Understanding the engineering management project life cycle

project life cycle

The management project life cycle is essential in engineering. Whether you are building a pyramid, like the Egyptians did thousands of years ago or installing electrical wiring in a building like so many engineers do today, mapping out a plan of what you will do and how you will do it is the difference between success and failure. 

Engineering projects are time, money and labor-intensive. They need careful execution because if you run out of any of these three things there is every possibility that the project will not be completed.

When you enroll in an online Master’s in Engineering Management at the University of Ottawa, one of the topics you will cover in great detail is project management. This program teaches you the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt tools and techniques, supply chain management and operational efficiency. The program also covers waste and variability deduction and process mapping. 

By the end of your master’s degree, you are expected to be familiar with topics such as data collection and analysis, problem-solving, mistake proofing and change management. 

Those who enroll in this course must have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, computer or physical science. They should also have some work experience. As the name suggests, all course material is offered online, so it is flexible and convenient, especially for those who are employed.

Even before you embark on a course such as this, it pays to have a basic understanding of the project management life cycle and why it is essential for engineers. It makes it easier to navigate the subjects you encounter in your master’s degree and put them in context. 


What is the project life cycle?

Simply explained, the project life cycle is the series of steps or stages that a project goes through before it is completed. It includes everything you need to do from initiating the project to completing it and handing it over to the client. 

If you respect the stages of project planning, you will be able to complete every stage successfully. At the end, you will hand over a project that meets the client’s specs. 


Why is the project life cycle used?

Maybe you got into engineering because you didn’t fancy management as a career. You wanted to design projects and install them, not run around after budgets and personnel. You may therefore be wondering why you should bother learning about the engineering project life cycle.

The answer is rather simple. If you plan to climb the career ladder, you need to have management skills. You will be tasked with running projects, and to be successful you will need to know how to run a team, create budgets, source and allocate materials and even how to identify and correct problems. 

Imagine for a moment the people who planned the pyramids. They had to plan, and one of the things they were most likely concerned about would have been labor. Where would they get the slaves to build such monumental edifices? 

They must have also thought about things such as the source of the stones, how long they would take to excavate and move to build sites, and even the exact gradient of each pyramid so that the stones could be hoisted with the available men and equipment. 


If they hadn’t gone through a planning process, it is quite likely that we would not have the pyramids today.

Today’s engineer has plenty of planning tools on their hands, so the process is easier. If they are installing electricity in a building, for example, certain tools tell them how much of the different types of wires they need, how much the whole process will cost and even how many people are needed to complete the project within a given time frame. 

The project life cycle serves several important purposes:
  • For the engineer, it maps out the activities that are needed to complete the project and acts as a guide. 
  • It makes the project transparent. The client has peace of mind because they can anticipate everything that will be done to complete their project. If there are deviations from the plan, they can hold the engineer accountable.
  • With a project life cycle, the engineer can identify and manage risk.
  • It helps make decision-making easier throughout the project. 
  • Everyone’s responsibilities are clearly outlined. 
  • It is the easiest way to create budgets because it defines every stage of the project and the resources necessary to complete it. 
  • In the end, it tells all stakeholders whether the project was successful or not. 

In a nutshell, a project life cycle helps provide clarity for both the engineer and the client. Without it, everyone would be operating blindly and hoping for the best. This is hardly the way to proceed with resource-intensive engineering projects. 

Stages of the engineering project management life cycle 

Depending on who you talk to, there are between four and six phases in a project life cycle. For this article, we will discuss six, although in some cases they can be merged to only four. 

Stage 1 – Initiation or conceptualization

This is the stage where you think about whether the project you have in mind is necessary and if it is possible. 

It identifies the need for the project, and how that need can be met. Engineers and clients may even consider different ways to solve the problem. They evaluate all the various ways that the problem can be solved as a method of justifying the engineering project. 

The engineer, together with the client, evaluates the benefits of the project, its scope and the resources that will be required to complete it. The initiation stage is further broken down into the following:

Feasibility study – What is the problem and how will the proposed project deliver a solution? Are there cheaper ways that the problem can be solved? Will the engineering project deliver a long-term solution?

Identifying the scope of the project – This stage outlines the depth and breadth of the project. In other words, it outlines how extensive it will be. 

