What is the Project Lifecycle?

Back to Basics Series

Fun fact: Try typing “lifecycle” into Google and you will see results for “life cycle.” Over the years, people have started using the single word instead of two words, but its meaning can be best understood by looking at it as two separate words: “life cycle.”

Although the term “life cycle” is used in many professions, its basic meaning remains the same. Merriam Webster defines “life cycle” as “a series of stages through which something (such as an individual, culture, or manufactured product) passes during its lifetime.” It essentially means how something passes through or changes from beginning to end.

In project management, the project lifecycle signifies a series of stages or phases through which a project passes. Phase and stage are synonymous, but phase is the more commonly used term. For the sake of brevity and sticking to project management terminology, I will use lifecycle as a single word in the rest of the article.

Project Lifecycle and Phases

A project lifecycle can be simply understood as a collection of phases. A phase is a span of time wherein similar kind of project work is performed.

An Example

Let’s explore the concept through a small example. Assume that you are part of a large family that has people from all ages. The family wants to go on a vacation. Since you are an expert project manager and the other family members hold you in high regard, they have appointed you as the point person to make all the arrangements.

Now, as easy as it may sound, we all know that going on a vacation with family members requires a lot of planning and work. Different family members have different whims and fancies, but you need to take care of everything.

How would you manage this project?

As a start, you might divide the thing into three different phases (or stages). These phases could be:

  1. Before holiday
  2. At holiday destination
  3. After holiday

Each phase will involve a different set of activities.

The first phase will include activities like finalizing the holiday destination, making an itinerary, deciding on the budget, making travel arrangements, and booking hotel(s).

The second phase will include activities like following the itinerary, site-seeing, merrymaking, taking photographs, and controlling expenses.

The third phase will include activities like travelling back with fond memories, sharing photographs on social media, thinking about what went right and what could have been done differently, and making promises for the next holiday.

The end of third phase will result in completion of the project.

What is a Project Phase?

A project Phase is a span of time which culminates into one or more deliverables. Generally, the output of a phase becomes the input to the succeeding phase.

In the above example, travel tickets from the first phase are used in the second phase.

Ideally, phases should be sequential, but they can overlap as well. At the end of a phase, a review is done to ascertain that the phase is complete and the next can be initiated.

Project Phase example

Project Lifecycle in Organizational Projects

In the above example, we divided the family vacation (whole project) into three phases, but there is no hard rule about how you might want to divide a project.

Project lifecycle and the number of phases in a particular project depends on the nature of the project, industry, methodology used, and many more factors. Furthermore, every individual has their own thought process, so the number and names of phases may differ from project manager to project manager.

Generically, a project can be divided into the following four phases:

  1. Define
  2. Design
  3. Construct
  4. Commission

However, these are just generic phase names. Actual number and names of phases will change from industry to industry and organization to organization.

You can find some example lifecycles and phases from different type of projects in the table below.

ProjectExample Phases
Building constructionFeasibility study, Budgeting, Land acquisition, Architecture, Government approvals, Construction, Inspection, Handover
Software developmentCollection of Requirements, Design, Development, Testing, Implementation
New car developmentMarket research, Define requirements, Design andTooling, Prototyping, Road testing, Launch

Phases and Process Groups

In any project, five types of activities are performed:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and controlling
  5. Closing

This grouping of activities has a special significance in project management. They are called five process groups of project management. You can check this video on process groups for a quick overview.

Many authors incorrectly term process groups as phases of a generic lifecycle. Although you can name your project phases anything, having same name for a phase and process group can create unnecessary confusion.

A phase is different from a process group. The activities of five process groups are performed throughout the project in each phase. For example, execution means doing some work and creating some useful output. Executing activities is performed in all phases of a project.

With the help of our vacation example, let’s understand this further. We had three phases in the project. In all three phases, we will perform some executing activities:

  1. Before holiday – Booking flight tickets, making hotel reservations, etc.
  2. At holiday destination – Local travel, sightseeing, taking photographs, etc.
  3. After holiday – creating photo albums, posting photos on social media, etc.

What other process group activities occur in our vacation project? You can leave a comment below with some examples of Initiating, Planning, Monitoring and controlling, and Closing activities.

For more information on activities involved different process groups, refer to the PMBOK Guide’s process chart.

Importance of Project Lifecycle

Project lifecycle is about dividing and grouping similar type project work into a phase. By doing this, you reduce risk and increase the probability of success.

Revisiting the above example again, consider what would have happened if you straightaway went to the destination (second phase) without making any prior arrangements (phase 1). It would result in nothing but chaos.

Here are some significant benefits of dividing a whole project into phases:

  1. Division of work into smaller chunks makes the planning easier.
  2. Checkpoints at the end of each phase ensure that project remains on track.
  3. Smaller deliverables at the end of each phase give customer satisfaction and improved predictability.
  4. Assignment and delegation of work becomes easier.
  5. Phases reduce the overall risk of a project.

Conclusion

Project lifecycle and phases are an important aspect of project management. The lifecycle and its constituent phases should chosen at the beginning of project. As you can see, a sound division of project work into manageable phases can lead to project success.

What king of project lifecycle do you follow in your organization? Does your organization have a standard lifecycle that is used in all different projects?

I would love to hear from you 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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