Project Phases

Over the years, those involved in managing projects have observed that projects have special characteristics that can be exploited to manage them more effectively.  One of those areas somewhat peculiar to the project environment deals with project phases:

Projects should be structured to take advantage of the natural phases that occur as work progresses. The phases should be defined in terms of schedule and also in terms of specific accomplishments. You should define how you will know when you are finished each phase and what you will have to show for it.

The Project Management Institute defines four major project phases: initiation, planning, execution and closure.  One could make the case that almost every project goes through these four phases.  Within these phase are smaller gradations.  Some methodologies suggest decomposing projects into phases, stages, activities, tasks and steps.

Cost and schedule estimates, plans, requirements, specifications, and so forth, should be updated and evaluated at the end of each phase, sometimes before deciding whether to continue with the project. Large projects are usually structured to have major program reviews at the conclusion of significant project phases. These decision-points in the life of a project are called Major Milestones.

The following illustrates how the concept of project phases is incorporated into a new product development methodology.

This illustrates the linking of major milestone review meetings with the completion of each phase. Milestone decisions are made after conducting a major program review where the project manager presents the approved statement of requirements, acquisition strategy, design progress, test results, updated cost and schedule estimates, and risk assessments, together with a request for authorization to proceed to the next phase.

The early phases will shape the direction for all further efforts on the project. They provide requirements definitions, evaluation of alternative approaches, assessment of maturity of technologies, review of cost, schedule and staffing estimates, and development of specifications.

Milestone completions can be defined in terms of "exit criteria" as well as by calendar dates. Using "event based" schedules rather than date-based schedules ties project phase completions to the successful achievement of predetermined criteria such as completion of testing, demonstration of prototypes, adequacy of technical documentation, or approval of conceptual designs and specifications.

A relatively short-term or technically straight-forward project may have only one approval event, following a proposal or feasibility study. Nevertheless, the project manager should report to customers and interested senior managers at intervals to keep them up to date on project progress and to ensure the continuing soundness of the project direction and requirements.

On small projects, if no formal agreements are written, the project manager should deal with customers and sponsors in an informal yet somewhat contractual way. This means managing expectations and making clear agreements about what will be produced and when.

If project phases take place over many months or even years, it is vital to provide interim deliverables to give the customers and sponsors a sense that work is being accomplished, to provide an opportunity for feedback, and to capture project successes in documented form.

The project planning process should be built around the project life cycle. Particular care should be given to defining the work to be accomplished in each phase. This should include definition of the deliverables to be produced, identifying testing and demonstrations to be completed, preparing updates of cost and schedule estimates, re-assessing risks, and conducting formal technical and management reviews.

If your project runs into an immovable obstacle and progress comes to a complete halt, you may want to declare victory and bring that phase to a close. This can be done by documenting the work already completed, and then writing a report describing the work successfully completed and defining the steps required should project sponsors decide to proceed.

© Copyright 1997, James R. Chapman, All rights reserved.
Last updated: 2-3-2005.
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