Naming the stakeholders – Who will be involved and who will be affected? Imagine, for example, that you are creating a management project life cycle for a dam. The stakeholders include the government, the engineers and the people along the river who will be affected once the dam is in place. As the project planner, you must consider ways to resettle and compensate them. 

Identifying the deliverables – What is your goal? What product or service can be expected once the work is completed?

Defining the business case – This is a cost-benefit analysis. Is the project financially feasible in the long term?

Statement of work – Together with the client, the engineering team outlines the project’s objectives, scope and deliverables. The statement of work is treated as a working agreement between the client and the engineering company. 


Stage 2 – Planning

This stage details the steps that are needed to complete the project. You come up with a budget and a timeline, the milestones you expect to achieve, the materials that you will use and the quantity of labor required. 

You also examine the project for risk and come up with ways to mitigate it. The project manager will make room for any changes that may occur during the project duration and plan for them. 

The planning stage also outlines each task and those responsible for it. There are clear communication lines and protocols to make sure that everyone has the information that they need to complete their section of the project. 

Five plans are developed separately in this phase, and together they make up the project plan:

The overall project plan

This outlines every task that must be completed in every phase, and it is used as a checklist throughout the project. It also serves as a guide when developing the rest of the project plan. 

The resource plan

This outlines the human element and materials that are needed to complete the project from beginning to end. It is an important stage because it is where the engineer determines what materials are needed and where they will be sourced. It also outlines the cost of materials, compares different vendors and establishes delivery timelines. The engineer also develops a field team. He determines how many people will be needed, what their qualifications ought to be and how long they will be engaged. 

The risk management plan

Every project involves some element of risk, and the engineer must determine, based on prevailing conditions and experience, what might go wrong. They must also outline how the risk will be mitigated. This stage helps prepare for emergencies along the way. 

The communication plan

A team is only as strong as its communication, and the engineer must outline a hierarchy and a protocol to make sure that everyone who works on the project is well informed. A communication plan ensures that each person knows who they should report to, and if there are problems who should be in the loop. 

An acceptance plan

How do you know that a task is completed? An engineering project involves many little tasks, and it is important to define when each is completed. Together, all completed tasks will form a completed project. 


Stage 3 – Design

This is an essential stage. The engineers get to work and create the technical designs for each part of the project. 

These serve as a guide for every task, and they can also provide insights into important elements that may have been missed during the planning stage.


Stage 4 – Execution

The plan is in place, and it is time to get to work. This is the most difficult part of the project life cycle, and it often takes months or even years to complete. 

The chief engineer must be aware of what is happening in every area, and they are regularly briefed by the various professionals who oversee the different tasks. 

It is also the role of the chief engineer to keep the client up to date. They schedule visits and meetings to discuss progress and any changes they have made to the original plan. They also take the time to understand the difficulties that the project encounters and how they plan to deal with them. 


Stage 5 – Monitoring and controlling

This stage goes hand in hand with execution. As the various teams work on different parts of the project, the managers must monitor everything to make sure that it is going according to plan. They monitor changes in:

Cost – Is the project in line with the proposed budget? If not, what are the reasons it has gone over or under budget?

Time – Is every task completed on time? If not, what is causing delays?

Risks – These are unforeseeable and occur in almost every project. Monitoring them closely means they can be mitigated effectively. 

Quality – Every aspect must meet the project quality that was outlined in the project plan. If the team is having quality issues, the whole project may be a failure, and the engineer must discuss with the client. 

Acceptance – Test each completed part of the project and make sure that it meets the stated requirements. This stage often involves making changes to the original project plan. Each change must be discussed with the client and other stakeholders and should be added to the original project plan. 


Stage 6 – Testing and commissioning

The project is complete, but it cannot be handed over until it is tested to make sure that it is working according to the client’s specifications. This stage can take a long time to complete, especially if the project is large and complex. 

It takes a long time to test an electricity-generating plant, for example, because it has many moving parts. It would take a shorter time to test a road because all you need to do is open it and make sure that traffic flows as it should.



The management project life cycle is an essential part of engineering. If you plan to get into management, you must master it and know how to execute it. The quickest way to do this is to enroll in an online master’s in engineering management. The course can be completed in two years and imparts all the skills that engineers need to plan and execute a project. 


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