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What is the Project Life Cycle?

Once again we turn to the Project Management Institute’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge for a definition of project management. It defines project management as "the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements." In the project management triangle we are concerned with the management of the project’s time, cost, and scope. These concerns lead us to manage the project’s quality, risk, communications, integration, schedule, performance, stakeholder needs, desires, requirements, and expectations.

It is interesting to note that when PMI changed the PMBOK to its latest version, it changed this definition from "… meet or exceed project requirements" to "… meet requirements." This is a bit of a departure from the approach of giving the customer a little something extra. In the past it was considered good practice to give the customer a little more than was asked for. The customer was thought to be pleased at getting something for nothing. Today we realize that these little extras frequently come with a price. The little extra software routine we added may have maintenance problems that the customer will have to pay for later. This is not to say that improvements and cost savings should not be brought up to the customer and discussed. It does mean, however, that we should not give customers anything extra without discussing it with them.

Any project will be managed by the five project management processes of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing. These processes will be used in every phase of the project. In the beginning phases of the project we may be closing out a phase while in the next phase of the project we may just be beginning the initiation process of that phase.

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As projects grow in size, it becomes more important that they be considered in phases where each phase of the project will have a certain number of deliverables that will be a result of completing that phase. Deliverables are tangible, verifiable products of the project. These deliverables will be passed on to one of the stakeholders. A stakeholder is anyone who has something to gain or lose as a result of the completion of this project or phase. The end of a phase of a project may have a review where a decision to continue or not continue with the project is made.

The project life cycle, illustrated in PROJECT LIFE CYCLE, begins with the project charter and ends when all of the deliverables of the project have been delivered. This includes closeout and cleanup of the project because these too are deliverables. Referring to the figure, it can be seen that projects will generally start out with a relatively small cost per day and a relatively small staff. As the project progresses, the rate of spending increases and the number of persons involved with the project increases until some peak point in spending occurs. After this peak point, the project spending decreases as more work is completed on the project and fewer people are needed. Eventually the project comes to an end, spending stops, and all of the deliverables have been delivered. As the project progresses from the beginning to the end, the total risk associated with the project decreases.

The project life cycle comprises the stages of a project from beginning to end. There are five phases that can overlap somewhat but generally take place in chronological order. They are, in order, initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closeout. The project life cycle begins when the project first comes into existence. This usually occurs with the creation and approval of the project charter. The project ends when all of the deliverables of the project have been delivered or disposed of and all of the final paperwork, including the lessons learned document, has been completed.

In general these are the different phases in the project life cycle. Since we all live in a world of freedom, companies may choose to give these phases different names. If we were to consider the life cycle for the defense industry, we might have phases like concept and technology development, system development and demonstration, production, development, and support. In the construction industry we might see life cycles such as feasibility, planning and design, construction, turnover, and start-up. It is important to recognize that the life cycle for a project can be described many different ways, but we should recognize that whatever the phases are called by a particular company or industry, they will be chronological in order and the expenditures that take place in the early and late phases will be relatively less than in the middle of the project. For our discussions we will use a generic description of the phases of the life cycle: initiation, planning, execution, control, and closeout.

The probability that the project will not be completed is highest at the beginning. This means that there are many possible problems that could occur that would keep the project from being completed. As time goes by, it becomes impossible for many of these problems to occur, so the overall level of risk will decrease as the project goes on and eventually become very small toward the end of the project.

The project life cycle should not be confused with the project management processes. There are many different project phases for different projects, and the names and terms that are used in one industry can be different from those used in other industries. The project management processes—initiation, planning, execution, control, and closeout—take place in each of the project phases, and the phases of the project must use all of the project management processes. For example, in a project done in the aerospace industry we night have a project phase called "deployment." In the deployment phase of the project we would have to initiate the phase, plan it, execute it, control it, and close it out.

Some care must be used in managing the conclusion of projects. One of the outcomes of a successful project is that a strong relationship is formed between the stakeholders and the project team. Once the project is complete and the team is disbanded, it is difficult for the stakeholders to give up this relationship. If problems occur after project delivery, the stakeholder will of course contact the same person who gave such good service during the project even though he or she is now working on another project. It is important that some sort of hand-off of the stakeholders to a maintenance team be established, or project team members will become more and more involved in maintaining completed projects that they have worked on.

In many projects it may be necessary for a fixed price contract to be signed with a customer before the project initiation has been completed. This may be necessary to get the customer’s business if other competitive companies are willing to do it. When this happens, it creates a risk for the project. In evaluating this risk, the probability impact and the resulting severity can be evaluated and factored into the contract even though the deliverables and perhaps even the customer’s needs may not be known. By evaluating the risk associated with this contract, additional funding may be set aside and the quoted price to the customer may be adjusted.

One of the important things about the project life cycle is the rate of expenditure of funds for the project. In the beginning of the project there are relatively few people working on the project and the daily rate of expenditure is low. As the project progresses into the planning phase, the rate of expenditures increases. As project execution and control phases begin, the rate of expenditures increases still more until it reaches a maximum point where the most money per day is being spent. Once this point is passed, the rate of spending decreases. During the closeout phase the project spending decreases to zero as the project is closed.

One of the dangers in project management is that some projects never seem to close. In a good, well-managed project, the project team and the project manager establish good relations with the stakeholders. The stakeholders become familiar with the project team and are comfortable discussing problems and ideas with them. This relationship can be harmful after project completion unless a transition to an ongoing maintenance or service team is made. Stakeholders continue to contact the former project team with questions and discussions even though the project team member is now working on another project. This takes time and focus from the new project. It is important that a smooth transition be made between the project team members and the new support organization that will assist the stakeholders in the future.