To an outsider, it might seem like the project management process is easy…just talking to clients, scheduling meetings, assigning tasks, and reminding team members of deadlines.
But anyone who has managed a project will tell you it’s much more than that, which is why the project life cycle is so useful.
The project life cycle is a 4-step framework designed to help project managers guide their projects successfully from start to finish.
The 4 stages of the project life cycle are:
- The project initiation stage: understand the goals, priorities, deadlines, and risks of the project
- The project planning stage: outline the tasks and timeline required to execute on the project
- The project execution stage: turn your plan into action and monitor project performance
- The project closure stage: analyze results, summarize key learnings, and plan next steps
Understanding and planning for the 4 stages of the project life cycle can help you manage, organize, and plan so your project will go off without a hitch. It can also help:
- Ease communication between project teams and stakeholders
- Ensure goals are achievable with the available resources
- Help mitigate risk and keep projects on track
But what does each stage of the cycle look like?
1. Project initiation stage: understand the goals, priorities, deadlines, and risks of the project
The initiation stage of the project life cycle is when you meet with clients and stakeholders to understand their goals, motivations, and hopes for the project.
During this stage the aim is to hash out the high-level goals that must be met for you to consider the project a success. There’s lots of research, discovery, and discussion, but very little detailed planning in this phase.
The key project management steps for the initiation stage include:
- Identifying project objectives and deliverables
- Outlining project risks, dependencies, constraints, and priorities
- Establishing project scope based on deadlines and available resources
- Submitting a project proposal for approval (our proposal maker can help you with that)
I’ll go through the basics here.
Let’s take a look at what’s involved for each of these tasks.
Kick off the project management process by identifying project objectives and deliverables
Start by talking with your stakeholders or clients to get to know their needs. Try to tease out what’s important to them, what projects they’ve tried in the past, and what they hope to see in the future.
From there, you can move on to building out the concrete objectives and deliverables that your team will be responsible for, given the scope of the project and the available resources.
Be sure to document the takeaways from these initial meetings…you’ll want to have a record of the agreed-upon deliverables when it comes to the project closure stage.
Pro-tip: Set S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. For example: “In 3 months, increase blog conversion rates by 5%”.
Outline project risks, dependencies, constraints, and priorities
Once you’ve mapped out the high-level project goals, it’s time to explore all of the variables that might impact the progress of the project, including:
- Risks: Factors that can negatively impact the cost, goals, timeline, or results of a project
- Dependencies: Relationships between activities or tasks
- Constraints: Limiting factors like technology, resources, time, and cost
By identifying all of these variables early on you can nip a lot of potential problems in the bud, before they throw off your whole project timeline.
A risk breakdown structure, like the one below, can aid in identifying and assessing all of the risks in your project. A risk breakdown structure is a hierarchical representation of risks, starting with the high-level risks and then breaking it down into more granular risks. It can be an essential tool for project risk management.
Establish project scope based on deadlines and available resources
With a handle on all of the variables at play, you can start breaking the project down into more actionable steps. Set boundaries on project scope based on your deadlines and the resources at your disposal, and think about what skill set your future team will need.
Summarize the takeaways of the project initiation stage in a project proposal
All of the details that you establish during the initiation stage should be outlined in a project proposal, the only major deliverable for this initiation stage.
A project proposal is a report that details all of the goals, scope, requirements, budget, participants, and deadlines of a project.
Not to be confused with a project plan, which includes a much more in-depth description of how the project will be executed, a project proposal should be no longer than a few pages.
Depending on the complexity of a project, an action plan one-pager, like the one below, might suffice.
Either way, when you’re a few months into the project, trying to prioritize the work of your team and make decisions that impact the direction of the project, you’ll thank yourself for creating clear documentation of these high-level project goals.
2. Project planning stage: outline the tasks and timeline required to execute on the project
Once your project proposal has been approved, it’s time to move on to the project planning stage of the project life cycle.
