Project Management Life Cycles - Evolution over the years

In Utopia, for Projects being implemented, there will be no change in specifications, scope, cost or resources, throughout the Life Cycle of the Project after the Project Management Plan is base lined and signed off. There will be no failed Projects and no reworks required. Projects will have no defects and will be accepted by the Customers on Delivery. Unfortunately, there is no Utopia and Project Managers globally have to be on their toes to deal with changing scenarios.  This article attempts to equip Project Managers with the knowledge of various Project Life Cycle Approaches so as to help them deal with changes on their Projects.

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A Project typically has a number of Phases. The number of phases, their need for the Project and the level of control required over each phase are primarily defined by the nature of the Project, the complexity of the same and the industry to which the Project has to cater to.

Project Phases are generally sequential in nature but may have overlapping relationships. The phases and the relationships together form the Project Management Life Cycle. Further the Project Management Life Cycle to be adopted is frequently part of the Organizations’ Project Management Standards. In real life, a Project Manager may not have a say in the Life Cycle approach to be adopted, but understanding the different approaches and methodologies can help a Project Manager better adapt to changes.

  • The Traditional Project Management Life Cycle

This is also known as the Waterfall method. PMBOK® Guide 5 refers to this method as the ‘Predictive Life Cycle’. In this type of model, the phases defined may have sequential or overlapping relations or even a combination of both. Work performed in each phase is distinct from the predecessor or the successor phase. This type of approach suits well to small projects with minimal complexity and where the product to be delivered is fairly well understood.

fig -1

As depicted in the above figure, exit criteria have to be satisfied before commencing into the successor phase. There is a high level of emphasis on Documents and document sign offs.  Major constraints in following this kind of Life Cycle Approach or model is the incapability of the model to adapt to changes without resulting in major reworks or workarounds. This is one of the primary factors which resulted in the evolution of newer approaches which were more focused on Change.

  • The Iterative Project Management Life Cycle

This approach evolved to counter the existing constraints in the traditional approach especially where there was a need to adapt to changes. In this approach, the processes in each phase are iterated till the phase exit criteria are met. Truly speaking this approach was just a baby step in the evolution of project management Life Cycles.

fig -2

It is clear from the above figure that the Iterative Cycle is nothing but a series of mini-waterfalls.  It can be adopted for less complex and small projects where the deliverables are fairly understood. It allows a relatively better insulation to changes over the Traditional approach.

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  • The Incremental Project Management Life Cycle

In this kind of approach the product is developed over a series of incremental steps. The approach is cyclic in nature and each cycle delivers an added functionality. The process is repeated till the exit criteria for the product or deliverable is fully met. Large and complex projects greatly benefit from following this model. It supports prototyping and customer interaction is quite high in the build phase of the Project.

fig -3

The Incremental model is much better equipped to handle change. Each incremental functionality is verified by the customer and hence the relative risk in managing large and complex projects is substantially reduced. On the downside, there is a possibility of gold plating, wherein the functionalities not really required end up being built into the Product or Deliverable.

  • The Adaptive Project Management Life Cycle

These methods are also known as change-driven or Agile methods.  This approach to Project Management is a combination of both the Iterative and Incremental models. The iterations are very rapid and time bound. In the Adaptive Life Cycle, Customer Involvement is the key to successful Projects. The customer and the sponsor form a part of the Delivery Team. Sometimes in Agile approaches, the phases may not be clearly defined. It relies heavily on customer feedback and the ability of the team to quickly work on the feedback and incorporate the same into the Project.  Communication and Collaboration are of paramount importance in implementing Projects using the Agile methodologies.

fig -4

An Agile approach is suitable for complex projects where the requirements are absolutely unclear, but it is possible to define incremental requirements. Some of the major challenges in adopting the Agile approach are required high levels of Customer Involvement (which may not always be possible or practical). Also, having a Virtual Team may work against the required enhanced collaborative approach.


Project Management Life Cycles have thus evolved from the need of to deliver successful projects. The ability of the Project Team or Organization, to adapt to a particular framework of Project Life Cycle considering the nature of the Project, goes a long way in delivering the Right Product, Result or Service. The Project Management Institute, PMI®, has played a significant role in advocating the different Project Management Life Cycle methodologies. The Project Management Body of Knowledge is regularly updated. The PMBOK® Guide 5 has for the first time, included brief write-ups on the different Project Management Life cycle approaches being followed worldwide for Project Implementation.

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