What Is the Project Management Lifecycle? A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

The project management lifecycle is a framework you can use to organise thoughts, actions, and communications during a project.

[Featured Image] Group discusses project management lifecycle in a meeting

The role of a project manager is to lead a team of stakeholders through the processes of defining, planning, executing, controlling/monitoring, and closing on projects. If you are currently working in a project management capacity, or are looking to become a project manager, it is a good idea to understand the project management lifecycle.

Why is the project management lifecycle important?

This framework allows you to apply project management practices consistently over time. Why is this important? Because there is a lot of power in repeatability. The right processes, systems, and techniques—if repeatable—provide repeatable results.

The project management lifecycle consists of four key steps: initiating, planning, executing, and closing.

Project initiation phase: Setting up the project

Project initiation is about you understanding and defining the project. The project initiation process is the bedrock of every great project. It defines your team's mission and gives everyone involved a clear picture of what you will produce and how you will produce it. If the project’s goals, outcomes, and deliverables are clearly defined, the project has a strong chance of success. 

The initiation phase commences with the identification of a need followed by the formulation of a project statement that has acceptance from the stakeholders. The project manager then engages in developing a work breakdown structure, creating a project charter that emphasises the project scope, objectives, deliverables, purpose, constraints, and assumptions.

When defining a project, communication between the project team leads and stakeholders is essential. Setting up communication channels for regular updates, feedback, and communication should be one of your top priorities. 

Documents produced during the initiation phase

Effective documentation of a project is an important aspect of developing a sound and manageable project plan. Any large project will have a variety of documents produced during the initiation stage. This may include a project proposal, project charter, and RACI chart. While each of these documents serves a different purpose, they all help define the elements of your project.

The project proposal

The project proposal is a business plan and outline of the project. It includes major milestones, timelines, and deliverables. Some items you should address or explain in a project proposal include: 

  • What problem this project will solve

  • How much the customer will pay

  • An explanation of who (if anyone) will be doing the work, such as contract workers

  • The time frame during which you will complete the project.

The project charter

A project charter document outlines the goals of your project and its scope. It also details the key components, such as timeframes, stakeholders and their roles, costs, expected benefits, and quality standards. The project charter defines the who and some of the why, where, when, and what of the project.

The RACI chart

A RACI chart is a common project management tool that maps the project team responsibilities, authority, approval, and reporting. You use it to determine the role each member of the project team will play throughout the project lifecycle.

Project planning phase: Create the roadmap

The planning phase of the project management lifecycle is really the beginning of the project delivery. In this stage, you’ll determine how to accomplish the project objectives in given time frames and within available resources (people, money, skills). If the initiation stage covers the “who” of the project, this stage is all about the “how.”

The planning phase of project management development is the stage of the life cycle during which you prepare to execute the project, including:

  • Defining appropriate milestone markers

  • Establishing a schedule for your tasks and for communication

  • Identifying ways to change course if unexpected hurdles arise

  • Building in schedule and financial buffers. 

You might also develop formal policy documents that explain new processes for dealing with risks and working with external partners. This may include non-disclosure agreements and requests for proposal documents.

Your project plan acts as the roadmap guiding your team through the execution phase.

Documents developed during the planning stage

During the planning stage, you should aim to provide a high level of detail about the project and how it will progress. Two examples of documents that you might produce are Gantt charts and a risk register.

Gantt charts

A Gantt chart is an important tool for you as a project manager. It defines the tasks that need to be completed in order to meet project goals and estimates when your team will finish each task. Using the Gantt chart, stakeholders can track tasks to see how they fit within the overall timeline.

A risk register

A risk register is a list of risks (or possible threats to your project) and the actions you will take if they occur. By developing this document together as a team, you’ll have a better chance of assessing risk levels, identifying threats, and planning for all eventualities in your project. 

Execution phase: Deliver on your plan

Executing is where the project plan is carried out, recorded, and controlled and is a big part of what you'll do every day. In this phase, you'll use all of your skills to get the projects you're working on out the door and into the hands of customers. 

