phases represent the path a project takes from the beginning to its end and are generally referred to as the project “life cycle.”

  • Initiation Phase: During the first of these phases, the initiation phase, the project objective or need is identified; this can be a business problem or opportunity. An appropriate response to the need is documented in a business case with recommended solution options. A feasibility study is conducted to investigate whether each option addresses the project objective and a final recommended solution is determined. Issues of feasibility (“can we do the project?”) and justification (“should we do the project?”) are addressed. Once the recommended solution is approved, a project is initiated to deliver the approved solution and a project manager is appointed. The major deliverables and the participating work groups are identified, and the project team begins to take shape. Approval is then sought by the project manager to move onto the detailed planning phase.
  • Planning Phase: The next phase, the planning phase, is where the project solution is further developed in as much detail as possible and the steps necessary to meet the project’s objective are planned. In this step, the team identifies all of the work to be done. The project’s tasks and resource requirements are identified, along with the strategy for producing them. This is also referred to as “scope management.” A project plan is created outlining the activities, tasks, dependencies, and timeframes. The project manager coordinates the preparation of a project budget by providing cost estimates for the labor, equipment, and materials costs. The budget is used to monitor and control cost expenditures during project implementation. Once the project team has identified the work, prepared the schedule, and estimated the costs, the three fundamental components of the planning process are complete. This is an excellent time to identify and try to deal with anything that might pose a threat to the successful completion of the project. This is called risk management. In risk management, “high-threat” potential problems are identified along with the action that is to be taken on each high-threat potential problem, either to reduce the probability that the problem will occur or to reduce the impact on the project if it does occur. This is also a good time to identify all project stakeholders and establish a communication plan describing the information needed and the delivery method to be used to keep the stakeholders informed. Finally, you will want to document a quality plan, providing quality targets, assurance, and control measures, along with an acceptance plan, listing the criteria to be met to gain customer acceptance. At this point, the project would have been planned in detail and is ready to be executed.
  • Implementation (Execution) Phase: During the third phase, the implementation phase, the project plan is put into motion and the work of the project is performed. It is important to maintain control and communicate as needed during implementation. Progress is continuously monitored and appropriate adjustments are made and recorded as variances from the original plan. In any project, a project manager spends most of the time in this step. During project implementation, people are carrying out the tasks, and progress information is being reported through regular team meetings. The project manager uses this information to maintain control over the direction of the project by comparing the progress reports with the project plan to measure the performance of the project activities and take corrective action as needed. The first course of action should always be to bring the project back on course (i.e., to return it to the original plan). If that cannot happen, the team should record variations from the original plan and record and publish modifications to the plan. Throughout this step, project sponsors and other key stakeholders should be kept informed of the project’s status according to the agreed-on frequency and format of communication. The plan should be updated and published on a regular basis. Status reports should always emphasize the anticipated end point in terms of cost, schedule, and quality of deliverables. Each project deliverable produced should be reviewed for quality and measured against the acceptance criteria. Once all of the deliverables have been produced and the customer has accepted the final solution, the project is ready for closure.
  • Closing Phase: During the final closure, or completion phase, the emphasis is on releasing the final deliverables to the customer, handing over project documentation to the business, terminating supplier contracts, releasing project resources, and communicating the closure of the project to all stakeholders. The last remaining step is to conduct lessons-learned studies to examine what went well and what didn’t. Through this type of analysis, the wisdom of experience is transferred back to the project organization, which will help future project teams.

Challenges in the Project Life Cycle[3]
Projects vary from light to heavy, short to long, and simple to complex. But, most follow a similar cycle: Start-up, Definition, Planning, Implementation, and Demobilization. Still, it makes more sense to understand a project life cycle in terms of the risk each phase represents: For example:

  • 1. Resource Risk - During the first stage of a project, project management has to determine the scope of the assignment, as well as the quantity and quality of the needed resources. Failure to get things right at this start presents the risk of being under-staffed, under-equipped, and under-funded.
  • 2. Financial Risk - Project plans must be resilient and responsive. Managers have to be agile in terms of unexpected changes in assignment or obstacles to completion. Nailing the financial requirements accurately is central to this stage.
  • 3. Quality Risk - Everyone involved needs a performance and outcome model. Every stakeholder needs a shared understanding of quality in process and execution. When the order is “go,” everyone needs clear direction, assessment, and coaching.
  • 4. Risk Management - All processes come full circle, but they do not always cycle on their own. Project managers cannot wait to the end of the cycle to determine the risk. Risk is built into the process, and the process needs monitoring to stay true.
  • 5. Closing Risk - Closing the door and taking home the tools does not end a project life cycle. Demobilization is a period of debriefing and dismantling ideas, processes, and resources, as well as equipment. Closing is the time to evaluate performance, improve process, and secure approval of deliverables.


  1. What does the Project Life Cycle Refer to? U Akron
  2. The Four Major Phases of a Project Life Cycle Adrienne Watt
  3. Common Challenges in the Project Life Cycle Brandeis Univ

Further Reading