Project Managers Miss a Valuable Trick by not Understanding a PM Life Cycle
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Whether you call it a Project Management Methodology, Project Management Life Cycle, or a Project Life Cycle, it is clearly valuable as a foundation for leading projects and communicating project information effectively.  Project managers, as a group, don’t have any single identified Project Management Life Cycle that they would adopt for their project; this alone is not a problem.  However, the absence of any widely known and understood project management life cycle models is one cause of random or inconsistent implementations of various project management techniques.


The Project Management Life Cycle – Well-Understood or Unknown?

Give this question a moment of thought:

Can you name two or three software development methodologies? 

You’ve probably come up with familiar terms like waterfall, iterative, incremental, Scrum, spiral, rapid application development, or eXtreme Programming.  Regardless of your preferred software methodology, you are likely able to name and describe a variety of software life cycles, and could probably articulate some advantages and disadvantages of each. 

Here’s another question to ponder: 

Can you describe or name a project management life cycle?

Many project managers to whom I have asked this question have provided responses like these:

  •  “Can you define life cycle for me?”
    • Possibly an attempt to avoid or delay answering the question.
  • I don’t know of any.” 
    • While a disappointing response, it probably is better to acknowledge this gap in knowledge than to be falsely confident with an inaccurate understanding of project management.
  • Waterfall – requirements, architecture, design, code and test.”
    • With this answer, the software development life cycle is mistakenly identified as being the project management life cycle as well.  Oops, that’s not right.
  •  “The PMBoK.”
    • This reference to PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge is a pretty good answer, but it is still not quite right.  The PMBoK is more accurately described as a framework for a project management life cycle, but it makes no claims to being a life cycle or a methodology.
  • Prince2.”
    • This is a pretty good answer.  Prince2 is a detailed, prescriptive set of project management methods, structured with clear flows, responsibilities and defined artifacts.
  • Scrum.”
    • Another good answer, although not altogether accurate.  The Scrum Alliance itself considers Scrum to be a framework for organizing teams.  Ken Schwaber’s paper describing Scrum is careful to never use phrases such as ‘Project Management,’ and it is very clear that there is no Project Manager role in SCRUM.  In short, SCRUM makes no claim to being a Project Management Life Cycle.


Is the lack of a Defined PM Life Cycle a Problem?

There is most definitely a problem here!  If a project manager is unable to describe and show a working knowledge of a project management life cycle, how is that project manager going to structure and organize the activities of the project team?   Without the use of a defined and understood project management life cycle, it is likely that the activities of the project manager are almost entirely reliant upon that project manager’s individual approach to project management.  This is, at best, an overly risky approach to managing projects and certainly isn't a good foundation for consistent results.

Here’s another way of looking at this same problem: if you are a managing a team of project managers (each with project leadership responsibilities), how can you be confident, short of adopting a micro-management approach, that those projects will be managed effectively?  Without any common framework for managing projects, you’ve lost a significant advantage to you and your project managers in enabling project success.

I don’t see evidence that there is a commonly acknowledged and well-known Project Management Life Cycle that enjoys the same level of understanding as, say, Scrum or the Waterfall Life Cycle.  Here’s the result of this situation:

