Watching the Road Signs
Although instinct might encourage business professionals to dive right into projects, successful leaders understand that effective project cycles contain seven distinct phases. Few projects actually move through all seven phases in order. Some projects may require retooling that causes more time for preparation and presentation. Longer projects may necessitate alternating phases for implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. In all cases, however, project managers should prepare for the distinct needs of each project phase.
Most projects enter the first phase of the project cycle with little or no structure. Ideas that start in the back of the mind start to bubble up into potential projects. As creative professionals include colleagues, supervisors, or investors, projects become more formalized and start to follow the traditional phases of a project cycle.
On the other hand, regular project cycles, such as grant competitions and workplace initiatives, often operate from a top-down level. Project leaders usually issue a request for proposals or a call for submissions, in order to discover the most effective solution to a particular problem. In this kind of project, judges must sift through different ideas before settling on the team that will take a project through the project cycle’s six remaining stages.
This phase of the project cycle requires leaders and managers to research both the needs and the impact of a project. The preparation phase often includes brainstorming sessions that result in “pie in the sky" estimates instead of true cost/benefit analysis. Effective preparation also includes laying the groundwork for the evaluation phase of the project cycle. Without agreeing on specific goals or outcomes, participants have no reliable way to measure the success of their project.
During the appraisal phase of a project cycle, project managers negotiate with stakeholders for resources while setting timelines. Depending on the scope of a project, leaders must determine whether hiring or outsourcing human resources will play a role during the implementation phase. Other resources, like technology and real estate, require budget estimates and impact statements during this phase. The appraisal phase of the project cycle ends once a clear plan with a timeline, budget, and expected outcome is ready for submission to decision makers.
Arguably the most crucial phase in any project cycle, the presentation often determines whether or not a project will reach its eventual conclusion. Depending on the nature of the project, decision makers could include board members, supervisors, investors, creditors, community members, customers, or other stakeholders. By the presentation phase, project managers and planners should be able to communicate:
- project need
- goals and expected outcomes
Although many project managers prepare for the presentation phase of the project cycle by building Gantt charts and PowerPoint decks, most veteran planners recommend that presenters prepare to debate and to defend the merits of their proposals. It’s not uncommon for projects to move between the first three phases numerous times before receiving approval.
While implementation represents just one phase of a seven-step project cycle, it frequently takes the longest amount of time. During this phase a project manager actually takes the steps to lead a team through the process developed during the previous four stages.
While some project management professionals prefer to view monitoring as a task that happens throughout the project cycle, many business schools now teach students to treat this important task as its own dedicated stage. Building a monitoring stage into a project cycle can involve measuring independent benchmarks or scheduling formal progress meetings. Unlike the evaluation stage of the project cycle, monitoring focuses more on individual tasks or personnel in order to make adjustments. Projects often shift between implementation and monitoring phases multiple times during a project cycle.
Highly functional organizations use the evaluation phase of the project cycle to answer three important questions:
- What went well during the project?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What would project leaders and team members do differently during future projects?
A successful evaluation phase requires effective planning during the preparation phase. If project members succumb to office politics or fail to document the shifting scope of a project, the evaluation phase of a project cycle can easily shift to “blaming and shaming." However, when measurable goals are set and stakeholders agree on desired outcomes, all parties can make honest, insightful evaluations.