In order to be successful in their practice, both beginning project managers and those who have been in the trenches for years need to become proficient across all stages of a project’s life cycle. There are a few different schools of thought regarding the phases of project management, but the classification developed by the PMI is largely considered to be the authority and the most complete approach.
To help new project managers understand this cycle, we will take a high level look at the 5 main project management life cycle stages as defined by the PMI.
A solid initiation will set a project up for success and lay the foundation for all the other stages in its life cycle. During this phase, PMs first measure the feasibility and value of a project in order to determine whether or not it is worth pursuing.
Once a project is given the green light, team members will be briefed on the project’s objective and assigned goals during the Initiation Phase. PMs should be working closely with their clients and execs to properly prepare for the upcoming planning process. It is also during this phase that PMs should be rallying the team together and building support for the project. One way to do this is to pull the team tighter and to present the project significance and value to them. It will be important to have everyone on board.
Warning: A common problem that can seriously affect subsequent project stages is the insufficient alignment of interests between all parties involved. The failure to properly identify competing interests and concerns during the initiation phase or the failure to be transparent can doom the project right from the start. Experienced PMs handle this early by creating a set of ground rules regarding transparency in communication.
The planning stage focuses on building a blueprint for achieving the project’s goals, on time and on budget. This roadmap will be used to guide the team through the execution of the project. It is in this phase that the scope is defined and a solid project management plan will be developed. The plan involves identifying costs, available resources, potential financing options, and risks, as well as setting a realistic timeframe. Moreover, it should also include performance measures or baselines to measure progress and determine if the project is on track.
During the planning stage, project managers clearly define roles, responsibilities and tasks, so that all team members are aware of what they’re accountable for. Here are a few of the essential documents PMs typically create to ensure that everyone knows what needs to be done and that the project progresses properly:
- Scope statement – a document that clearly describes the project’s benefits, objectives, key milestones and deliverables.
- Work breakdown structure – a diagram that breaks down the project’s scope into manageable sections
- Gantt chart – a project management visual used to illustrate the project timeline and to plan out the tasks identified in the work breakdown diagram.
- Risk management plan – a document that identifies all foreseeable risks and possible strategies to mitigate them.
- Communication plan – an essential plan if the project involves outside stakeholders. It should include communication objectives, frequency and methods, as well key content to share with the parties involved in the project. When planning project communications, the best PMs ensure their message will get across by adapting their approach to fit each particular audience. For instance, using simple, familiar PowerPoint visuals when reporting to stakeholders who may not understand PM jargon can be an effective way to share key data.
Execution is the stage that is most commonly associated with actual project management. PMs should expect intensive activity during this time, from allocating resources and building deliverables, to creating development updates, status reviews and performance reports. Project Managers should arrange a kick-off meeting to officially mark the onset of the execution phase, get the team started on the right track, and ensure everything is properly prepared for team members to begin executing their assignments.
The execution phase is active and PMs will be required to leverage their management skills and their soft skills to keep the project team motivated, performing and on track. PMs may need to:
- eliminate all unnecessary distractions or activities
- get underperformers back on track
- manage morale to prevent burnout
- find needed resources to overcome stalls
- solve conflicts that may occur
Monitoring and Control
Although it is sequenced as the 4th stage in the project management life cycle, the monitoring phase is actually most often implemented during the execution stage, not afterwards. While the team executes the project plan, PMs begin monitoring and controlling it to ensure progression is on track with the schedule. To achieve this, PMs will be:
- monitoring the tasks that are on the critical path
- verifying and controlling scope creep and taking measures to counter it
- updating stakeholder with status reviews according to the pre-established communication plan
- comparing planned costs versus actual costs
- seeking ways to optimize performance
The final stage of the project management life cycle is the closure phase, which requires a series of essential tasks and activities, such as delivering the finished project to the client, communicating its completion to stakeholders, releasing resources, and terminating contractors hired specifically for the project. During the closure stage, PMs also hold a post-mortem meeting to evaluate what went wrong, highlight successes, and learn what improvements can be made for future projects. Using this meeting to recognize and appreciate valuable team members is a best practice that can help build a PM’s credibility and brand.
Managing a project, regardless of its magnitude or complexity, can become overwhelming at times. Breaking it down into these 5 phases and mastering each stage can help PMs and their teams handle even the most complex projects successfully.
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