First published as an editorial for Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Updated here October 2001.


Musings Index

Will They Never Learn?

The other day we came across yet another reference to the five phases of project management. Not that we have anything against projects with five phases but five is simply not a common number. Given that in project management a phase is a period of time, then the most basic, and we believe the most fundamental principle behind project management, is two periods. These two periods are simply think before doing, or more technically, plan then produce. From there, the next level in the hierarchy consists of four phases: conceive, define, execute and finish. But five?

Well, actually, the reference in question was to : "Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Closing." Controlling is a phase? That suggests that we can move into a "controlling" phase and when we're done with that we move out - presumably with some kind of phase deliverable or product. At that point we can simply press on and not worry about controlling any more. No wonder so many projects get out of control!

But, you say, the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge issued by the Project Management Institute (both 1996 and 2000* editions, p28 and p31 respectively) describes these as processes, not phases, see figure 1. True, but a project is a process, and by the same token, so is each project phase. Initiating, Planning, Executing and Closing are clearly the four phases of a project as we identified earlier, but controlling is equally clearly not one of them. Moreover, the Guide's illustration shows no connection between the Controlling process and the initiating process, suggesting that Initiating requires no control where, we would submit, control would in fact have the most influence on the ensuing culture of the project. Conversely, the same diagram shows no flow through from the Executing process and the Closing process - only through the Controlling process. This is rather akin to the project bookkeeper, and some project managers for that matter, who think they can keep costs within budget simply by not paying the bills - to say nothing of ignoring claims for extras.

But control? That's a different animal altogether. As Forsberg, Mooz and Cotterham have clearly illustrated in their book Visualizing Project management (Wiley, 2nd Edition, 2000, p43) a distinction must be drawn between "situationally" applied management elements and the "sequential" project cycle. The Control process and its supporting components of baseline planning, measure, compare and correct, are clearly situational and hence cannot, in any way, be described as a "phase".

One wonders whether anyone really examines these purported official standards and, if so, are they really understood? Surely the role of the project management associations and their supporting luminaries have a duty to illuminate - not obfuscate.

Figure:  Links among Process Groups in a Phase

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