Project Management

Definitions of Project Phases

Projects and project management are carried out in an environment broader than that of the project itself. The project management team must understand this broader context so it can select the life cycle phases, processes, and tools and techniques that appropriately fit the project. This chapter describes some key aspects of the project management context.


Project managers or the organization can divide projects into phases to provide better management control with appropriate links to the ongoing operations of the performing organization. Collectively, these phases are known as the project life cycle. Many organizations identify a specific set of life cycles for use on all of their projects. I have found, in my experience, that it is best to have all of the stakeholders sign-off each phase. That way, if new requirements or more complex design work is needed on a module, the project should revisit each project phase to ensure that the completed project match all of the preceding documentation.


The project life cycle defines the phases that connect the beginning of a project to its end. For example, when an organization identifies an opportunity to which it would like to respond, it will often authorize a feasibility study to decide whether it should undertake the project. The project life cycle definition can help the project manager clarify whether to treat the feasibility study as the first project phase or as a separate, stand-alone project. Where the outcome of such a preliminary effort is not clearly identifiable, it is best to treat such efforts as a separate project. The phases of a project life cycle are not the same as the Project Management Process Groups.


The transition from one phase to another within a project’s life cycle generally involves, and is usually defined by, some form of technical transfer or handoff. Deliverables from one phase are usually reviewed for completeness and accuracy and approved before work starts on the next phase. However, it is not uncommon for a phase to begin prior to the approval of the previous phase’s deliverables, when the risks involved are deemed acceptable. This practice of overlapping phases, normally done in sequence, is an example of the application of the schedule compression technique called fast tracking.


NOTE: this practice of starting a phase before the other is complete is very normal, but does come with some risk that must be managed by the Project Manager. In some cases, rework has to be done.


There is no single best way to define an ideal project life cycle. Some organizations have established policies that standardize all projects with a single life cycle, while others allow the project management team to choose the most appropriate life cycle for the team’s project. Further, industry common practices will often lead to the use of a preferred life cycle within that industry.


NOTE: there are many ways to do a Life Cycle. Some projects are more aligned with the waterfall technique, while others benefit from a rapid development technique such as AGILE.


Project life cycles generally define:


What technical work to do in each phase (for example, in which phase should the architect’s work be performed?)

When the deliverables are to be generated in each phase and how each deliverable is reviewed, verified, and validated

Who is involved in each phase (for example, concurrent engineering requires that the implementers be involved with requirements and design)

How to control and approve each phase. Project life cycle descriptions can be very general or very detailed. Highly detailed descriptions of life cycles can include forms, charts, and checklists to provide structure and control.

Most project life cycles share a number of common characteristics.

Phases are generally sequential and are usually defined by some form of technical information transfer or technical component handoff. Here is where I recommend formal sign-off to occur by all project stakeholders. Scope creep is one of the most prevalent things that slip a schedule, but if management knows what the added scope will do to the project schedule, they will be less likely to add functionality to the project.

Cost and staffing levels are low at the start, peak during the intermediate phases, and drop rapidly as the project draws to a conclusion.


The level of uncertainty is highest and, hence, risk of failing to achieve the objectives is greatest at the start of the project. The certainty of completion generally gets progressively better as the project continues. This is because the hardest technical work is usually done (or well understood) and most risks have been mitigated.


The ability of the stakeholders to influence the final characteristics of the project’s product and the final cost of the project is highest at the start, and gets progressively lower as the project continues. A major contributor to this phenomenon is that the cost of changes and correcting errors generally increases as the project continues.


Although many project life cycles have similar phase names with similar deliverables, few life cycles are identical. Some can have four or five phases, but others may have nine or more. Single application areas are known to have significant variations. One organization’s software development life cycle can have a single design phase, while another can have separate phases for architectural and detailed design. Subprojects can also have distinct project life cycles. For example, an architectural firm hired to design a new office building is first involved in the owner’s definition phase while doing the design, and in the owner’s implementation phase while supporting the construction effort. The architect’s design project, however, will have its own series of phases from conceptual development, through definition and implementation, to closure. The architect can even treat designing the facility and supporting the construction as separate projects, each with its own set of phases.


In the next post, I will talk more about the characteristics of Project Phases.


 [1] ©2005 Project Management Institute, Four Campus Boulevard, Newtown Square, PA 19073-3299 USA 5

October 26, 2008 - Posted by | Project Management, Project Phases | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version and iCal are available too.

    Comment by Dan | October 27, 2008 | Reply

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