Editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine October 2000


Musings Index

Project Life Cycle — One Size Fits All

Last month (September 2000) we attended a project management meeting at which the speaker proudly described the products of his high-technology start-up company. The company's products were indeed fascinating, but almost as an after thought did the speaker describe the organization's rollout schedule and the difficulties they had experienced with component coordination, integration and configuration. Aside from needing a better understanding of project management generally, what appeared to be desperately missing for their projects was an appropriate project life cycle or span (PLS) process. Which raises the questions: What PLS is appropriate? Can they be standardized? And is there one that fits all projects?

It is our view that just as we have successfully applied the concept of a breakdown structure to both product deliverables and the work activities necessary to produce them, so should we apply the same concept to examining the project life span process. Is there a PLS hierarchy? Of course, though many seem unwilling to recognize it. But why do we need a PLS in the first place? Because the PLS provides the essential basis for establishing a controlled journey to the desired destination.

The genesis of the PLS, in its most basic form, is to be found in the term project management. A project has, by definition, a start and a finish. The essence of management is to plan before doing. Hence the fundamental PLS consists of four sequential periods, namely, "Start", "Plan", "do", and "Finish". At this fundamental level, surely there can be no argument? Yet, we continue to marvel at how many project managers skip over the last period because either the time, or the money, or both have run out, or the corporate culture skips over most of the start period as a cost avoidance measure.

At the next breakdown level, different phases are established and these will include at least the same four periods described above though they are invariably called by different names. In the engineering and construction industry one hears terms like "initiation, planning, implementation and commissioning". In software engineering quite different terms are used such as: "Inception, elaboration, construction, transition". But the general intent is the same and it is clear that the phases and how they are managed, for example the extent of iteration, are heavily dependent on the type of project and its degree of technological uncertainty.

Each phase is expected to deliver a result at which point an executive decision can be taken on whether to proceed or turn back. These major milestones are typically referred to as "control points" or control gates but their intent might be better served by the term "emergency exit ramps" – opportunities to pull over if the vehicle is not performing well. At the third level down the phases are segregated into stages and thence into activities and tasks all of which are inevitably determined by the circumstances of the specific project.

So, does one size fit all? At its most elementary, top or first level, certainly yes. At the second level one may find comparability amongst projects of similar types but at the working level, properly planned PLSs are unlikely to be repeated unless the projects happen to be very, very similar. Think of it this way: It is generally agreed that the concept of wearing shoes is good for most people most of the time, but what size and what style is highly dependent upon the individual and the occasion.

Certainly, some will assert that it is possible to do without shoes at all, but the project manager that does without a PLS will be in trouble. If you are managing a project, make sure that you have a carefully considered and carefully constructed project life span process. Without it, you will undoubtedly have difficulty in arriving successfully at the desired destination. It is up to you to make the right choices.

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