Project Life Cycles versus Key PM Processes

A Sample Project Life Cycle & The 5 Essential PM Processes

We know that a project life cycle is made up of a collection of related phases. And each phase in the life cycle is made up of a bunch of related tasks or activities. And the exact nature of all these tasks, activities, and phases is dependent entirely upon the finished products (deliverables) you are trying to create. So, a media producer has a “Scripting” phase made up of many tasks related to drafting and refining the script. And a home builder has a “Blueprint” phase made up of creating and refining the home’s floor plans. And a software developer has a “Design” phase in which clear software specifications are created to guide the programmers. You get the idea:  Deliverables determine the tasks & activities needed, which in turn determine the project life cycle.

In the graphic above, the blue boxes on the left show a generic project life cycle (organized as a “waterfall” project structure*) which can be used to create almost any type of finished product.

On the other hand, there are the Five Key PM Processes (represented by the yellow bubbles in the diagram above) that pretty much everyone agrees are universal: Initiate, Plan, Execute, Control, and Close Out. No matter what your project, you can apply these processes to keep things moving.

The trouble is that a lot of PM newbies (and organizations who are new to PM) confuse the five generic PM processes with their life cycles. They try to pound the square pegs of their project’s necessarily unique phases into the round holes that are the five generic PM processes.

The result is that I sometimes find myself working with clients who insist that their local PM model has a distinct phase labeled “Plan” or “Execute” or, worse yet, “Control.”  But, I usually ask them, how can you possibly restrict all “execution” chores to a single phase? And aren’t you “controlling” throughout the project?  As you can see, this can all be very confusing for a PM newcomer.

Though it usually takes some time to sink in, here’s my bottom line message to these folks: Any project’s life cycle (that collection of tasks, activities, and phases) is unique and always reflect a specific set of deliverables or “best practices” of an industry. On the other hand, any project’s work processes (i.e., what you do to move from phase to phase) involves the 5 generic PM processes: Initiate, Plan, Execute, Control, and Close-Out. So no matter what phase of a project you’re in (any project!), you must Initiate that phase, then Plan that phase (or revisit & revise the Plan), Execute the tasks associated with that phase, Control the tasks, and finally Close Out that phase.  When you complete the phase (i.e., when you “close out” the phase), then you start all over again with the next phase and Initiate, Plan (replan), Execute/Control, and Close Out that phase. And so it goes… over and over again.

Some Videos & a PDF to Help Clarify

As a PM trainer I’ve spent considerable time helping people get this important distinction straight. To help clarify, I’ve created these videos:

The link below is from a PDF file of a few slides I sometimes share with PM-newbie clients to help them see the distinction (and the relationship) between the Five Key PM Processes and their project’s unique life cycle. Click the link, check them out, provide your own narration, and maybe you can help clarify this confusing topic for a PM newbie you know!


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