Back to Basics: What is the Difference between Process Groups and Phases?

I got introduced to formal project management processes through Rational Unified Process (RUP) in the year 2000.

RUP was developed by Rational Corporation which was later acquired by IBM. It is an iterative software development approach which divides the project lifecycle into four phases: Inception, Elaboration, Construction, and Transition.

I had to learn about RUP because our company had adopted it to implement and manage projects. While learning RUP, I learned about project management processes, project lifecycle, and phases.

After that experience, I no longer had a difficulty in understanding the difference between project management process groups and project phases.

In my two decades of experience, I have noticed that many PMs find it difficult to understand the concept of process groups. There is a widespread belief that the PMBOK Guide, which is a standard for project management, does not distinguish between phases and process groups, but this is not true.

There is a fundamental difference between process groups and phases. Let’s explore how the PMBOK Guide differentiates between the two.

Five Process Groups of Project Management

My learning about project management pre-dates my learning about the PMBOK Guide. I was lucky that the internet was still in its infancy at that time, and I didn’t have to learn project management through dubious resources.

Today, the internet is full of articles that define the five phases of overall project management as Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring and Controlling (M&C), and Closing. The troubling fact is that some of these are posted by high authority project management sites.

5 process grouprs for project management

Some experts claim that M&C cannot be called as a phase because it happens throughout the project. So, they define four phases instead of five.

4 process groups

They are right that M&C happens throughout the project, but so do Initiation, Planning, Execution, and Closing. Therefore, none of these can be discounted as phases of a project.

Initiating, Planning, Executing, M&C, and Closing activities are repeated in each phase of the project. Hence, they are most accurately termed as process groups of project management.

PMBOK Guide Processes and Explanation of Phases

Many PM experts claim that the PMBOK Guide suggests that there are five phases in project management, but this is not true. On the contrary, the Guide clearly distinguishes between a process group and phase.

Here are the definitions from table 1.3 on page 18 of the PMBOK Guide 6th edition:

Project Life Cycle: The series of phases that a project passes through from its start to its completion.

Project Phase: A collection of logically related project activities that culminates in the completion of one or more deliverables.

Project Management Process Group: A logical grouping of project management inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs. The Project Management Process Groups include Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing. Project Management Process Groups are not project phases.

In figure 1.5 on page 18, the PMBOK Guide shows the relationship between project phases and project groups. It suggests that there could be four phases of a sample project life cycle: Starting the Project, Organizing and Preparing, Carrying Out the Work and Ending the Project.

project life cycle

Project Phase

A project phase is an accumulation of logically related and interconnected project tasks that culminate in one or more project deliverables.

A project can have one or more phases. The names of these phases can change for different projects. Here are some examples of project life cycles and names for phases:

  1. Software Development Life Cycle
    1. Requirements
    1. Design
    1. Development
    1. Testing
    1. Implementation
  2. Building Construction Life Cycle
    1. Land Acquisition
    1. Architectural Design
    1. Government Approvals
    1. Construction
    1. Finishing
    1. Handover

Having multiple phases in a project gives you better insight into your accomplishments and shortcomings. It also gives you the chance to evaluate the project’s performance and then take necessary steps to correct or prevent any gaps in subsequent phases.

Process Group

A project management process group is a logical arrangement of similar types of project management activities to accomplish specific project goals.

There are five process groups. Let’s us look at some activities in each of these process groups:

  1. Initiating: kicking of a project or phase, formally starting a new project or phase, authorizing a project, defining and communicating key project objectives, assigning project manager.
  2. Planning: determining and documenting what do we do, how to do these things, when to do these things, who will do these things, and how to measure.
  3. Executing: accomplishing project tasks, ongoing work of a project, implementing new things, creating deliverables, producing project outputs.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling: measuring project variables, taking corrective actions, making changes, taking care of deviations, monitoring and managing risks, checking project performance.
  5. Closing: formally completing a project, phase or contract, collating and documenting lessons learned, preparing final report, doing admirative closure, disbanding project team.

Example of Process Group Activities Inside a Phase

Consider a design phase. It could be the design of anything, like software design, building architecture design, or machine development design.

Now, the design phase will have all five process groups, as well as associated activities in each group. Here are some example activities related to this phase.

  1. Initiating: announcing to the world that the design phase is being started, holding a kick-off meeting, announcing core team members, developing a project or phase charter.
  2. Planning: determining resource requirements for the design phase, identifying type and number of resources, determining project milestones and schedule.
  3. Executing: doing the work, creating design documents like blueprints, architecture design, database design, etc.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling: measuring various work-related parameters, finding what has been accomplished and what is pending, finding defects in design documents.
  5. Closing: formal announcement that the design phase is complete and nothing more needs to be done, documenting lessons learned from the design phase.

Conclusion

A phase cannot be deemed as a process group. Process groups are repeated inside each phase of a project.

If you decide to use the term “Initiating” to name the first phase of your project, no one can stop you. However, it will only create confusion, because activities during this first phase won’t be limited to Initiating activities. You will also do planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and phase closing.

What life cycle do you follow in your projects? How many phases does it have? Do you distinguish between phases and process groups while describing your project life cycle?

I would love to hear from you in the comments section below.

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Written by Praveen Malik
Praveen Malik, PMP, has two-plus decades of experience as a project management instructor and consultant. He regularly conducts project management workshops in India and abroad and shares his project management thinking in his blog, PM by PM.

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