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Understanding the project management phases

There’s more to it than “to-do” and “done”

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The project life cycle is broken down into five project management phases: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, closure. These phases are your road map as you and your team conquer complicated projects.

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Meet Sofia. She leads the HR team at her company, and they’re about to tackle the colossal project of overhauling their employee onboarding process.

Most of us (Sofia included) think of projects in two phases: you start them, and then you finish them.

There’s a lot more to it than that. Think of it like baking a cake. You can’t go straight from a pile of random ingredients to a delicious, frosted masterpiece. There’s a whole lot of shopping, preparing, mixing, and taste-testing that happens along the way. 

Project management phases represent the different steps you take to go from beginning to completion. Understanding them will help you create more accurate project plans, estimate more realistic timelines, and conquer projects in a strategic and organized way.

Using Sofia and her team as our example, let’s take a look at the typical project life cycle and the phases that make it up. 

What is the project life cycle?

The term “life cycle” sounds like something straight out of your high school biology class, but the concept is actually pretty straightforward. The project life cycle is the set of stages a project moves through from beginning to end. You move sequentially through the phases to take a project from an idea to a completed deliverable.

Rather than tackling a project haphazardly and knocking out the low-hanging fruit first, understanding the project management life cycle enables teams to:

  • Move projects from start to finish in an organized and strategic way
  • Monitor project progress and status
  • Complete projects faster, because they’re more accurately planed with less unforeseen obstacles

Add all of those benefits together, and you get the biggest benefit of all: teams can deliver more successful projects more quickly.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), for every $1 billion invested, $122 million is wasted due to poor project performance.

Using the project life cycle to your advantage means you won’t throw money at projects that don’t meet their original goals.

Alright, you get it. The project life cycle has a lot of pluses. Now, what stages do you need to push projects through?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) breaks the project management life cycle into five distinct stages:

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring
  5. Closure

Now that you have the bird’s-eye view, it’s time to dig in.

The 5 steps of the project management life cycle

Five stages might seem like a heavy lift (especially if you’re used to thinking of projects only in terms of “beginning” and “end”). Each phase serves a distinct purpose in pushing your project toward best results.

Much like the alphabet, these phases are sequential. In order to reap the benefits of the project management life cycle, you need to move through these phases in order.

Phase #1: Project initiation

Sofia and her team are eager to give their employee onboarding process a much-needed reboot. Think the first step is mapping out a plan and a timeline? Not so fast.

Planning isn’t the first step of the project life cycle —it’s initiation. 

During this stage, the project isn’t actually approved and in motion. Sofia’s team is staying broad and defining it from a high level, with the goal of determining if the project is even worth pursuing in the first case. To do so, they’ll figure out:

  • The business case for the project
  • The benefit of completing it (i.e. what broader business goal does it support?)
  • The major deliverables
  • What success looks like

After thinking through these elements, Sofia and her team members have determined:

  • Business case: Sofia’s company has been struggling with employee turnover. The majority of employees leaving within their first 12 months of employment.
  • Benefit: The revised onboarding process will boost clarity, communication, and engagement during an employee’s first few months with the company, and hopefully keep them around for the long haul.
  • Deliverables: The HR team needs a documented procedure to refer to and manage, as well as an online dashboard for employees to work through during their first weeks of employment.
  • Success Metrics: A 15% increase in employee retention by the end of Q4, and positive feedback scores from at least 85% of new employees.

All of these elements can be pulled into a project poster, which Sofia’s team can reference whenever they need to zoom out and understand the project at a higher level. 

Once the team has worked through all of these factors, they should ask: Is the project feasible and worth pursuing?

If the answer is yes, they’ll get approval on the project (if necessary) and move to the next phase. If not? No need to panic. The team will head back to the drawing board and see if there’s a different way to solve the problem they’re facing, like using a project poster template.   

Phase #2: Project planning

Now that Sofia has defined the project at a broad level, it’s time for her to get into the minutiae. In this phase, she and her team will hash out a plan for actually getting the project completed.

Even if you’re eager to get to the actual work, it’s important not to cut corners in the planning stage. Effective planning can prevent a lot of the main causes for project failure, including inadequate vision and goals, poor communication, and inaccurate time estimates.

Planning is also going to require some time and elbow grease,  so make sure you set aside plenty of time for it at the start of your project.

Questions Sofia and her team will answer in this phase include:

  • What is the goal of this project?
  • What are the key performance indicators (KPIs)?
  • What is the scope?
  • What is the budget?
  • What are the risks?
  • What team members are involved?
  • What tasks are involved?
  • What milestones need to be met? 

It’s best to start by defining an objective for the project using the SMART goal framework. That stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Following that acronym, Sofia and her team define the following goal for their employee onboarding project:

Create a new employee onboarding process that educates and engages new hires and boosts employee retention by 15%. This new program should be launched by January 25, 2021.

