What everyone needs to know about project management

The "Four Stages Theory" of Project Management

Most everyone who writes about, teaches, or explains project management says that projects have four stages:

  1. Startup
  2. Planning
  3. Execution (or Doing)
  4. Close Down

At first glance this seems reasonable. Projects start and they end so you must have a "Startup" and a "Close Down". It also makes sense you would want to "Plan" something before you "Do" it. But are these really stages of a project. Do you really complete most of Startup before you Plan anything? Do you really Plan everything before you Do anything? Do you really want to delay Close Down activities until after the execution activities are completed?

If we try to be good project managers and organize our actions into these four stages we run into all sorts of difficulties. For example, out of the thousands of project managers, I rarely found two who could agree on the difference between Startup and Planning. Most thought that there is a tremendous amount of overlap, that Startup is really preliminary Planning with some Doing thrown in. They agreed that almost everything that they would categorize as a Startup activity could also be part of one of the other stages.

Another problem is the separation between Planning and Doing. It collecting requirements planning or doing? Is building consensus planning or doing? Is a feasibility test planning or doing?

Here is another subtle, but very real problem. Project Managers who think in terms of these stages, that Planning comes before Doing, have a mental obstacle to get around when they are busy doing and discover that the plan needs to be changed. They talk about "having to backup into Planning before they can go forwards on the project". They ask "how can we take the time to backup when we are trying to meet our deadlines?" They lose track of the truth that adjusting the plan when necessary is moving forward.

Similar problems occur regarding Close-Down. An exit survey is an useful tool to get feedback on team effectiveness from people when they are most likely to be candid. In the Four Stages Theory the exit survey is categorized as a Close-Down activity on the assumption that people leave the project at the end. In real life people can leave a project at any time. Project Managers who wait until Close-Down for exit surveys will miss valuable information that could help them now.

Many more examples could be offered of how the Four Stages Theory either fails to provide the guidance that project managers need or, worse, misleads. Instead let's go straight to the moral of this story: The Four Stages Theory can get in the way if you take it too seriously. For project managers who want a better guide for organizing project work, take a look at Simple Project Management. It provides answers for the project manager who wants to know "what should I do now?"