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An Introduction to PMI’s Project Management Life Cycle

April 06, 2012
Brian Egan

The term "life cycle" implies two things: that a process is perpetual and that the sequence of events is obligatory or uni-directional. There is no beginning or end to a life cycle and the sequence of events cannot change. A seed cannot go directly to being a mature plant nor revert back to the blossom stage.

The Project Management Life Cycle

The term “life cycle” is misleading, because it is neither a perpetual circle of events nor is the sequence of events rigidly fixed. There are five stages to the project management life cycle that usually occur in sequence. During large complex projects it is often necessary to return to planning several times. In this case, the project management life cycle can become very complex with multiple repeats of planning and even initiating processes.

Project Life Cycle vs. Project Management Life Cycle

The “project management life cycle” is different from the project life cycle. The project life cycle refers to the development phases that a project can go through. For example:

  • Evaluate – Design – Build – Test – Launch

  • Design – Code – Test – Train – Release

The phases that a project goes through are determined by the nature of the project. The project life cycle is tailored to suit individual project needs. In contrast, the project management life cycle stays the same for all projects.

Relationship of Project Management Life Cycle to Phases of the Project Life Cycle

This is where things get really confusing. Each phase can be thought of as an independent project that has its own complete project management life cycle. Stages of the project management life cycle, for the design phase of the project life cycle, are illustrated below. The design phase is essentially an independent project that produces a deliverable. This deliverable becomes an input to the coding phase, which in turn can go through the entire project management life cycle.

Back to the Project Management Life Cycle

In order to understand project management according to PMI, it is necessary to understand the boundaries between the project-management-life-cycle stages or process groups. In order to understand the boundaries between the stages, it is necessary to know what management activities (called processes) are included within each of the stages (called process groups).

Knowledge Areas

PMI divides the management processes within each process group into knowledge areas. What are knowledge areas? They are areas of expertise or specialization. Every project needs to have skills and knowledge in each of these areas.

Understanding the Process Groups (Stages of Life Cycle)

Process groups are defined by the activities they include. It is helpful to have a big picture view of where each of the process groups begins and ends.

  • Initiation— Initiation begins when someone in an organization has a project idea. The idea may be internally generated or may be the consequence of a contract with outside customers. Initiation is complete when a project charter and preliminary scope statement have been prepared and a project manager has been assigned to the project.A project charter is an outline (with varying degrees of detail) of what the sponsors of the project expect the project to accomplish. It should define constraints and identify the major stakeholders involved. A preliminary scope statement is a detailed look at what exactly the project is expected to deliver. At this point there is little or no discussion of how--just what and why. Initiation ends when there is a project manager and that project manager has been given the authority and direction necessary to begin planning.

  • Planning — Planning begins with the outputs of initiation (charter, preliminary scope statement, and project manager). At the end of planning, the entire project has been thought through: what will be done; how; in what order; and at what cost.

  • Execution — Execution cannot begin until there is a plan. Executing is the act of doing what it says to do in the plan. It is completed when all the work is completed.

  • Controlling — Controlling is the act of making sure that the work being executed complies with the plan. Controlling is complete when the final outputs of the project (deliverables) meet the prescribed quality standards defined in the plan and are accepted by the customer. It ends at the same time as execution.

  • Closing — Organizations learn by documenting what was learned — what went right and what went wrong — and making these documents available for reference on future projects. Closing begins when deliverables are accepted. It involves making sure that all the necessary paperwork is completed in terms of contract administration and sign off. It continues until a project archive has been compiled. This archive includes not only a complete set of project records but also a critical review of lessons learned.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge—Fifth Edition (PMBOK® Guide) uses terminology that can be confusing. Understanding the working definitions of a few fundamental terms makes the PMBOK® Guide a much more useful reference tool. The project management life cycle is a fundamental concept of project management according to the PMI. It is not the same as the project life cycle.

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