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Best Practices in the 5 Phases of Project Management

Although specific steps and the final outcome is unique to each project, the framework of any given project is generally the same. This is why the Project Management Institute (PMI) strives to standardize information and practices in its Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK®), one key component of which are the five phases of project management. The project management life cycle phases are flexible enough to adapt to specific project needs, but the overarching framework establishes the roadmap for any project. These five steps of project management include:

  1. Concept and Initiation
  2. Definition and Planning
  3. Launch or Execution
  4. Performance and Control
  5. Project Close

The individual steps and emphasis may differ for your organization or project, but the groundwork is established in these five phases of project management to move the project from beginning to end, adapted for specific goals and outcomes for your organization or project.

Phase 1: Project Initiation

At the launch of a project, the project’s scope must be broadly defined; general scope is often established by a business case. In this phase, the business must determine if a project is feasible, if it has organizational approval, and what the project’s purpose and requirements are. At the outset, it’s also valuable to understand any constraints that may impact the project.

This prework is critical to lay the correct plan for the remainder of the project, and documenting the project as outlined in this phase can help ensure all stakeholders understand commitments, and help measure the overall success when the project is complete.

The organization should be able to answer some very basic questions about the project to help define it, according to project management consultant Mike McCormick, including:

  • Why is the project being conducted?
  • Why is now the right time?
  • How will this project benefit the business?

From here, the project manager can also map out key stakeholders who are involved. While at this point in the project it may not be comprehensive, understanding who the major players are is important to begin the project, as those key stakeholders should help with project scope and commitments, including who is required for approval and how long a decision or input should take.

Finally, the project manager will create the project charter, which should establish deliverables, spell out the business need, detail any constraints, note assumptions, and assess risks.

Phase 2: Project Planning

In this next phase, the project manager sets goals for the project. Project managers can assess their goals through several different lenses. One commonly used approach is SMART goal setting:

  • Specific – The goal should address who, what, when, where, and why.
  • Measurable – The goal should be measured against specific criteria.
  • Attainable – A realistic understanding of what it will take to achieve the goal is critical.
  • Realistic – The project manager, project team, and organization should be able to work toward the goal.
  • Timely – The goal should have a timeframe.

Alternatively, CLEAR goals are a new mechanism for assessing project goals, according to Inc:

  • Collaborative – The goal should foster teamwork
  • Limited – The goal should have a small, manageable scope
  • Emotional – The goal should inspire employees
  • Appreciable – The goal should be easy to achieve. Larger goals should be broken into parts to adhere to this measure.
  • Refinable – Goals should adapt as the project progresses, and adjust if it makes sense to do so.

The tricky feature of the planning stage is that when done well, it’s often forgotten. However, if the planning phase is not done well, issues are quickly visible, often to the detriment of the project manager’s reputation. Incorporating feedback from the project team and practicing risk management in this phase can help streamline project planning.

Overall, project planning should establish:

  • Related procurement strategies
  • Refined scope, schedule, risks and budget
  • Procedures to execute, monitor, and close the project
  • Understanding of necessary approvals

Phase 3: Project Execution

With both the big picture and the details planned, the project is ready for execution.

To launch this process, the project manager may host a kick-off meeting, informing the team members of specific duties. During the project execution phase, the project manager should:

  • Develop the project team
  • Allocate resources and staff experts
  • Execute the project management plans
  • Procure resources as necessary
  • Direct and manage all steps
  • Establish tracking mechanisms
  • Assign tasks
  • Host status meetings
  • Maintain and update the project schedule
  • Adapt project plans as appropriate

Throughout the project execution phase, the project team should adhere to the carefully developed project plan. Although this is the most action-packed stage, if the first two stages were approached diligently, project execution should be just that – following the plan. Of course, the team cannot blindly execute, as every element should be constantly assessed to ensure quality deliverables, and sometimes adjustments to the plan are necessary for the overall success of the project.

Stakeholders will also require regular updates during this phase, in particular for any adjustments or issues.

During this pivotal phase, project managers can practice good leadership by keeping the following areas in mind:

  • Focus on the finish line. The project’s end game should be top of mind throughout this process – and if it’s unclear, it needs to be redefined.
  • Seek buy-in. Critical parties need to not only be supportive but be invested in the project’s success.
  • Know your limits. Every project is different, and sometimes that means a project demands a skillset the project leader doesn’t possess – at least, not yet. Seek training or partner with another skilled professional to fill skills gaps.
  • Inspire high performers. Align the vision for the project and the strategy to complete it, and then build a highly skilled team to execute that strategy.
  • Take accountability. Host regular update meetings, establish communication with stakeholders and expect the same accountability from the project team.
  • Don’t just hear – listen. Even the most well-planned projects hit speedbumps. Project managers must listen to their teams to understand – and correctly address – issues.
  • Stay nimble. Whether it’s an issue or simply a new development, projects often require change during the process. Project leaders need to be willing to adapt in action.
  • Find ways to celebrate. To keep morale up and find quick wins, establish short sprints within the execution phase to create milestones that be quickly achieved – and then celebrated. This boosts morale and is likely to yield better work from the team. 

Phase 4: Project Monitoring

While technically the project monitoring phase occurs in tandem with the execution, it deserves treatment as a separate phase, as this vital component examines whether the project is on track – for its schedule, objectives and budget. Often called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), these project elements should be regularly reviewed to glean an accurate understanding of project status.

Project managers should ask:

  • Will the project meet the stakeholder’s objectives?
  • At a task level, are deliverables met and high quality?
  • Is the amount of effort and cost projected to meet the current completion date?
  • What types of issues have occurred? How quickly are they addressed?

Answering these questions may spur an adjustment to the schedule or resources, but if this is done regularly, it allows for modifications to the overall plan. Changes should be assessed to determine what overall impact they will have on the project, and if it’s truly better to change the project or to stay the original course. In some cases, it may be better to remain on the original course instead of overacting to a change, according to the PMI.

Phase 5: Project Close

The final stage in the life cycle of project management is project closure. At this time, the project manager presents the deliverables, provides any training or support necessary, and ensures the stakeholders are satisfied. During this phase, the project manager presents a final budget and final project report.

Three key questions should be addressed:

  1. Has all the work been completed?
  2. Have all processes been completed?
  3. Do all clients and stakeholders agree the project is complete?

In addition, other steps that should be taken to close the project include:

  • End contractor relationships
  • Recognize outstanding team member achievements and celebrate the project
  • Together with the project team, review what went well and what should be improved
  • Document any takeaways for future projects
  • Create a list of outstanding tasks and ensure team members complete them
  • Ensure project documents and deliverables are stored in an organized, secure way
  • Complete all documentation and contracts related to the project
  • Reallocate team members to their next task

Poor or sloppy closure can reduce the impact of a project, leave an organization legally vulnerable, or miss the opportunity to improve for the next time.

Project managers who follow these five project lifecycle stages will execute controlled, on-schedule projects and better benefit stakeholders.

PMBOK® is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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