Does projects have life cycles? Imagine receiving a term paper assignment in a college class. Our first step would be to develop a sense of the assignment itself—what the professor is looking for, how long the paper should be, the number of references required, stylistic expectations, and so forth.

Once we have familiarized ourselves with the assignment, our next step would be to develop a plan for how we intend to proceed with the project in order to complete it by the due date. We make a rough guess about how much time will be needed for the research, writing the first draft, proofing the paper, and completing the final draft; we use this information to create some tentative milestones for the various components of the assignment.

Next, we begin to execute our plan, doing the library or online research, creating an outline, writing a draft, and so forth. Our goal is to complete the assignment on time, doing the work to our best possible ability. Finally, after turning in the paper, we file or discard our reference materials, return any books to the library, breathe a sigh of relief, and wait for the grade. The figure below shows the project dimensions

Life Cycle Stages

This example represents a simplified but useful illustration of a project’s life cycle. In this case, the project consisted of completing the term paper to the standards expected of the instructor in the time allowed. A project life cycle refers to the stages in a project’s development. Life cycles are important because they demonstrate the logic that governs a project. They also help us develop our plans for carrying out the project. They help us decide, for example, when we should devote resources to the project, how we should evaluate its progress, and so forth. Consider the simplified model of the project life cycle shown in Figure below which divides the life cycle into four distinct phases: conceptualization, planning, execution, and termination.

  • Conceptualization refers to the development of the initial goal and technical specifications for a project. The scope of the work is determined, necessary resources (people, money, physical plant) identified, and important organizational contributors or stakeholders signed on.
  • Planning is the stage in which all detailed specifications, schematics, schedules, and other plans are developed. The individual pieces of the project, often called work packages, are broken down, individual assignments made, and the process for completion clearly delineated. For example, in planning our approach to complete the term paper, we determine all the necessary steps (research, drafts, editing, etc.) in the process.
  • During execution, the actual “work” of the project is performed, the system developed, or the product created and fabricated. It is during the execution phase that the bulk of project team labor is performed. As Figure 1.3 shows, project costs (in man hours) ramp up rapidly during this stage.
  • Termination occurs when the completed project is transferred to the customer, its resources reassigned, and the project formally closed out. As specific sub-activities are completed, the project shrinks in scope and costs decline rapidly. These stages are the waypoints at which the project team can evaluate both its performance and the project’s overall status. Remember, however, that the life cycle is relevant only after the project has actually begun.

The life cycle is signaled by the actual kickoff of project development, the development of plans and schedules, the performance of necessary work, and the completion of the project and reassignment of personnel. When we evaluate projects in terms of this life cycle model, we are given some clues regarding their subsequent resource requirements; that is, we begin to ask whether we have sufficient personnel, materials, and equipment to support the project. For example, when beginning to work on our term paper project, we may discover that it is necessary to purchase a PC or hire someone to help with researching the topic. Thus, as we plan the project’s life cycle, we acquire important information regarding the resources that we will need. The life cycle model, then, serves the twofold function of project timing (schedule) and project requirements (resources), allowing team members to better focus on what and when resources are needed



The project life cycle is also a useful means of visualizing the activities required and challenges to be faced during the life of a project.

Figure above indicates some of these characteristics as they evolve during the course of completing a project.

As you can see, five components of a project may change over the course of its life cycle:

  • Client interest: The level of enthusiasm or concern expressed by the project’s intended customer. Clients can be either internal to the organization or external.
  • Project stake: The amount of corporate investment in the project. The longer the life of the project, the greater the investment.
  • Resources: The commitment of financial, human, and technical resources over the life of the project.
  • Creativity: The degree of innovation required by the project, especially during certain development phases.
  • Uncertainty: The degree of risk associated with the project. Riskiness here reflects the number of unknowns, including technical challenges that the project is likely to face. Uncertainty is highest at the beginning because many challenges have yet to be identified, let alone addressed.


Each of these factors has its own dynamic. Client interest, for example, follows a “U-shaped” curve, reflecting initial enthusiasm, lower levels of interest during development phases, and renewed interest as the project nears completion. Project stake increases dramatically as the project moves forward because an increasing commitment of resources is needed to support ongoing activities. Creativity, often viewed as innovative thought or applying a unique perspective, is high at the beginning of a project, as the team and the project’s client begin developing a shared vision of the project. As the project moves forward and uncertainty remains high, creativity also continues to be an important feature. In fact, it is not until the project is well into its execution phase, with defined goals, that creativity becomes less important. To return to our example of the term paper project, in many cases, the “creativity” needed to visualize a unique or valuable approach to developing the project is needed early, as we identify our goals and plan the process of achieving them. Once identified, the execution phase, or writing the term paper, places less emphasis on creativity per se and more on the concrete steps needed to complete the project assignment. Over time, while certain characteristics (creativity, resources, and uncertainty) begin to decrease, other elements (client interest and project stake) gain in importance. Balancing the requirements of these elements across the project life cycle is just one of the many demands placed on a project team


James Taylor. (2006). A Survival Guide for Project Managers. AMACOM