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Fundamentals of the Project Life Cycle

Life cycle is a term we use to describe the overall time of existence of something. We know that stars such as our sun have a certain predictable life cycle, from the time they form to the last point of their existence. Trees have a life cycle, from a seed, to a towering adult, to a fallen trunk on the ground in the forest. In fact, if you look around in a forest, you can usually see trees in many phases of their life cycle. The fact that these phases are similar for different kinds of trees suggests that the phases within a life cycle are true on a very broad, or high-level, basis for everything we might classify as a tree. Therefore, if we can recognize where a tree is in its life cycle, we can predict what will likely come next.

In fact, it was a typical forest that inspired early astronomers to realize that all the objects they were seeing through their telescopes out there in the universe were not different objects at all; instead, they began to realize that many of them were similar objects at varying phases of existence along their individual life cycles.

The Concept of a Project Life Cycle

Like stars and trees, all projects have noticeable high-level phases as they evolve from initial ideas to completion. People think of projects also evolving in a somewhat sequential fashion, although we know it is common for changes in project requirements or other issues to result in a need to repeat previous sequential steps to include revisions. In general, when we think of this high-level progression from an initial state to a completed state, we can refer to it as a project life cycle. We can see many types of projects go through this sort of progression, even though the end goals, deliverables, or even application domains of the project (such as construction, software, or event management) might be very different from one another.

People use various terms when discussing the overall life cycle of a project, including stage, step, and phase. The various points in the life cycles of projects are described using terms such as prototype and final rollout. In Section 2.3 of the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition, PMI has formalized two terms that are important foundational concepts for this chapter:

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

  • Project life cycle: The series of phases that a project passes through, from its start to its completion.

You can think of a project phase as a “chunk” of the project—a lower-level concept that involves logically related activities and the completion of specific deliverables or types of deliverables. These chunks make up the general project life cycle, which is an overall arc of existence for a project as it takes various shapes while evolving from start to finish.

Visualizing a Project Life Cycle

Figure 4-1 shows a project life cycle going through six phases:

Figure 4-1

Figure 4-1 A Typical Project Life Cycle

  1. Aspire: This is the project aspiration and ideation phase, the origin for projects. Here a project portfolio is created to address problems or opportunities in an organization. In this pre-project phase, you need to ensure that any proposed project idea is aligned with the organization’s mission.

  2. Business case analysis: The proposed project idea needs to be justified based on evidence and details; this is where the business case comes into play. The objective of the business case is to assess the project benefit and value that the proposed project brings to stakeholders. This life cycle phase involves documenting, among other things, a profit-and-loss investment analysis.

  3. Create charter: The project sponsor formally authorizes the existence of a project after considering the business case and organizational needs. The project charter is an official document that identifies the project manager and grants authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.

  4. Develop the project management plan: This phase looks at the activities that need to be completed to deliver the project successfully. It considers both project- and product-related activities. From a project manager’s perspective, this is a very important phase, and much effort is expended to plan and organize the project in detail.

  5. Execute the project management plan: In this phase, the project management plan is executed. The project team must be motivated and led successfully to produce the project deliverables. There is also a monitoring and controlling aspect to the execution phase; milestones must be attained within the targeted project schedule, cost, and quality constraints.

  6. Finish: Here the project is completed and closed. The project manager handles administrative closure and lessons learned, and communicates project results.

The aspire and business case phases are often considered to be pre-project phases. Most project management practice and foundational project management standards focus on the remaining phases—from developing the charter to closing the project.

One of the reasons for this focus on the last four phases is that different vendors and organizations have unique proprietary activities for the pre-project phases: aspire and business case analysis.

For example, a life cycle could have just the phases of analysis, design, development, acceptance, and implementation. These five phases outline a methodical, step-by-step process for managing any project. With this approach, phases before analysis are considered pre-project activities; any phases after implementation are considered post-implementation phases. Post-implementation work might include such activities as project benefits tracking, in which the original concepts of the business case are measured and validated as being either achieved or not. The separations of pre- and post-implementation phases in these organizations can sometimes be due to the fact that other teams besides the “performing organization” (that is, the project team) are given charge of these front- and back-end phases. In contrast, the project team concentrates only on the five phases of work in between.

Stage Gates


Progressive elaboration takes place as a project progresses from one phase to another. The increasing amount of detail available as a project moves along provides opportunities to review whether there is any value in continuing to invest in the project. As illustrated in Figure 4-2, a stage gate is a point for deciding whether a project should be continued or terminated. Stopping a project early on can result in substantial cost savings. Steering committee members review the project progress, value, and business environment and decide whether to continue, suspend, or cancel the project completely. In other words, a stage gate is a gate that blocks further progress down the path of the project until some authority allows it to be opened after an appropriate review of the progress to this point. Stage gates are also known as phase review points or kill points.

Figure 4-2

Figure 4-2 Life Cycle Phases with Stage Gate Checkpoints

Project Life Cycle vs. Project Management Process Groups

How do the Project Management Process Groups, a hallmark of previous editions of the PMBOK® Guide, relate to a project life cycle? This is a common question and concern even among experienced practitioners. The PMIstandards+ online guide defines 49 processes that are associated with project management process groups. While references to the Process Groups can be found in the current edition, details of project processes can be found now in Process Groups: A Practice Guide. We have also reproduced them in summary form for your reference in Appendix B, “PMBOK® Guide Process Groups and Processes.”

The five Project Management Process Groups—Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing—are illustrated in Figure 4-3. There is some symmetry between a project life cycle and the Project Management Process Groups. The Initiating Process Group consists of processes such as Identify Stakeholders, Develop Project Charter; the Planning Process Group consists of processes such as Collect Requirements, Define Scope, and Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Similar processes are associated with Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing. We provide details of these processes in Chapter 5, “Planning, Project Work, and Delivery: Predictive Methodologies.”

Figure 4-3

Figure 4-3 Life Cycle Phases vs. PMBOK® Process Groups


Whereas a life cycle is more like a linear flow, the Project Management Process Groups can iterate at each life cycle phase. For example, consider a project that involves creating a charter document for the Olympics, as illustrated in Figure 4-4. The Olympics is such a massive event that creating a charter and getting all stakeholders onboard is a significant undertaking. This single complex project would involve all five process groups.

Figure 4-4

Figure 4-4 PMBOK Process Groups Can Apply at Each Phase of the Life Cycle

Figure 4-5 illustrates how the Project Management Process Groups iterate in large projects in each phase. Notice that it is possible to implement some or all of the processes associated with the project during each iteration.

Figure 4-5

Figure 4-5 Repeating Project Process Groups in a Project

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