The project planning stage is when you create a comprehensive project plan, which involves:
- Translating your proposal into a series of actionable tasks and scheduling them in a project roadmap
- Documenting processes or workflows that your team will use (you could try using a process infographic for this)
- Creating measurable short-term goals from high-level project goals
- Addressing potential issues that could derail your roadmap
This project plan will be the source of truth for your team when any questions, conflicts, or issues arise throughout the project.
Let’s dig into the most important major deliverable of the project planning stage: the project roadmap.
Create a project roadmap with project tasks and milestones
Creating a project roadmap is one of the more important project management steps, crucial for organizing your team and keeping work on track. A project roadmap outlines all of the start and end dates of every major project task (plus any big milestones you’re working towards).
Pro Tip: Use our roadmap maker to create professional, engaging roadmaps.
Gantt charts (like the one below) are a great tool for project roadmapping, because they can show the duration and timing of a number of dependent tasks. They’re perfect for planning and scheduling, and eventually monitoring progress throughout the execution stage of the project life cycle.
The best thing about using a Gantt chart for your project roadmap?
You can show a number of concurrent timelines on a single chart, which makes it easy to account for task dependencies.
For example, this Gantt chart template shows project tasks for multiple teams over the course of a few months:
The visual format of a Gantt chart makes visualizing and adjusting for dependencies much easier than a spreadsheet. And because it’s visual, it’s easy for you team to see, understand, and give feedback on their upcoming tasks.
Once your roadmap is in place, the last step of the planning stage is to assemble your team and hold a project kickoff, launching you into the next stage of the project life cycle: the execution stage.
Check out this blog post for more Gantt chart templates.
3. Project execution stage: turn your plan into action and monitor project performance
The project execution stage is the true start of the project, when you carry out all of the tasks and activities you mapped out in the planning stage.
This is where the majority of the project work takes place, and it requires constant monitoring. Expect to adjust your goals and roadmap as you get deeper into the project.
As a project manager, your main responsibilities of the project execution stage are to:
- Monitor and control the execution process, reviewing the quality of the team’s output
- Adjust and update tasks, goals, and deadlines to meet changing conditions
- Communicate between your team and the project stakeholders
Create status reports to communicate execution progress throughout the project management process
Although most of your time during the execution stage of the project management process will be spent monitoring and adjusting to keep the project on track, you’ll also need to keep stakeholders up to date with any changes to the project status.
Using a project status report template, like the one below, will help make sure you don’t leave out any pertinent details when you’re communicating with stakeholders.
For example, this status report includes an overview of project performance so far, plus up-to-date project milestones:
While this status report template is shorter, focused around an executive summary, but includes space for notes from every team representative:
KPIs and budget updates should also be included, if you have any.
4. Project closure stage: analyze results, summarize key learnings, and plan next steps
Once you’ve achieved your project goals and the results have been signed off on by your stakeholders, it’s time for the project closure stage.
In the project closure stage of the project management process, you:
- Hand off deliverables
- Release team members and project resources
- Analyze project performance in a project retrospective
A project retrospective is as much about reviewing the success of the project as it is about extracting learnings that can apply to future projects. Projects will never go without obstacles, and there will always be things to learn that will ease the progress of other projects.
There are many ways to run a project retrospective meeting, but you should try to identify your biggest wins and losses and come up with solutions. If you’re an external consultant, you might even ask your client for feedback.
Keep track of your notes somewhere that will be accessible by your whole team, like a shared spreadsheet (or send out an email after the meeting):
Another duty of a project manager in the project closure phase can be to analyze the performance of the team, based on the quality of their work and how well they were able to meet deadlines.
These performance reviews can be delivered to team members (or higher-ups) in the form of an easy to read visual summary, like the one below:
But remember…your project isn’t complete until all of your documents have been handed over and approved by your client or stakeholder.
Use Venngage to communicate your progress throughout the project life cycle
Any project manager worth their salt knows that clear communication is the backbone of any successful project. Venngage helps you make your communication visual, so that you can wow clients and keep your team aligned.