Now Sofia and her team know what they have their sights set on. But, they aren’t going to reach that goal by wishing and hoping. The team needs to figure out what work actually needs to be accomplished.

Creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) can help. This splits the entire project into tasks that are displayed in a graphic format, so everyone involved can easily see the project’s action items. In the case of Sofia and her team, they identify the following tasks: 

  • Survey existing employees for feedback on the current onboarding process
  • Interview managers about what they want included in the process
  • Create general flow of new onboarding process/90-day plan
  • Record video tutorials to be included in the employee dashboard for extra clarification
  • Build a digital employee dashboard
  • Launch a portal where new employees can ask for help
  • Draft procedures and checklists for onboarding process
  • Upload videos and documentation to the dashboard

Once the team knows what the project requires, it’s a lot simpler for them to figure out how much time it will take, what supplies they need, and what they should do first. 

They’re also able to identify who the key project players are (in this case, the HR team, web development team, graphic designer, and content team), as well as any task and resource dependencies. These dependencies are aspects of the project that are tied to another.

For example, here’s a task dependency: materials can’t be uploaded to the employee dashboard before the dashboard actually exists. One task needs to be completed before the next. Or maybe the web development team can’t help with this project until they wrap up the company’s website redesign. A required resource isn’t readily available, because it’s dependent on something else.

Now, Sofia’s team can keep those dependencies in mind, put the project tasks in a reasonable order, and assign deadlines to each and every step on individual to-do lists.

Once they’ve done that, they’ve just crafted their project plan. It should be documented and stored somewhere that the whole team has access to (Confluence is the perfect place for this). 

Phase #3: Project execution

This phase is where a lot of the hard work actually happens.

This is when Sofia’s team goes heads down and completes those project tasks they identified. They’re drafting the procedures, recording videos, conducting interviews, and more. 

As they keep trucking through those project to-do’s, they’ll also be engaged with the following phase…

Magnifying glass

Phase #4: Project monitoring

Let’s go back to our baking a cake example. Do you only glance at the recipe once and then watch in amazement as the world’s greatest cake comes to fruition? Probably not. 

You refer back to that recipe as you crack eggs and stir the batter to make sure you’re doing things right. You peek into the oven every five minutes to make sure the top isn’t burning. You keep a close eye on that precious cake of yours.

Projects work the exact same way, and that’s what the monitoring phase is all about. It happens at the same time as the “executing” phase, and Sofia will evaluate the project at regular intervals to make sure the team is:

  • Meeting task deadlines
  • Avoiding scope creep
  • Sticking with the budget
  • Staying committed to the goal (the broader vision can get lost when you’re executing — it’s the old “missing the forest for the trees” trap)

Monitoring is much easier when using project management software. It increases visibility into the entire project and centralizes project-related conversations and information. 

Additionally, regular status meetings help the entire team stay on top of progress. This weekly meeting notes template makes it easier to record discussion topics, decisions, and action items from those conversations.

If Sofia notices that things aren’t working as planned, she can either course correct right away or make adjustments to the original project plan to account for this new direction. 

Phase #5: Project closure

The team did it! They rolled out a new and improved employee onboarding process. They’re ready to celebrate with a victory team lunch and wash their hands of that project once and for all.

But before they chalk this project up as a win, they need to move through this closure phase to wrap up any loose ends. This includes:

  • Conducting a postmortem or retrospective to discuss what went well and what they would’ve like to go better
  • Preparing a final project report and presenting it to stakeholders if necessary
  • Storing all project documentation somewhere safe so it can be easily accessed and referenced at a later date (again, Confluence can keep all of that in one organized spot!) 

After all of that hard work, your projects deserve to end on a high note. Even though the actual project tasks are behind you, closure is important for ending this project right and setting future projects up for success. 

How project management software can help

Think project management software is one of those “nice to have” things? Think again. If you want to boost success and reduce stress, project management software is a must. In fact, 77% of high-performing projects use project management software.

What makes it so great for managing the project management life cycle? This software:

  • Improves transparency and visibility, since the entire team can track the life cycle
  • Clarifies roles and responsibilities, so everybody knows what’s expected of them
  • Makes the project plan more actionable by creating assignable tasks, owners, and more
  • Reduces inaccuracies, because everybody knows how to find the right information
  • Provides real-time updates, so nobody is operating with outdated information

Don’t try to manage your project life cycle with endless email threads, random documents, and messy spreadsheets. Project management software like Jira will help your team take projects from lightbulb to launch day with strategy and organization.

Score more project wins

Projects don’t just jump from point A to point Z. Project management will guide you through the different stages of your project and help you tackle it strategically. 

Move through the phases in order and, much like Sofia and her team, you’ll be ready to pat yourselves on the back for yet another project win. We recommend celebrating-- with cake, of course.

The planning phase of project management is where a lot of the thought and hard work happens. Simplify it with our project planning templates.

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Project Poster Template

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Project Plan Template

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