4 Phases of the Project Management Lifecycle Explained

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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

[Featured Image] A project manager in black glasses and a blue sweater works at a whiteboard with a colleague in a blue-striped tie.

What is the project management lifecycle?

The project management lifecycle is a step-by-step framework of best practices used to monitor a project from its beginning to its end. It provides project managers with a structured way to create, execute, and finish a project.

This project management process generally includes four phases: initiating, planning, executing, and closing. Some may also include a fifth “monitoring and controlling” phase between the executing and closing stages. Each step plays a crucial role in making sure the project has the best chance of achieving its goals.

The project management lifecycle provides projects with structure and tools to ensure they have the best chance of being successful. As a project manager, it is a process you will want to know well.

The Project Management Lifecycle: 4 Steps

1. Initiating

In the initiation phase, you will define the project. You will sort out the project goals, scope, and resources of the project and what roles are needed on the team. Clarifying what stakeholders expect out of the project, and what exactly the project is aiming to achieve (and why) will give the project and team clear direction.

This is a crucial phase to the project’s success. Without clarity around what needs to be achieved and why the project runs the risk of not accomplishing the end results and meeting the expectations of stakeholders.

Some steps in the initiation phase include:

  • Communicating with stakeholders to understand the purpose and desired outcomes of the project

  • Identifying the scope of the project

  • Determining SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound)

  • Clarifying resources like budget and time constraints

  • Confirming team size and roles required

  • Determining how often and which stakeholders will be involved throughout the project

  • Compiling a project proposal and project charter

Tools and documents used in the initiation phase can include:

  • Project proposal: The project proposal defines a project and outlines key dates, requirements, and goals.

  • Project charter: This is a definitive document that describes the project and main details necessary to reach its goals. This can include potential risks, benefits, constraints, and key stakeholders.

  • RACI chart: A RACI chart, lays down the roles and responsibilities of members of a project team.

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2. Planning

In the planning phase, you will determine the steps to actually achieve the project goals—the “how” of completing a project. 

You will establish budgets, timelines, milestones, source materials, and necessary documents. This step also involves calculating and predicting risk, establishing change processes in place, and outlining communication protocols. If the initiation phase is assembling your troops, the planning phase is deciding what to do with them.

The planning phase can include the following steps:

  • Deciding on milestones that lead up to goal completion

  • Developing a schedule for tasks and milestones, including time estimates and potential time buffers

  • Establishing change processes

  • Determining how and how often to communicate with team members and stakeholders

  • Creating and signing documents such as non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or requests for proposal (RFPs)

  • Assessing and managing risk by creating a risk register

  • Holding a kick-off meeting to start a project

Tools you might use in a planning phase include: 

  • Gantt chart: A horizontal bar chart in which members can see what tasks must be completed in which order and how long each task is expected to take

  • Risk register: A chart that lists risks associated with the project, along with their probability, potential impact, risk level, and mitigation plans

3. Execute and complete tasks

Executing a project means putting your plan into action and keeping the team on track. Generally, this means tracking and measuring progress, managing quality, mitigating risk, managing the budget, and using data to inform your decisions. 

Specific steps might include:

  • Using tools like GANTT or burndown charts to track progress on tasks

  • Responding to risks when they manifest

  • Recording costs

  • Keeping team members motivated and on task

  • Keeping stakeholders informed of progress

  • Incorporating changes via change requests

Some tools you might use include:

  • Change requests: These are documents used to propose changes to a project’s scope or goals

  • Burndown chart: This chart breaks down tasks on a granular level and visualises the amount of time remaining

4. Close projects

In the closing phase of the project management lifecycle, you will conclude project activities, turn the finished product or service over to its new owners and assess the things that went well and did not go so well. It will also be a time to celebrate your hard work.

Steps in the closing phase can include:

  • Conducting retrospectives and take notes of changes you can implement in the future

  • Communicating to stakeholders at the end of the project and providing an impact report

  • Communicating with the new owners of a project

  • Creating a project closeout report

  • Celebrating the end of the project and your successes

Tools used in the closing phase include:

  • Impact report: This report compiles a series of metrics that showcase how your project made a difference and is presented to your stakeholders.

  • Project closeout report: A project closeout report provides a summary of your project’s accomplishments, and provides key learnings for future project managers to reference.

Getting started in project management

Mastering all steps of the project management lifecycle is an ongoing process that will continue throughout your career. Learning the formal aspects—the tools, steps, and vocabulary used in the process—can set you up for success in your beginning days as a project manager. If you are interested in increasing your knowledge of project management, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate to learn job-ready project management skills at your own pace.

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