The Four Phases of a Project

Almost all projects transition through a series of distinct stages or phases from the time they start, through execution, and ultimately close-out. There are a number of different and equally valid ways to label these phases, but for consistency, we’re going to use the Project Management Institute (PMI) method as our foundation. We won’t be following it precisely, but close enough that it will make sense for those with PMI backgrounds.

While it’s true that there are typically a large number of tasks and efforts taking place in parallel in a project, the work can typically be subdivided into four distinct stages, or phases.  These four phases are:

  • Initiating. This initial phase is brief, but four major things occur during it. First, the project has to be formally created and the manager needs to be given the authority to lead the project. Second, the key external stakeholders associated with the project are identified, including the customer, funding agency, and/or any key high-level management entities. Third, a clear, written understanding of what the PM is tasked with delivering has to be generated. This is called, unsurprisingly, defining the “deliverable” of the project. At this same time, any specific high-level constraints (e.g., max cost, schedule), performance requirements, or other key customer requirements are defined and documented. Finally, the project is kicked off and started.

  • Planning. The second primary phase of a project is where the unpacking and planning of the project takes place. There are a large number of tasks and work that comprise this phase, but these can be sorted into four basic categories. First is the development, definition, and approval of the project’s overall scope, its quality requirements, and a baselined budget and schedule. Second is the  development of procurement, risk, and general execution, integration, & communication plans. Third is the determination of how the project will need to be staffed, and the acquisition/hiring of the key members of that planned organization. And finally, a plan for identifying, analyzing, and managing the expectations of all external stakeholders, both for, neutral, and against the project.

  • Executing. This is the phase when the actual work of creating the project’s deliverable occurs. The PMs primary functions during this period include directing and managing the work of the project staff, managing and mitigating risks that threaten project success, and ensuring that external stakeholders are engaged appropriately and that their expectations are being met.

    • Monitoring and Controlling. During the Execution Phase, the PM also has to monitor (i.e., measure) the progress of the work, and control changes to the work and plans. The formal PMI methodology treats this effort as a separate process group, or stage of work, that is performed in parallel with the Execution phase, but in practice it’s virtually indistinguishable from that Executing phase. Therefore we treat it as an integral part of project Execution.

  • Closing. The last step of a project is relatively easier than the preceding three phases of the project—but it’s no less important. This step is when the PM oversees the formal close-outs of external and internal procurement efforts, delivers the project’s product scope to the customer (including formal sign-off for delivery), documents the key lessons learned from the project, and then formally closes the project.