According to the Project Management Institute, there are five stages or sets of steps that every single project must follow:

1. Initiate.

During this stage, interested people define the project at a high-level, identify the goals of the project and set the guidelines and constraints to govern the project going forward. Once defined, a decision is made to move forward with the project or not.

The most important questions to address during this stage include:

  • What is the overall goal of this project?
  • How will success be measured? What explicit criteria will be used?
  • What is the high level scope of the project?
  • Who are the key players? Customer? Team members? Financier? End-Customer?Vendors? Partners? Objectors? Influencers?
  • At a high-level, what needs to be done in order to achieve the goal?
  • Among all the other projects, tasks and activities, is now the right time to pursue this project?
  • Are there any conflicting goals, projects or or environmental challenges that must be considered?
  • Is there sufficient buy-in from appropriate authorities and stakeholders?
  • Are the right resources (e.g. team, budget, office space, computers) in place to make this project successful?

2. Plan.

During this stage, a more detailed effort is made to define the specific tasks, resources, schedule and budget. All of these things are put into a master project plan, which can be tracked using sophisticated software like Microsoft Project or with a simple tool like Microsoft Word or Excel. For really simple projects, it might be sufficient to use a notepad.

I worked with a colleague who often said, “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.” My former colleague is exactly right! Too often, project managers want to define a project plan and set it in stone. This is entirely wrong! Inevitably, things change and an effective project manager must adapt along the way. The plan must be created to set the path forward but must not be written in stone. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. The important thing during this stage is that thought and effort are exerted to identify the key steps that must be taken to complete the project, people are identified to complete each step, that a timeline is established to complete the overall project and each step within it and that a financial budget is set and understood by everyone who needs to know.

Critical questions to ask during the Plan stage include:

  • What is the detailed scope of the project?
  • What steps or tasks need to be completed to achieve the project goals?
  • Who needs to complete each step or task?
  • By when does each task need to be completed?
  • What are the absolute critical tasks that must be completed?
  • How much money and other resources are available to be used during this project?
  • Are there any dependencies that could impact the delivery or success of this project? If so, are they controllable dependencies or not?
  • What other risks are there at the outset? What can be done to proactively manage the risks?

3. Execute.

During this stage, actual work begins. Now, I’m not saying that initiating and planning a project isn’t work. But sometimes initiating and planning feel more like talking about and preparing to do work than doing work itself. By this stage, however, the project is beyond preparation. People are in place, sometimes many people. For many business transformation, software and systems implementation projects, teams of people are documenting processes, identifying requirements or business needs, designing user interfaces, building and validating solutions and, finally, delivering solutions to the customer.

Questions that should be answered during this stage will vary greatly depending on the type of project being executed. However, typical questions include:

  • Are the needs or requirements stated clearly?
  • Do the appropriate people agree with the designed solution?
  • Does the solution meet the needs of the customer? End-user? Other stakeholders?
  • Is the solution ready to be delivered to the client/public/customer?
  • Have the end-users been sufficiently trained to use the new solution?

4. Monitor or Control.

This is an interesting stage because it occurs simultaneously with the Execute stage. While the Execute stage — or set of activities — focuses on getting work done, the activities to monitor or control a project aim to ensure that everything remains on-track. Often, a separate person or team of people monitor a project than those responsible for executing the project. This can be especially helpful for large projects as well as projects that are part of much larger programs or strategic initiatives. Often, the people who are “in the weeds” don’t have the time to see and be aware of what’s going on outside the project that could impact their project significantly.

Key questions to help monitor a project include:

  • Is the project on-track to deliver the expected results?
  • Is the project on-track from a schedule perspective?
  • Are individual tasks on-track to be completed?
  • Have any new issues arisen that must be addressed?
  • Have any new risks appeared that threaten project success?
  • Are there any risks or issues that must be escalated?
  • Are the resources still sufficient for the project?
  • Is the budget still sufficient?
  • Are there any dependencies outside the project that are falling behind schedule or impacting the project in some other way (e.g. quality, budget)?

5. Close.

For many projects, the line between the Execute and Close stages is very thin. Often, the Execute stage includes formal handoffs of solutions to clients and end-users. During a project closing, effort is placed on wrapping things up. That can include making final updates to the project plan, conducting a post-mortem assessment of how things went, interviewing stakeholders to obtain their feedback, documenting lessons learned to apply to the next project, reconciling the budget and providing final status updates to appropriate people.

By this point in the project lifecycle, most people are ready to move on. But it’s important to properly close out a project and address the following questions:

  • Did the project achieve the desired goals and objectives? If not, why not?
  • Is the customer — the one who funded the project — satisfied with the results?
  • Is all the documentation in its final state and stored in such a way that those who might need it can find it without too much trouble?
  • Were the project estimates on-target? If not, how far off were they and what can be done to improve them next time?
  • What lessons can be learned? Which ones are critical to apply next time around?
  • Were there any people on the project who you’d rather avoid next time around?

Five stages: Initiate, Plan, Execute, Monitor, Close. The examples I’ve presented assume a certain context, namely a typical project you might see in businesses around the world. Yet the same stages should be followed even with other types of projects such as weekend house-renovations, video-creation, blogging and self-improvement.

You will make great strides in your pursuit of succes if you define projects and ingrain these stages into them on a regular basis.