Demystifying the 5 Phases of Project Management

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

May 29, 2018 (updated August 11, 2022)

At the root of any successful project is a project manager (PM) worth his or her weight in gold. While some people think a project manager’s sole job is to remind everyone about deadlines and set up status meeting, that’s simply not the case.

There is a science to what they do -- they have a deep understanding of and can perfectly execute the five phases of project management. In this article, we’ll cover what each of these phases entail and share tips for boosting success during each stage.

Developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the five phases of project management include conception and initiation, project planning, project execution, performance/monitoring, and project close. PMI, which began in 1969, is the world’s largest nonprofit membership association for the project management profession. It has set the standards for project, program, and portfolio management and offers training and certifications. The gold standard of certification from the association is the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. There are seven other certifications available for different types of project management.

In an effort to standardize project management information and practices, a team of over 80 PMI members created the text, A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Currently in its fifth edition, the PMBOK® Guide is continually being updated by the PMI and shares the fundamental best practices that are used worldwide to achieve the best results. The PMBOK® Guide includes a process standard that can be applied to many projects; however, it does recognize that each project is different. It is up to PMPs to apply the techniques and phases covered in the PMBOK® Guide to the unique requirements of their project.

PMBOK® Guide Concept of the Project Life Cycle

According to the PMBOK® Guide, the elements of a project lifecycle should define the work the project will accomplish, the deliverables it will produce, the team members involved, and how you will control and approve each project phase.

Determining these elements will take a project from start to finish. These project controls provide a systematic and  timely process that benefits a project’s stakeholders. This helps PMs define what needs to be accomplished before moving onto the next phase of a project.

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5 Phases of Project Management

Project management can be divided into five phases. First, stakeholders initiate the project, and then define and plan it. Next, the team executes the project and monitors its performance. Finally, once the project is completed, it must be closed out.

Five Phases of Project Management

Phase 1: Project Initiation

The goal of project initiation is to broadly define the project. This process usually begins with a business case or project charter. If research or feasibility testing is necessary, you should complete it during this phase.

Important stakeholders will do their due diligence to help decide if the project is a “go.” If it is given the green light, you will need to create a project charter or a project initiation document (PID) that provides an overview of the purpose and requirements of the project. It should provide a description of the business needs, stakeholders, and the business case. Note: There are plenty of PID templates that adhere to PMBOK® Guide guidelines available online that you can download to help you get started.

Tip: When creating a PID, don’t get too bogged down in technical requirements. Those will be clarified and clearly defined in Phase 2.

Phase 2: Project Planning

The planning phase is key to successful project management and focuses on developing a roadmap for the team to follow. During the planning phase, project managers should organize their teams, set up collaborative resources, and set goals.

Two of the more popular methods for setting goals are S.M.A.R.T. and CLEAR:

smart goals project planning

S.M.A.R.T. Goals – This method helps ensure that the goals have been thoroughly vetted. It also provides a way to clearly understand the implications of the goal-setting process.

Specific – To set specific goals, answer the following questions: who, what, where, when, which, and why.
Measurable – Create criteria that you can use to measure the success of a goal.
Attainable – Identify the most important goals and what it will take to achieve them.
Realistic – You should be willing and able to work toward a particular goal.
Timely – Create a timeframe to achieve the goal.

For more information about S.M.A.R.T. goals and to download free S.M.A.R.T. goal templates, read "The Essential Guide to Writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals."

C.L.E.A.R. Goals – A newer method for setting goals that takes into consideration the environment of today’s fast-paced businesses.

Collaborative – The goal should encourage employees to work together.
Limited – They should be limited in scope and time to keep it manageable.
Emotional – Goals should tap into the passion of employees and be something they can form an emotional connection to. This can optimize the quality of work.
Appreciable – Break larger goals into smaller tasks that can be quickly achieved.
Refinable – As new situations arise, be flexible and refine goals as needed.
 
During this phase, the scope of the project is defined and a project management plan is developed. It involves identifying the cost, quality, available resources, and a realistic timetable. The project plan also includes establishing baselines or performance measures. These are generated using the scope, schedule and cost of a project. A baseline is essential to determine if a project is on track.
 
At this time, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, so everyone involved knows what they are accountable for. Here are some of the documents a PM will create during this phase to ensure the project will stay on track:

  • Scope Statement – A document that clearly defines the project, including the business need, benefits of the project, objectives, deliverables, and key milestones. A scope statement may change during the project, but it shouldn’t be done without the approval of the project manager and the sponsor.
  • Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS) –This is a visual representation that breaks down the scope of the project into manageable sections for the team.
  • Milestones – Identify high-level goals that need to be met throughout the project and include them in the Gantt chart.
  • Gantt Chart – A visual timeline that you can use to plan out tasks and visualize your project timeline.
  • Communication Plan – This is of particular importance if your project involves outside stakeholders. Develop the proper messaging around the project and create a schedule of when to communicate with team members based on deliverables and milestones.
  • Risk Management Plan – Identify all foreseeable risks. Common risks include unrealistic time and cost estimates, customer review cycle, budget cuts, changing requirements, and lack of committed resources.

To learn more about project management terms and documents, read our glossary of project management terminology.

Tip: When creating a WBS, work packages shouldn’t be longer than 10 days. Be sure to solicit the input and perspective from team members about their specific tasks.

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Phase 3: Project Execution

During the project execution phase, the team develops and completes deliverables. This phase begins with a kick-off meeting, is marked by the onset of status reports and updates, and transitions into performance and monitoring as the project progresses.

Tasks completed during the Execution Phase include:

  • Project introduction and kick-off
  • Develop team
  • Assign resources
  • Execute project management plans
  • Procurement management if needed
  • PM directs and manages project execution
  • Set up tracking systems
  • Task assignments are executed
  • Status meetings
  • Update project schedule
  • Modify project plans as needed

 While the project monitoring phase has a different set of requirements, these two phases often occur simultaneously.
 
Tip: Consider using cloud-based project management software so team members can update task status in real time.

Phase 4: Project Performance and Monitoring

Project performance and monitoring ensures that project results align with the management plan. Project managers use key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine if the project is on track. We’ve outlined the most common KPIs for performance tracking below:

key performance indicator
  • Project Objectives: Measuring if a project is on schedule and budget is an indication if the project will meet stakeholder objectives.
  • Quality Deliverables: This determines if specific task deliverables are being met.
  • Effort and Cost Tracking: PMs will account for the effort and cost of resources to see if the budget is on track. This type of tracking informs if a project will meet its completion date based on current performance.
  • Project Performance: This monitors changes in the project. It takes into consideration the amount and types of issues that arise and how quickly they are addressed. These can occur from unforeseen hurdles and scope changes.

During this time, PMs may need to adjust schedules and resources to ensure the project is on track

Tip: Review the business case at the end of each phase and make adjustments to the project plan as needed.

Phase 5: Project Close

Once a project is complete, the team must formally close it. Project managers generally hold a post mortem meeting to evaluate successes and failures. Project close helps a team identify things that went well and areas for improvement.

Once the project is complete, PMs still have a few tasks to complete before it is officially closed. They will need to create a project punchlist of things that didn’t get accomplished during the project and work with team members to complete them. Perform a final project budget and prepare a final project report. Finally, they will need to collect all project deliverables and  documents and store them in a single place.
 
Tip: Using a cloud-based software solution is an easy way to collect and save all project documents in one location throughout the life of the project.

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