Executing the plan is normally the most time-consuming part of project management, and arguably the most important; it’s where the project actually gets done. This phase includes:


  • Managing risks to ensure that you're successful

  • Keeping your team motivated and on target against changing demands

  • Tracking progress on Gantt and other charts to keep tasks on time and within budget

  • Validating that all of the work has been done correctly

It also involves keeping stakeholders informed of progress and involved in the process at an appropriate level.

Keeping projects on track is more than just tracking data and charts though. Organisational issues, personal conflicts, and technical problems can easily derail a project if not addressed. For example, changing objectives can require drastically different plans; you might need to implement cost-saving strategies; workers' skills might not suit a task; time spent on one part of the project could affect another; or there might be a sudden requirement to change the project scope. 

As a project manager you need to understand your project and integrate changes into the plans for completing the project without exceeding budget or deadlines.

Documents used during the execution phase

You require a methodical, organised approach to managing project changes and implementing the project. Project documents such as change request documents and burndown charts can be powerful tools to assess the implementation process and help you adapt to changing demands during the project delivery process.

Change requests

Change requests are documents that propose changes to a project’s scope, goals, deadlines, or other parameters. Change requests may come from any area of a project. As a project manager, you will need to work with your team to assess change requests and decide whether to take action on them or not.

Burndown charts

A burndown chart is a graphical representation of the work left to do against time. This is useful for planning, prioritising, and scheduling new work. It allows you to see how much work has already been done, how much work is still left to do, and future deadlines. Using burndown charts helps your teams better understand the status of their projects throughout the project lifecycle.

Closing phase: Handover and learn

Once you have completed the execution of the project plan, any further action is generally focused on closure. The closing phase of the project management lifecycle involves confirming performance requirements are met, documenting what you’ve accomplished, and completing or transferring remaining project responsibilities. This can involve communicating with the new project owners about how the solution provides value and disseminating end-of-project material to give stakeholders an impact report. The closing phase normally ends with a project closeout report.

This closing phase is where you, as project manager, communicate the project outcomes and final deliverable to the project owners. But it isn’t just about fulfilling your obligations. It’s also about celebrating your success and learning from the process.

You should conduct retrospectives and take note of changes you can implement in the future. Structured project assessment and feedback will help you have clarity on how the project went. This should give you the motivation and confidence to adapt and improve your project management approach in future projects. 

Documents produced during the closeout phase

A successful project must be formally closed out, documented, and communicated to all stakeholders. As a project manager, you are responsible for preparing the project closeout report and the impact report. 

The project closeout report

The purpose of a project closeout report is to summarise the project, transfer knowledge to future project managers, and close out the project with the stakeholders. The report should provide a summary of learnings, identifying critical success factors (CSFs) and risks as well as provide recommendations to improve future projects.

The impact report

The impact report summarises the ways your project made a difference by highlighting key metrics from your project. You present the report to the leadership of the organisation as a way to share how the project's results will contribute to achieving business goals, and to develop a sense of ownership over the finished product.

How do you get going in project management?

Project management is about getting projects completed on time, within budget, and most importantly meeting or exceeding your client’s objectives. It is the discipline of strategically planning and leading a project from conception through its successful execution and closure— and ultimately, delivering value to stakeholders. 

As a project manager you can bring value to an organisation in diverse ways: by increasing visibility throughout the organisation; using smart decision-making; coordinating with multiple teams; and making sure that you take a quality focus in everything that you do.

The project management lifecycle framework describes the phases of a project. From the pre-project stage through to closure, you can apply this format to most projects, even agile projects. Knowing the steps, the rationale behind them, and how to keep everything on track will set you up for success in your career as a project manager.

If you’re new to project management, or interested in continuing your project management education, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate, an online program to help you master job-ready project management skills. The course will provide you with the information you need to start applying project management concepts to your everyday work in your existing job, or in a new career.

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