A Beginner's Guide to the Project Life Cycle

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Project managers create a plan that breaks the project life cycle into manageable phases. The Ascent takes an in-depth look at how to use this technique.

Project managers are often under pressure to complete a project on time and within budget.

To facilitate delivery on a new product or marketing campaign, a project manager can use a project life cycle to add structure. Project management steps, or phases, help clearly define project roles, enhance communication and project visibility, and optimize resource use.

Looking to create your own project life cycle? We're breaking down how the this cycle works and how you may be able to use project management software to help facilitate that process.

At a glance: The phases of the project life cycle

Overview: What is the project life cycle?

As part of the project management basics, the project life cycle is a framework that includes four main phases that help a project manager and their team members efficiently guide a project from start to finish. Some project management texts, such as the PMBOK Guide, call these phases project management process groups.

The purpose of a project life cycle is to define a project as well as roles and responsibilities. From the project manager to the entire team assigned to a project, the project life cycle and its phases direct how to approach the project in an organized way.

Indirectly, company executives also get involved by sharing expectations about how the project should align with strategic objectives.

Depending on its complexity and type of application, a project can undergo multiple cycles and accompanying phases before a final result is achieved.

The phases of a project life cycle provide a way to put time constraints on each section of the project to move the deliverables and activities forward. Each phase also represents specific actions that need to be taken by certain team members at that point in the project.

Phases of the project life cycle

Although each project is unique with its own challenges and unexpected issues, the generic structure of a project life cycle has four distinct phases that guide the flow of work:

  • Initiation phase
  • Planning phase
  • Execution phase
  • Project closure phase

There are general boundaries for these phases that follow the principles of project management, and mark when one phase ends and the next one begins to help propel the project toward completion.

Each phase’s name defines the scope of the project work during that point in the project. For example, the initiation phase focuses on starting the project.

Then, the planning phase focuses solely on organizing and preparing for the next phase of the project, which is the execution phase. During the execution phase, team members understand that their work is solely about acting on what has been organized and prepared for them.

Finally, the project closure phase focuses on completing the project.

As an example, we’ll use a new product marketing campaign to illustrate each phase of the project life cycle, including actionable steps.

Phase 1: Initiation phase

During the initiation phase, the project manager and executives define and authorize the new product marketing campaign. The project manager takes the information provided by the executives and chief marketing officer (CMO) and creates a project charter or mission.

This document outlines the purpose of the marketing campaign, project description, success criteria, roles and responsibilities, and project stakeholders.

Putting the initiation phase into action

  • Identify project purpose, objectives, and deliverables: With this new product marketing campaign project, the team will need to identify the purpose of the campaign, which, in this case, is to build awareness and interest in the company’s new product.
  • Outline priorities: Determine the most important actions that need to be taken to achieve those objectives, as well as address any potential risks or challenges that may occur during the project. With a marketing campaign project, the tasks need to be aligned with the product development team to ensure the product will be ready and that the marketing messaging highlights the best features.
  • Outline the project scope: A project manager must consider executive expectations, product development timelines, and available resources when defining the project scope. It’s important to collaborate with the marketing team, product development team, and executives.

Phase 2: Planning phase

The planning phase moves the project, project manager, and team further along by focusing on the specific tasks, roles and responsibilities, and timeline necessary to execute the project in the next phase of the project life cycle.

Using the new product marketing campaign example, this phase involves defining all the tasks necessary to complete the campaign.

The project management planning process includes discussion and agreement about short-term goals tied to the overall project goals from the first phase. Potential issues also should be addressed, including possible solutions for any roadblocks or risks that appear during the execution phase.

Putting the planning phase into action

  • Define your project plan: The highly detailed, action-driven project plan should include tasks with deadlines and team members responsible for those tasks. The plan should also define the workflows and tools necessary to complete those tasks, and available the resource budget.
  • Create a project roadmap: After establishing the framework, it’s important to put all that information into a project task and milestone roadmap that gives everyone visual direction. Numerous tools can help develop this roadmap, such as a Gantt chart that shows multiple tasks and timelines in one view. Various productivity apps can be included as needed.
  • Prepare the team for the project execution phase: Having a formal launch event helps motivate the team to take on the project work during the next phase and ensure they are ready to execute.

Phase 3: Execution phase

During the execution phase, everything discussed and planned during the first two phases is put into practice. The project manager’s role shifts from planning to supervision, as the focus is now on ensuring proper execution.

Throughout this phase, the project manager also seeks approval from stakeholders. For the new product marketing campaign example, this means the manager will share marketing campaign messaging and collateral with executives and target audience members to gauge satisfaction.

Putting the execution phase into action

  • Monitor the execution process: The project manager must continually check on project progress, gauge individual and team performance, and provide direction and clear communication on anything that must change.
  • Compile a status report: Create a project status report that includes project performance and milestones. This helps all stakeholders understand where the project currently stands in relation to goals, timeline, and task completion.
  • Update the budget and key performance indicators (KPIs): If changes occur during the execution phase related to project changes, it may be necessary to shift the resources allocated and adjust the KPIs to reflect the pivot.

Phase 4: Project closure phase

The project closure phase wraps up the project or a specific project cycle. All the tasks for the project life cycle have been finished. For a project like a new product marketing campaign, there is typically just one life cycle involved, so this would mean the campaign would be launched and then assessed for how it performed.

Putting the project closure phase into action

  • Share project deliverables: Provide stakeholders with the agreed-upon deliverables. In our example case, the deliverables would include campaign content, reports, and collateral.
  • Officially close the project: Formally tell the team that the project is finished and share your appreciation for their efforts. Include them in any reports or wrap-up sessions.
  • Review and reflect on project performance: It’s important to look at how well the project worked in terms of the objectives, timeframe, resource allocation, and return on investment. Reviewing the project life cycle process can provide insights on how to improve it for similar projects in the future.

Should you use project management software for the project life cycle?

A project life cycle can be done manually or you can opt to use project management software. Here are some ways to determine if you should leverage the software.

When you should use software for the project life cycle

  • Complex project: When you have a large project with multiple tasks and timelines, project management software can more effectively organize all the components into a dashboard view. It will help everyone get the full picture while still easily identifying their role in the project.
  • Large project team: Manual project life cycle processes do not scale well when there are large numbers of people involved in a project. This is especially true when the project team may cross departments and functions.
  • Remote team members: Project collaboration is difficult when everyone on the team is not in the same physical location. Project management software can offer cloud-based solutions that allow everyone to work together virtually on the same project.

When software may not make sense for your project management life cycle

  • Simple and small team projects: Smaller projects with a brief project life cycle don’t always require an investment in software. Instead, a project team can get the work done with very simple tools and physical interaction.
  • Creative-focused projects: Software doesn’t always work as well as pen and paper to stimulate creativity. When projects involve brainstorming and artistic endeavors, there is no need to automate the project.

Using a project life cycle process

A project life cycle process can improve project management results by adding structure, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, measurable objectives and tactics, and efficient workflow techniques to projects like product development or a marketing campaign.

The four phases of the project life cycle also segment and organize the approach for large projects, making it more manageable for all stakeholders.

Large teams with complex projects or remote members can also leverage project management software to oversee the product life cycle, while smaller projects and teams or those with creative-based projects can still consider manual techniques.

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