The Project Life Cycle

The Project Life Cycle

In general, projects progress though a life cycle containing a set of different phases. The number of phases and their content may vary according to project type (IT implementation, culture change, building a structure, etc.) and to the approach taken to project execution (waterfall, agile, etc.).

We are well-advised to carefully consider which phases we include in the life cycle of our project and in particular which phases we leave out.

Idea & Analysis

The first stages of a project center on defining the idea that necessitates the execution of the project. Ideas for project may be born in the most unlikely of circumstances and typically start out as high-level, even somewhat vague notions of what could come to be. An idea may be the proverbial one sentence on the back of a paper napkin.

Of course, one sentence on a paper napkin is not enough to carry out a project. We need to investigate the idea. The analysis to take place concerns itself with the feasibility of the idea for our organization, with the expected impact in terms of resources needed, costs incurred and expected outcomes from the project, i.e. the business case for going ahead with the project. As part of the analysis, we may also look at potential solutions and external parties to the project.

The analysis and business case are the basis on which management can choose to let the project go ahead, to postpone the project to a given later time or to decline the project. The project should receive a prioritization in relation to other current activities and to other potential projects. This is to prevent that resources (people and/or money) are spread too thinly over too many concurrent projects and activities at outset or later during project implementation, when things may not have worked out exactly as prognosticated. The prioritization tells us whether/when the project is to go ahead/continue and whether other current projects/activities must be curbed in order to give room for a high-priority project.

Design & Specification

We have achieved the go-ahead on our project. The next phase to work through is typically getting the Design and Specification of the project in place. The project manager and project team need to settle the specifics of the project: scope, budget, timeline, deliveries and if any external parties are part of the project, the necessary agreements must be made.

Depending on the methodology used for our project, the specifications of the solution the project is to deliver may be more or less detailed at this point in the project life cycle. However, the specification should be as detailed as to allow us to create the project baselines and to enter into binding agreements with internal and external parties as to what is delivered. We should also know what and how to test that the project delivers at the expected quality. Likewise we do well in preparing the setup of the Operations organization who will need to be ready to take over once  the project has been implemented.

Typically the outcomes of the Design & Specification efforts are sent for approval to the body governing the project (Steering Committee or a high-level manager for small projects).

Construction & Test

Our project plans and specifications have been approved and baselined. Now we can set to work on creating the deliverables. At regular intervals during the Construction and Test phase the progress achieved will be held up against the expectations as expressed in the project baseline. Project progress is reported to the body governing the project. Any significant deviations from expectations in the project baseline will be taken to the body governing the project for advice and decision.

The deliveries will go through testing, which may consist in a number of different activities carried out by different project stakeholders and focusing on different perspectives of the deliveries. As long as testing has not been signed off on by all relevant parties, the project deliverable cannot be considered completed.

The Construction and Test phase may be organized in different ways: we can build all deliverables before going to testing and error fixing. Or we can operate with several iterations of build, test and update of specificatoions on a per deliverable basis and thus incrementally complete the overall project deliverable. It does not change that the entire set of deliverables must be signed off before heading into the next phase. Deliverables which cannot be finished in desired quality on the expected timeline can, if feasible, be removed from the current project and placed in a follow-up project to allow us to progress with our current project.

Implementation & Maintenance

Once we have completed our deliveries and have had our tests approved, we make these deliverables available to our internal or external customer. These activities may include taking the solution to different parts of the organization, conducting trainings and other change management efforts. The actual roll-out and change management efforts may, however, be contained in a separate project. Once our project has run its course, we need to evaluate what went well and what obstacles we ran into, so as to document and learn for future similar projects.

After roll-out and probably during ongoing change management efforts, the solution delivered becomes the responsibility of the customer’s Operations organization. If our project has been well-planned and well-executed, the Operations organization is ready and able to take on the solution at this point in time, perhaps with a little assistance from key project team members at the very outset. The main point is that the project now ends and the project team disbands. Hence the  Operations organization must be prepared to stand on their own feet. If not, we end up with the project never coming to a close for the project team and they will not be able to disband from the project and go to other projects such as should be the case.


Whether we run projects based on the waterfall approach or pursue a more iterative, agile approach based on packages of deliveries, there is a certain structure to the phases a project runs through in its life cycle. The phases and the structure provide us with a direction and reduces the confusion and doubts as to how to carry out the project that started as a one-liner idea on the back of a paper napkin.

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