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August 30, 2023

The project life cycle explained

Agile Roadmapping Project Management Resource Management WBS & Backlog Structuring
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Even though every project is different, they all have a few things in common. Constraints, goals, and deliverables are just a few examples. Moreover, each project goes through the same stages, regardless of the methodology.

These stages are called the project life cycle: a framework consisting of phases and processes that enable successful project management from start to finish.

The project life cycle generally consists of four phases:

We’ll dive into each of these in detail. Also, you’ll learn what tools support these phases throughout the project.

Project life cycle phases

Project initiation phase

The project starts with the outline of its vision, business case, high-level objectives, requirements, and goals. For setting goals, be sure to follow the SMART acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Initiation is also the time to consider the people involved in the project. That includes team members, stakeholders, and the project lead.

On top of that, the Project Manager estimates the triple constraints: time, scope, and budget. It’s also the right stage to identify potential dependencies and risks.

Documentation is key, which is why most PMs use a project charter at the initiation stage. Another common practice is drafting up a stakeholder registry. These documents help ensure the right people have the right project information.

Some of the details are subject to change. For example, the scope and the timeline might need adjusting during the planning. Still, having an initial project plan is a sound idea. Once all the main elements have been communicated and agreed upon, the project can move to the next stage.

Project planning phase

At this stage the project plan starts to take shape. During the planning phase, managers break down the project goals.

This is when you line up requirements and deliverables. This provides the basis for the project’s scope. Speaking of scope, this is when the Project Manager takes the rough estimate from the Initiation and breaks the work down in detail. The PM sets out the task list, timeline, and dependencies, and details the responsibilities of each project team member.

To organize the upcoming workload, you’ll want to divide the scope into milestones.

Planning is also the part of the project life cycle in which the Project Manager specifies the available budget.

Additionally, the PM should keep in mind the possibility of changes happening throughout the project. To prepare for them, there ought to be a change management plan in place.

To make sure all the relevant information is in one place, it’s worth creating a project plan. It should include the details above: the scope, timeline, budget, and people responsible.

Project execution phase

Once the plan is ready, it’s time to execute. At this stage of the project life cycle, the team works on deliverables. But that doesn’t mean the Project Manager’s work is done.

During execution, the PM keeps an eye on the project team’s progress. This entails frequent communication with the team to make sure the timeline, scope, and spending are on track.

Should any issues arise, the Project Manager should find a way to mitigate their impact.

While the team is hard at work, Stakeholders might want to know how the project is coming. That’s where regular reporting comes in.

Project closure phase

The final stage confirms the completion of the project and delivery to the Stakeholders. During this phase, you verify that the project provided the desired benefits or solved the relevant problems. Use the project’s objectives as a point of reference.

The closing phase also gives you an opportunity for improvement. Now’s the time to conduct a “lessons learned” session. Figuring out what went right and what went wrong will help you avoid making the same mistakes again.

Take some time to appreciate and celebrate the team’s hard work and successful delivery.

Last but not least, the PM should archive all relevant project records.

Monitoring and Controlling is not a phase

Some sources include another phase in the project life cycle: Monitoring and Controlling. For those who include it, this comes after execution. But, in fact, monitoring and control happen throughout the entire project.

Think about it this way: Does the creation of deliverables just happen, with no oversight? Are there no updates or regular status meetings? Of course, there are! Otherwise, the Project Manager and Stakeholders would be left in the dark until the project team completed their work.

Monitoring and Controlling happens in the earlier stages, too. For example, establishing goals or budget requires the agreement of Stakeholders. That’s a form of control, after all.

So, the life cycle of a project looks like this:

Project life cycle: initiation, planning, execution, and closure. Also, monitoring and controlling happen throughout the project's life.

The importance of the project life cycle

With so many moving parts and people involved in each project, following the life cycle brings some order to the chaos.

It also introduces clarity among Stakeholders and the project team. Establishing goals (and communicating them) gets everyone on the same page. Comprehensive planning means that people know what to expect. Frequent reporting maintains control across the project’s duration. And all this improves collaboration, which is necessary to deliver projects successfully.

Also, the project management life cycle enables managers to introduce processes specific to each phase.

Tools that support effective management throughout the project life cycle

Work Breakdown Structure

Outlining the project’s scope and writing down relevant information makes both planning and monitoring easier. To manage scope effectively, you need a tool that enables you to create a custom structure and hierarchy of tasks and track any data you need.

To keep track of scope, the tasks have to be synchronized with a work management tool the project team uses. For example, if the team uses Jira Software, you can create a work breakdown structure with Jira issues to represent tasks in a PPM tool like BigPicture. Then, you can monitor the execution of the issues because data between the two tools flows seamlessly.

Plus, you’ll have access to aggregated data, so you can see the bigger picture (if you’ll forgive the pun).

The WBS for a SAFe® project, showing the structure of Program Increments and corresponding tasks.

Gantt chart

The Gantt chart has been around for more than a century now. It’s still incredibly popular, because it visualizes project scope in a simple way in the context of the whole project’s duration.

The length of the taskbar is a solid indication of how long the task should take. The visual representation is easier to take in at a glance than raw numbers.

Most Gantt charts enable visualizing dependencies, too. Seeing the lines connecting tasks gives the manager a clear idea of the relationship between work items.

In BigPicture, the Gantt chart also shows any milestones and phases you create. Better still, the Gantt chart is Hybrid-friendly. That means if you want to plan a project with Waterfall phases and Agile Sprints, you can display both on a single timeline.

Waterfall phases with Agile Sprints on one chart in BigPicture. On the left, the example contains the corresponding WBS section.

Agile board

The Gantt chart is great for visualizing and monitoring the scope of Waterfall and Hybrid projects, but an Agile board works best for Agile projects.

First, it displays the entire scope of the Sprint. Having a Sprint backlog right next to the board enables the teams to quickly transfer items from the backlog to the Sprint scope. It’s super useful during the Sprint planning event.

But distributing the work is not the end of the story. Successful allocation is based on data. That’s why the workload has to be in line with your capacity planning values. Otherwise, the teams will be overworked and won’t deliver all the items within the Sprint.

BigPicture’s Agile board shows warnings when a team has too much work in relation to the availability of team members. As long as you enter the capacity numbers for each team or individual and enter the story point values for each item in the scope, the tool will highlight any overallocation.

The board also shows dependencies between items. Instead of going into each Jira issue and looking at a list of dependencies, the board displays the connections between the upcoming work with important details. Just click on the task to see its dependencies.

The Agile board in BigPicture. In this example, you can see the details of connections between tasks.

Resources

Making sure people have enough (but not too much) work is crucial to the success of every project. BigPicture’s Resources module helps you visualize the workload and capacity of each member or the entire team — both on project and portfolio levels.

By combining tasks with the overall availability, you can get valuable insights and make accurate, data-driven decisions. Displaying the date range and aggregation frequency is completely up to you: Focus on short- or long-term availability and change the visible data range at any time.

The color-coded bars suggest changes to task allocation, and the tool supports skill-based planning.

For unallocated tasks, the tool will suggest the available people using the “Find perfect match” option.

A Resources module in BigPicture showing individual workload and availability. The skills panel below displays data for all team members with a given skill.


That’s it. You’ve mastered the project life cycle. And if you’re looking for a tool that supports the management of projects and portfolios in Jira Software, try
BigPicture. Aside from the modules mentioned above, Appfire’s PPM tool contains a risk matrix, reports, and more so you can take planning, tracking, management, and reporting to the next level. Start a 30-day free trial and see for yourself.