The following research paper has been prepared with a view to advancing the body of project management knowledge.

Last updated 2/1/04

Introduction | Historical Perspective | Early Project Management Focused Texts
Project Life Spans, Late 1980s | Project Life Spans in the 1990s
Whither Project Life Spans in the 2000-Decade? | Summary and Conclusions


Patel and Morris have stated that

"The life cycle is the only thing that uniquely distinguishes projects from non-projects".[1]

If that is true, then it would be valuable to examine just what role the so-called project life cycle plays in the conduct of project management. And, moreover, has this changed over the years as we improve our understanding of the complexities of project management.

So, what is the project life cycle? According to the same source

"The sequence of phases through which the project will evolve. It is absolutely fundamental to the management of projects … It will significantly affect how the project is structured. The basic life cycle follows a common generic sequence: Opportunity, Design & Development, Production, Hand-over, and Post-Project Evaluation. The exact wording varies between industries and organizations. There should be evaluation and approval points between phases often termed 'gates'."[2]

How does that make it different from normal operational corporate endeavors? For that we must understand the definition of project. According to Richard E. Westney: "A project can be defined as the work required to take an opportunity and convert it into an asset."[3] In this sense, both the opportunity and asset are singular, with the implied use being for generating benefit -- rather than consumed as a resource in normal operational activity over a prolonged period.

The Patel and Morris definition refers to "gates" between phases. Another name for "gates" is milestones, albeit "major milestones". Since scheduling also involves milestones, how is a project life cycle different from a project schedule? Once again there are various definitions, but essentially a project schedule is a display of "the planned dates for performing activities and the planned dates for meeting milestones."[4] The two are clearly very similar, but the essence of a project schedule is to provide specific activity dates while the project life cycle is in the nature of a strategic plan displaying sequence only.

And, while we are at it, what about that word "cycle"? It is true that cycle implies a period of time for a series of events, but the essential feature of a cycle is that it is repeated. This is not the case with a project, except in certain special cases such as linear projects like pipe laying, road building or high-rise construction, where a sequence of activities may be repeated at the working level during the execution phase. So the term appears to be inappropriate. Therefore, a better term would be "project life span".


1. Patel, M. B. & Prof. P.G. W. Morris, Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Centre for Research in the Management of Projects, University of Manchester, UK, 1999, p52.
2. Ibid.
3. Westney, R. E., Risk Management: Maximizing the Probability of Success, Chapter 8 in Project Management for Business Professionals, edited by Joan Knutson, Wiley, NY, 2001, p128.
4. Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2000 Edition, Glossary section, Project Management Institute, PA, p206.
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