Understanding the Five Stages of a Project

Project Manager and Team Member Working at a Whiteboard
GettyImages/Gary Burchell

Formal projects follow a five stage process as follows:

  1. Initiation: project team formation, project chartering and kick-off. 
  2. Planning: finalizing the project scope, defining the detailed work breakdown, assessing risk, identifying resource requirements, finalizing the schedule and preparing for the actual work.
  3. Execution: performing the actual work required by the project definition and scope.
  4. Monitor and Control: the actual management, reporting and control of the resources and budgets during the execution phase.
  1. Project Close: delivery of the project, assessment of lessons learned, adjournment of the project team.

While some project methodologies such as agile approaches compress or repeat these stages in faster, iterative cycles, the work of each stage is visible and distinct in every project. 

Traditional Project Flow:

Regardless of the size of the project, the movement through the stages is the same. The project is initiated or kicked-off with a charter that identifies the project manager and describes the project's importance. 

Once the project has been initiated it moves to the planning phase. Here, the core and work teams identify the necessary work to be completed to achieve the project scope and develop estimates and assessments for time, costs, resources and risks.

After the planning phase, the work begins and occurs in a defined order necessary to move from predecessor or preceding activities to successor activities.

Project dependencies play an important role in this phase. 

While the execution is proceeding the project manager and team members monitor, report on and control the overall project, with emphasis on critical path activities. This work continues until the execution phase is complete and the project is delivered to the customer.

 

The final phase, project close, involves wrapping up the delivery, assessing lessons learned and adjourning the project team so that members can move on to their next initiative. 

For agile or iterative development-type projects, planning and execution take place in short spurts or sprints, with the stages repeating until the project is completed to the customer's satisfaction. 

Detailed Explanation for Each Stage:

Initiation: A solid project initiation will not only set your project up for success but it will also lay the groundwork for all future stages. During initiation, you'll get the project team members assigned, brief them on the overall project goals and ask the client or project owner as many questions as possible so you can plan the project efficiently. This is also a great time to build team enthusiasm about the project and collect any last minute details that might influence project planning. Additional steps include:

  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Assignment of an executive sponsor
  • Charter document development and communication
  • Formal kick-off meeting

Planning: Once you've initiated the project and gathered all relevant information, you'll then begin planning your project. The planning stage depends on the size of your project, how much information you have to organize and how large your team is.

The end result of planning should be a clear project plan or schedule, from which everyone will follow their assigned tasks. Using a project-planning program such as Microsoft Project or Basecamp is extremely helpful when planning a project. If you don't have access to one of these programs, do a general search online for free project planning software. Even though using a project-planning program is helpful, it's not always necessary. Using Excel and Word to create your plan and communicate it to the team is equally as effective. Specific tasks in the planning phase include:

  • Creating a communication plan for the various stakeholders
  • Developing a detailed work breakdown structure.
  • Identifying the critical path.
  • Plotting resources on the project plan and refining the sequencing of the work based on project dependencies and resource constraints.
  • Developing a detailed schedule.
  • Assessing risks and developing a risk prioritization and mitigation plan. 

Execution: Now that you have a solid project plan, the team can begin executing the project against their assigned tasks. This is the stage where everyone actually starts doing the work. You'll want to officially kick-off the execution stage with in-person meetings to ensure everyone has what they need to begin executing their part of the project. Getting the team started on the right track is integral to project success so articulate the schedule and communications plan clearly. 

Monitor and Control: While the project is in the execution stage, you'll begin monitoring and controlling it to ensure it's moving along as planned. There are a variety of ways you can monitor and control a project. Casual check-ins with team leaders, organized daily "stand-ups", or more formal weekly status meetings are effective. The information that comes out of these meetings or communication channels will inform the feedback loop and ultimately any re-planning and adjustments that are necessary to the project. Additional important activities in this stage include:

  • Adhering to your pre-established communication plan to ensure stakeholder awareness of the project status.

  • Monitoring work teams and work activities on the critical path.

  • Identifying opportunities to improve schedule performance by fast-tracking or completing activities in parallel or where necessary, crashing the schedule by adding resources. 

  • Monitoring actual versus planned costs. 

  • In some cases, monitoring, calculating and reporting on earned value for the project plan.

  • Monitor and mitigating risks and refining the risk plan as needed. 

Project Close: Once all the details and tasks of your project are complete and approved by the client or project owner, you can finally close your project. The closing of a project is just as important as its initiation, planning and execution. You'll want to document all the information from the project and organize it neatly so you can go back to it if necessary. This is also a good time to hold a post-mortem on the project so all team members can reflect on what went right, or wrong during the project. This should also be documented so the outcome can be shared with other project members and filed in a project history folder. Finally, it is important to formally adjourn the project team, providing feedback and performance evaluations as indicated by your firm's policy. 

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Updated by Art Petty