  • Project Managers Falter and Projects Fail.  Despite an abundance of available tools, process descriptions, and templates, project managers still lack an understood framework for structuring, executing, reporting progress on, and seeking assistance in completing the project management responsibilities for a project.  I’ve worked with hundreds of project managers (many holding a PMP or Prince2 certification) who have struggled to understand the project management activities for a project.  Without a Project Management Life Cycle to guide them, many have floundered and even more have wasted significant effort attempting to create, from scratch, a PM Life Cycle for use on their project.
  • Inability to Communicate Effectively with Executives.  Without a commonly understood Project Management Life Cycle, an effective discussion with executives about project management activities, progress, required assistance or status is hindered; the project manager has no shared language to convey what project management is all about – speaking only in terms of schedules, activities or deliverables will rarely communicate important project management concerns and the bigger picture.  It is the rare executive who can articulate an overall framework of project management activities (If you are in doubt on this point, ask some of your senior managers the two questions at the top of this article to get some data points on the awareness & familiarity your leaders have of project management.)
  • Unacknowledged Value of Project Management.  Project Management advocates struggle to assert the importance and value of Project Management and sell itself to organizations and executives.  Despite the creation of thousands of articles, publications, books and training courses, we still find ourselves in a situation in which executives and even some project managers are still unclear on just what project management really is.
  • Project Managers: Hacks or Professionals?  The lack of a defined PM Life Cycle gives an opening for critics to define project management in unflattering terms; for example, one unappealing characterization is that project management is merely asking team members what they should be doing for a project, writing it down, and then returning to those same individuals to ask if they are done yet!  A someone less harsh, yet still critical view is that project management is merely implementing a small set of easy-to-implement practices that seem like the easiest to use on a particular project, writing off the use of other practices, avoided because they are thought to be difficult-to-implement, that could be of significant value to the project.


If We Don’t Have a Defined PM Life Cycle, Then What do we Have?

Because there is such a wide variety in the structure, type, scope, size and complexity of projects, it isn’t really possible to define in any detail a Project Management Methodology that is complete and universally applicable.   The wide range (in multiple dimensions) of projects will render almost any full-blown Project Management methodology as unusable for a specific project – e.g., too much rigor will overburden small projects, too little will introduce excessive risk on large projects.

However, this hindrance does not need to prevent project managers from knowing, understanding, and using an overall, generally applicable Project Management Life Cycle.

Here are some very different approaches to defining Project Management:

  • Define only a small subset.  Agile Project Management using Scrum is an excellent approach to organizing projects, and it appears to be dramatically different than any prior framework for managing projects.  Founded on only a handful of principles, a simple life cycle model and the use of only a few documentation artifacts, this method of organizing projects has a lot to be said for it.  One shrewd technique used in defining and advocating Scrum is to strictly limit the scope and size of its definition; Scrum is silent on many Project Management topics and practices that are still a part of the operation of any Scrum project.  Scrum teams rely on the collective experience and expertise of the Scrum team to fill these voids, rather than providing guidance and methods that the team can adapt for their use.
  • Create a middle-level detail of definition (no high level definition, no underlying details).   The PMI has created a Guide to the PMBoK that gives an enormous amount of well-organized information, from which an organization or project team can chose the set of Project Management methods they will further define and use to manage their projects.  The PMI has gone to extremes to stress that the process groups (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, Closing) are not phases of a Life Cycle; this properly recognizes that these phases may be executing sequentially, partially overlapping, or repeatedly in a project, and that any representation of these as a Project Management Life Cycle could be misleading when applied to a specific project – thus the PMI has squandered an opportunity to clearly define and publicize a general purpose Project Management Life Cycle.
  • Define an entire Project Management Methodology.  The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), Great Britain is responsible for Prince2, a process-based approach for project management.   Unchanged for several years, this is a collection of Project Management Methods.   It does not claim to be a Project Management Methodology, but it sure looks like one to me.  It has an overall framework and Project Management Life Cycle, along with all of the detail you would need to have in structuring, planning and executing project management activities.  Prince2 is very specific in allocating responsibilities to project managers, defining when approvals to proceed must be secured, and a myriad of other particulars; and here’s the difficulty when providing so much detail: those specifics are based on a set of management, governance and operational principles that may not be relevant for project management in your company.  Prince2 leads a relatively obscure existence in the United Status, where it is not seen as particularly relevant.


The Need for a Project Management Life Cycle is Unmistakable

Struggles in identifying project management responsibilities along with project issues caused by a deficient understanding of project management activities are but a few of the problems that are caused, in part, by the lack of a defined and well-understood framework for the Project Management activities on a project.  While project managers should never depend on a published Project Management Life Cycle to define their every action on a project, it is monumentally inefficient and risky to start each project without the benefit of expertise in the form of a well thought-out Project Management Life Cycle.