Project phases: An overview with real examples

Every project can be broken down into several phases.

In this article I’ll walk you through the phases in the project management life cycle.

Continue reading to learn more about the different project phases.

Project management phases: the simple view

In the most general form, a project can be broken down into:

  • Preparation phase
  • Execution phase
  • Closing phase

The preparation phase is where the project is being set up. The project manager, together with the customer and contractor, will arrange all the formal aspects of the project.

This includes finding the right people to work on the project (establishing a project organization), creating a project plan, setting up a project budget, holding a project kick-off and other activities.

The project team must also gather the requirements and plan the steps for the next phase. Without knowing the detailed requirements (‘What do we need to do?’), the project cannot do anything.

During the execution phase, the project is concerned with all the tasks to turn the project goal into reality. This can mean building something tangible (a product, a building) but also could involve defining a new process (e.g. how a company can find clients online). As you can guess, this takes time.

That’s why the execution phase is usually the phase taking the longest. In terms of complexity this phase will also be the most challenging to manage, because there are so many activities taking place in a tight sequence.

The closing phase is the last one in the project life cycle. Usually it only takes a few weeks or months, which doesn’t make it an easy phase. The last critical tasks have to be completed to make sure the customer is satisfied. There’s no more time for making errors. Everything has to work as planned.

Otherwise the project deadline cannot be met. What’s happening in the closing phase? It’s when the final product or process of the project is prepared for handover to the customer:

  • A building is finalized and the customer makes his final inspection.
  • Employees are trained for a new process to be used in a company.
  • A product is packaged and shipped to the customer. That sort of stuff.

A closer look at the project phases

What I shared with you above was a simplified look at project stages. I wanted to give you the essence before we dive deeper into the project life cycle.

What follows next is an explanation of the way projects are structured in real life. It’s the project phases according to the PMI project phase model.

The 5 Project management phases:

  1. Project Concept & Initiation
  2. Project Definition and Planning
  3. Project Launch or Execution
  4. Project Performance & Control
  5. Project Close
The 5 Phases of Project Management – According to the PMI project model

Phase 1: Project Concept & Initiation

“Manufacturing cost has gone up 7% over the last 2 years. This is killing our profitability! We need to do something about it.”, the CEO of a company says during a board meeting.

“I propose to start a project. We need our top experts to look into this issue and find ways to cut our spending.”

Every project starts with a goal. Or a problem that has to be solved, like in this example.

What happens next? The CEO will delegate the job to one of his managers (let’s say the head of manufacturing), who in turn will look for a suitable project manager. Once a PM has been found, this person will coordinate the next steps. These are, defining the rough scope of the project, setting targets, building a team and documenting the first things in a project charter.

What happens during the project concept and initiation phase are only the first ‘baby steps’ of a project. It is when an organization comes to an agreement that something should be done, and the first actions will be taken. There is not much formalism in the sense that you have to create a lot of project management documentation.

Phase 2: Project Planning

This is the first phase where you really have to go into detail. During the project planning phase, you have to plan every aspect of the project, down to a weekly (or even daily) level.

As you can probably guess, the planning phase is critical:

95% of your project’s success depends on how well you plan things

What you have to do in this phase:

  • Define roles and responsibilities – What kind of skills or people do you need in the project? And what do you expect from each of those members?
  • Create a scope statement – The scope statement is a document which clearly states what the project is expected to deliver. It also defines the boundaries, i.e. what is not expected from the project.
  • Create a project plan (Gantt chart) – Create a project Gantt chart to visualize the flow of the project. This will give everyone on the team clarity on what has to be done by when. Need a good template? Get my project plan template for Excel.
  • Define key milestones – Milestones are goals which have to be accomplished during the project. A milestone could be specification completed or product prototype completed.
  • Set up a communication plan – A simple table which shows how the team and stakeholders will communicate throught the project. Communication can happen in the form of meetings or by email.
  • Perform a risk analysis – It is always better to be prepared for issues than to be surprised. Do a risk analysis to identify the most critical risks and have a “plan B” ready in your pocket.

I cover all the above points in my article on how to create a project plan.

Phase 3: Project Launch or Execution

This is where the rubber meets the road. All tasks defined in the previous phase are now being executed. One after another, or sometimes in parallel. The project team – supported by the project stakeholders – now produces tangible results: A detailed concept outlining the changes driven by the project, or product that will later be sold to the customer.

It’s a very hectic phase which requires good management. Issues pop up, tasks get delayed, people fall sick. All this can (and will) happen, and it’s the project manager’s job to fix those issues and steer the project into the right direction.

The execution phase is also where most of the project budget is spent. Team members will clock a lot of hours, which represent a cost. But the project may also have to purchase goods and services in order to reach the project goal.

Phase 4: Project Performance & Control

This is not really a dedicated phase, but more an ongoing duty of the project management. The project leader has to monitor the progress and quality of the project with respect to several factors:

  • Are the project targets being met? – Projects are launched with a specific purpose in mind. As project manager, you should constantly monitor whether the project is on track to meet those targets.
  • Are we still within budget? – Tracking effort and cost is one of the necessary (but most disliked) tasks of a PM. Set aside a few hours for it every month, and get my project budget template to make your life easy.
  • Are we deviating from scope? – Every now and then, a project will face unforeseen changes. The customer may say: ‘I’ve changed my mind. I want the building to be painted blue, not orange.’  Such change request have to be evaluated by the project team. Maybe the changes require extra budget or require special skills to be implemented.

Phase 5: Project Close

Project close is the last phase in the project lifecycle. These are the final weeks or months during which the project’s end product is finalized and handed over to the customer.

What steps are taken largely depends on the type of project. If we’re talking about an IT project, the closing phase may involve final checks and tests, installing the system at the customer site and training people. In a construction project the customer will inspect the building (or whatever was built) and sign an approval sheet.

The project manager usually will prepare a final report with the actual cost values. Some organizations also do post mortems (also called lessons learned) to evaluate what went well and what didn’t go well in the project, mainly to learn for upcoming projects.

Read also my article Think it’s Over? Not Yet! Four Tips for a Smooth Project Closing.

Don’t let the project phases restrict you

The project phase model is a generic template for structuring projects. It’s good because it optimizes your project for minimum risk: First you do the planning, and then you execute. No messing up of things where you execute first and then discover your results don’t meet the project’s targets.

While a sequential approach is generally the right way, you shouldn’t feel restricted by it. Sometimes it makes sense to start with a certain execution task while you finalize the planning. Starting early with a job reduces the likelihood of a delay. And if you are absolutely sure there’s nothing gonna happen which could make the task a waste of resources, then start early.

Example: You’re leading a manufacturing project for a new truck. The truck is going to be shipped to a customer in Europe 10 months from now.  Due to the booming economy, shipping resources are very scarce. So you decide to reserve a spot on the cargo vessel already now, even though the project is still in the early planning stage (during your risk assessment you’ve recognized the limited shipping resources as a potential risk). Shipping costs $30k, and you need to get the expediture pre-approved by the CEO, because the project budget hasn’t been officially approved yet.

Do you have any questions?

You can leave a comment below with your question. I will answer it as soon as possible.


  • Adrian Neumeyer

    Hi! I'm Adrian, former Senior IT Project Manager and founder of Tactical Project Manager. I created the site to help you become an excellent project leader and manage intense projects with success!

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