The Five Stages of a Project

A project manager and team member working at a whiteboard with sticky notes one it
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Every major work project goes through five phases. The length and details may vary from project to project, but all will still follow the same basic framework. While some project methodologies such as agile approaches compress or repeat the following stages in faster, iterative cycles, the work of each phase is visible and distinct in every project. 

The Five Stages

The formal stages of a project are 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
  5. Project close: delivery of the project, assessment of lessons learned, adjournment of the project team

A project manager will lead their team through these five phases in succession—regardless of project size—until the project is complete. 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. 

Let's look at these stages in more detail.

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. It 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 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. There are other free options available online, too. Still, 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 involved
  • 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 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 a project's success, so articulate the schedule and communications plan clearly. 

Monitor and Control

While the project is in the execution phase, 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 may be 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 vs. planned costs
  • In some cases, monitoring, calculating and reporting on earned value for the project plan
  • Monitoring and mitigating risks and refining the risk plan as needed

Project Close

Once all the details and tasks of your project are completed and approved by the client or project owner, you can finally close your project. This may seem like a formality, but the closing of a project is just as important as its initiation, planning, and execution.

A good project manager will document all the information from the project and organize it neatly so they 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. All important project notes 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.