The confusion between process groups and project life span

This is fifth article in the series on Redefining Project Management. Each article can standalone but reading the full series would be most beneficial.

Earlier Articles in the Series

Expanding on the Confusion

Many practitioners and students of project management misunderstand the PMBOK® Guide. When we ask them to name the stages of the project life span they provide the name of the process groups as stages; per the figures below.


How some practitioners of project management understand the project life span

The difference between the top and bottom part of the above figure is the addition of “Monitoring & Controlling”. In the top part it is not shown since the monitoring and controlling processes are active across the whole project life span. However, some practitioners even refer to Monitoring & Controlling as an independent stage as well, and they add it into the picture (per bottom part).

What they do not recognize is that the process groups ARE NOT project phases or stages. The situation is not limited to individuals since some organizations are starting to name their project phases after the process groups. It is not a problem with whatever name individuals and organizations use for their project phases … as long as … they understand that a planning phase is different from the planning processes and the execution phase is not the same as execution processes. The reality though, is that we find the use of the process groups as project phases, and this is critical. In other words, the confusion is not limited to terminology but it is even in the practice and organizations/individuals do believe that planning processes are the same as the planning phase and closing processes are the same as the closing phase.

Opinion or fact?

In case there is still some doubt { that the process groups are not phases } what we present here is not an opinion, it is a fact. It is clearly stated in the PMBOK® Guide and here are references to prove it:

  1. The PMBOK® Guide[1] is clear that the project life cycle consists of phases (not process groups); chapter 2, pages 15, 18, 21, and others sections.
  2. The guide is also clear that the process groups repeat in every phase; chapter 2, page 21, Figures 2-4 and 2-5; and chapter 3, page 39, section 3.1.

So why the confusion?

If the PMBOK® is clear on this, then why do so many practitioners and PMP miss this point? Why even  organizations are confusing project phases with process groups?

We suggest that the following are possible explanations:

  1. Many do not really (carefully) read the PMBOK® Guide and if they do, they focus on processes, inputs, tools & techniques, and outputs,which repeat in the guide 42 times[2] with every process.
  2. The focus on the processes, process groups, and knowledge areas often lead a person away from the first chapters of the guide where the PMBOK present the project life cycle.
  3. The guide also presents us with the Project Charter as the document that authorizes the project or a phase; this means that there could be a project charter, and a charter for every phase! In other words, even when the guide uses the term Project Charter — it could be a phase/stage charter … or what some would prefer to call a “stage initiation document“. However, when the practitioners read “project” charter … they only think project and forget about “project or phase
  4. The same is true for the project management plan, project close, etc. Here again, although we use the word project in all of these documents it actually means a project or a phase.
  5. Planning is a continuous process that goes almost all the way to the end of a project, so what is the planning phase? See PMBOK® Guide, chapter 3, page 41, Figure 3-2.
  6. Same thing for monitoring and controlling.

This might be a good time to revisit the questions in Setting the Scene and see if you now have different answers than previously.

Re-listing the questions for ready reference

  1. On any given project (not a task or tiny project), how often do you perform PMI’s initiation processes described in PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge? The answer should be: “every time we initiate a new phase or stage”
  2. How about the planning processes … or closing processes … or the other processes? The answer should be: “every time we initiate a new phase or stage”
  3. During a project, how many “project” management plans do you have? (Notice the apostrophes around the word project) The answer should be: one project management plan for the project … but … every phase or stage would have its own plan expanded from the project plan or even independent in some cases.
  4. Does the statement perform the executing processes during the project “initiation phase” make sense? It should make sense since “executing initiation phase” means perform the various activities to deliver the feasibility study, initiation document, or what ever else you do in initiation.
  5. How about plan the planning phase, does that make sense? First, we do not advocate the use of “planning phase” call it project planning — with emphasis on project, that would be fine. In this case, if you have a planning phase, then yes, you have to initiate it, plan it, execute it (produce the plan), and close it when done while you monitor and control throughout the process.
  6. Is there only one “charter” on a “project“? There is only one project charter but here again every phase should have a charter – although we do not call it charter. If we remember, a charter is to authorize the project or phase, so every time we are ready to start a new phase we should have authorization.

Still not convinced? A graphical presentation will be coming next week.


[1] PMBOK Guide, 4th Edition, Copyright to the Project Management Institute (PMI)

[2] PMBOK Guide, 4th Edition,