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5 Phases of Project Management

Project managers are responsible for a lot of moving parts. There are things that will go to plan, and things that might stall or go off track. Luckily, project management is not magic — it's a science that follows five phases, with clear goals, steps, and deliverables for each phase.

The five phases of project management were developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI), a global not-for-profit association that aims to help individuals and organizations work smarter. PMI has been around for more than half a century, and its project management principles have stood the test of time.

Here are the five phases of project management, along with what each phase entails.

Phase 1: Project Initiation

Before you begin a project, you need a vision. Think of it as a journey: You need a destination before you set off.

The first step of project management is to define the project, also known as the initiation phase. In this phase, the project manager and their teams will brainstorm different ideas until they reach a concept that's viable and agreeable to everyone. This might involve completing research or feasibility testing, as well as fully understanding the business case for the project.

Once that's done, you'll create your project initiation document (PID), which outlines the project's purpose and requirements.

Spreadsheet.com's project plan template breaks down your project into a set of tasks, allowing you to manage the entire project by charting the progress of each of those tasks.

Project Plan Template
Project Plan Template

Phase 2: Project Planning

If the first phase was about coming up with a destination, the second phase involves creating a road map to tell you how to get there. The planning stage is for the team to tackle difficult questions about timelines, budget, roles, and responsibilities. It's also the time to get organized, and set goals.

Planning is crucial, and the PMI affirms its benefits with these words of wisdom from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, also known as the PMBOK® Guide: "By taking more time to plan up front, many projects can reduce uncertainty, oversights, and rework."

Projects often fall short of meeting their goals because the team isn't on the same page when it comes to the definition of success. Using a specific set of criteria such as SMART and CLEAR will help ensure objectives are defined and attainable within a certain time frame.

SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

  • Specific: A specific goal answers who, what, where, when, which, and why questions. What needs to be accomplished? Who's responsible for it? What steps must be taken to achieve it?
  • Measurable: Set out measurable and trackable benchmarks to quantify your project's goals. This makes it easier to track your team's progress.
  • Attainable: Time for a reality check. Are your goals achievable? What will it take for your team to accomplish them? Don't bite off more than you can chew.
  • Relevant: Think about the big picture. Why are you setting this goal? What's the impact? What will it mean for your team or organization in a wider sense?
  • Timely: Make sure you and your team agree on the time frame needed to achieve the goal. Setting time-related parameters help everyone to stay on track.

CLEAR is an acronym that stands for collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, and refinable.

  • Collaborative: Goals should encourage employees to work together. Studies show companies that promote collaborative working are significantly more likely to be high-performing.
  • Limited: Limit the scope and duration of goals to make them more manageable.
  • Emotional: Tap into what your team feels passionate about. When employees have an emotional connection to their work, they care more about its quality.
  • Appreciable: Maintain momentum by breaking down larger goals into smaller actions that can be accomplished faster.
  • Refinable: It's important to have a goal in mind, but prepare to be flexible and refine your path as different situations and opportunities arise.
Developing the Project Plan

During the project planning phase, you'll define the scope of the project and develop the plan. A project plan usually includes the following sections:

Scope Statement

A project scope statement offers a detailed description of the work that must be done to deliver a project on time and within budget. It clearly defines the business case, benefits of the project, objectives, deliverables, and key milestones.

Scope Statement

A project scope statement offers a detailed description of the work that must be done to deliver a project on time and within budget. It clearly defines the business case, benefits of the project, objectives, deliverables, and key milestones.

A scope statement is essential for the project to stay on track and avoid scope creep. Scope creep happens when additional and often unnecessary features are introduced to a project beyond the original scope statement. While a scope statement may change during the project, it should be done with the project manager's approval.

Scope creep is a significant drain on resources and should be avoided at all costs. Still, more than a third of project managers report experiencing scope creep in projects they'd worked on over the last year, according to the PMI's Pulse of the Profession 2021 report.

Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS)

Breaking work into smaller tasks is a common productivity technique used to make the work more manageable and approachable.

Speaking to Fast Company, veteran project manager Frank Ryle explains people often say that “if they had known all the work that would be involved in every step — deliveries, committees, approvals — their estimates would have been better. The WBS will make you better."


Making a note of important dates and events can help you to more accurately estimate the time it will take to complete your project. Just as the WBS breaks a project down into smaller, manageable parts, milestones mark project phases. Identify all the top-level goals throughout the project and include them in the Gantt chart. What is a Gantt chart, you ask?

Gantt Chart

This bar chart allows you to illustrate a project schedule. Activities are listed on the vertical axis and dates on the horizontal axis, while activity durations are shown as horizontal bars placed according to start and finish dates. The Gantt chart is named after Henry Gantt, the American engineer who popularized it even though he didn't actually invent it.

This simple Gantt chart can get you started with creating a project schedule.

Gantt Chart Template
Gantt Chart Template
Communication Plan

A project management communication plan determines how important information will be communicated to stakeholders throughout the project. This includes who needs to receive the information, how often, and via which messaging platforms.

RACI charts can help ensure clear communication during the project management process. RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. As Forbes notes, “RACI charts can help prevent that sinking feeling when a major decision-maker comes at the end of a project and complicates things with a large number of changes because they weren't consulted throughout the project."

This RACI matrix offers a simple way to schedule communications with team members and stakeholders.

RACI Matrix
RACI Matrix Template

Risk Management Plan

As a project manager, it's your job to identify what could possibly go wrong with the project. Common risks include unrealistic time and cost estimates, budget cuts, and lack of resources.

As PMI notes, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that backup plans are essential. "This is more than just documenting doomsday scenarios in a risk register," writes Jesse Fewell, who serves on the development team of the PMBOK® Guide. “It's about embedding contingencies into your approach."

Project managers adding buffer sprints to their schedules and naming a deputy decision-maker in case of emergencies are just two of the contingency options Fewell recommends.

"The project leader who has a backup to the backup is one who is not easily flustered by change," he adds.

Phase 3: Project Execution

You have your destination and road map, and now it's time to get moving. The execution phase is when teams start work on the plan created in the previous step.

A lot happens all at once during this phase, and experts recommend implementing a project management system to ensure that important communication is centrally located and easy to access.

Tasks that are usually completed during the execution phase include:

  • Developing the team and assigning resources.
  • Executing project management plans, directed by the project manager.
  • Driving procurement management (if needed).
  • Setting up tracking systems.
  • Conducting status meetings.
  • Updating the project schedule.
  • Modifying project plans as needed.

This team task list allows teams to track and manage project tasks.

Team Task List Template

Phase 4: Project Performance and Monitoring

In the fourth phase, you'll be monitoring the team's progress to ensure the project is on track to meet the overall deadline and achieve its goals.

Effective metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) can help project managers identify whether a project is on track. KPIs will vary between industries, organizations, and even projects. However, they should always be qualitative, quantitative, and as Harvard Business Review notes, reflect your strategic priorities.

For example, measuring if a project is on schedule indicates whether it will meet stakeholder objectives. Meanwhile, cost tracking allows you to easily see if the project is within the allotted budget.

While the project execution and monitoring phases have a different set of requirements, these two phases often occur simultaneously.

This project budget workbook allows you to break down your costs by task.

Project Budget Template
Project Budget Template

Phase 5: Project Close

Hopefully, you've reached your destination in one piece. Though it may be tempting to kick back and enjoy the view, it's important to first take a look at how far you've come.

Evaluation is an essential final step of project management, so gather your team and have a conversation about the successes and failures throughout this process. This is an opportunity for you and the team to identify things that went well, as well as any areas for improvement.

Now that the project is 100% complete, you can file away the paperwork and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

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